John Piccarella

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

The persistent paradox of the Clash has been that their punk standards demand defiance of the requirements and rewards of the music business, while their artistic standards demand that they work that neighborhood. The persistent wonder of the Clash is how every release is a fresh attack on the complications, compromises and frustrations of their impossible project, how they charge into rock mythology with their integrity intact….

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On the picture sleeve of the "London Calling" single, two teenagers sit in front of a phonograph with six records on the floor—Elvis [Presley], the Beatles, the Stones, [Bob] Dylan, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash. In other words, this band considers itself one of the greatest. By all the evidence, except sales, that is where they belong. Not only did their debut album speak for a movement and sum up a period of rock and roll history, but it made the most powerful and coherent political statement in popular music since folk Dylan—that is, since such a statement became possible in LP form.

What happened after that was amazing…. The best English punk band became the best rock and roll band in the world in three quick strides as we waited for something/anything to be etched in American vinyl. Give 'Em Enough Rope held their ground, venturing further stylistically and turning their street politics into world-Clash analysis. But the labored-over layers of production embodied a hard-won ambivalence rather than an easy triumph. The Clash had lost their innocence, the stakes were higher, and, especially in the singles released after the album, the result was inconclusive.

Claiming roots of all kinds—[Phil] Spector, Beatles, r&b, rockabilly, urban soul, and especially reggae—London Calling is an expansive gamble on greatness. Double albums are like that, either plagued by filler ("Could-have-been-a-great-single-album") or genuinely monumental. London Calling is a great one. With its almost-live, thrown-against-the-wall production, it doesn't fuss over that extra level of sonic brilliance that was Give 'Em Enough Rope's aim, but that's good—in Rope's tighter context, one or two weak songs out of 10 were a lot more crucial than three or four out of 19 are here. Mythic straws are grasped and held at every turn….

From the slow bluesy shuffle of the fugitive "Jimmy Jazz" to the bright strutting confidence of "Rudie Can't Fail," with comments on both upper-class ("Koka Kola") and lower-class ("Hateful") drug abuse, and from the working-class injustice of "Clampdown" to the justice-among-thieves of "Wrong 'Em Boyo" and "The Card Cheat" to the revolutionary call-to-arms of Paul Simonon's "Guns of Brixton," the Clash translate experience and myth into street-life morality. This commitment is extended into previously unexplored personal realms, particularly the mixed message of sexual equality in "Lover's Rock." The history-as-fiction world view that Give 'Em Enough Rope developed in songs like "English Civil War," "Guns on the Roof," and "Last Gang in Town" is combined with personal experience in "Spanish Bombs" to create a past-present historical romance that is unique in rock and roll for its combination of observation and book-learned facts. But I think the deflation of naive ideas about other cultures that occurred in "White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)" and "Safe European Home" were even more sophisticated and are unmatched by anything on this album.

As in the past, the most personal songs are the ones sung by Mick Jones. The album's uncredited final cut, apparently called "Train in Vain," is a desperate pop-soul romance, and "Lost in the Supermarket," whose bored-homebody lyrics sound like they were written by Jones's mother and could have been, has a similar sentimental feeling. But the most autobiographical song, reminiscent of Give 'Em Enough Rope's "Stay Free," is "I'm Not Down," upon whose street-tough declaration of having been there the self-mythologizing "Four Horsemen" is built.

Self-righteous as the Clash have always been, their combination of anger, frustration, street-wise experience and world-class idealism combine here with a complexity that achieves important ideological resolutions. The heroism of Clash rebellion not only requires the outlaw courage of "The Guns of Brixton" and the pride of "I'm Not Down" and "Four Horsemen." Even as they cry "We're gonna fight brother / We're gonna raise hell" in "Death or Glory," they point to the tragedy and potential brutality of glory underachieved. It is this tension between desperation and blind ambition that gives the Clash's bravado its urgency. And nothing defines this tension so much as the on- and offstage relationship of Strummer and Jones. Their interdependence is an amplification of the [John] Lennon/[Paul] McCartney relationship: Strummer's raw, angry, thickheaded energy and Jones's control and craft. And London Calling, by virtue of its variety if nothing else, is the album that establishes their scope. With anthemic force to match early Dylan and the Stones' confidence in their own ability to appropriate and redefine the music's history, the Clash are the great rock and roll band of our time.

John Piccarella, "The Clash on Main Street," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 5, February 4, 1980, p. 61.

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