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FORTY years ago today, December 14 1979, the year of Thatcher’s election was seen out with the release of London Calling — widely regarded as the finest of all Clash albums.
Four decades later, December 14 2019, another Tory nightmare begins. So it seems timely to look back, in hope.
The Clash had burst on to the fast-emerging punk scene in ’77 with their debut album.
The band’s second long-player, Give ’Em Enough Rope, was released to mixed reviews. Overproduced, the tracks’ raw energy edge was somewhat blunted. All this was to change, however, with London Calling.
From double-album length, weighing in with an astonishing 19 tracks across four sides, to the stunning cover pic of Paul Simonon doing some serious damage to his bass guitar, this was to become an instant classic.
The rich mix of sounds showcased the foursome’s ever-expanding musical influences — jazz, reggae and dub, the blues, rockabilly, ska. This, by and large, wasn’t what was expected of 1970s English punk bands. Despite that, both fans and critics loved it.
On their debut album Joe Strummer had belted out the anthemic I’m so Bored with the USA, yet two years later The Clash appeared to have fallen hopelessly in love with the place.
The influences were obvious, from Montgomery Clift to Cadillacs, a wholesome embrace of Americana minus the shrill anti-Americanism of the band’s more obvious politics.
The band were emerging as fulsome internationalists too. Every bit at home belting out their tribute to inner-city resistance The Guns of Brixton as their very particular account of the battle against Franco’s fascists, Spanish Bombs.
For many listeners these would be their first introduction to either subject. The Clash were a genuinely educative, as well as innovative, outfit, a key influence shaping a generation whose politics were framed by being anti-Thatcher on the home front, and soon enough, against Reagan on the global front too. Sound familiar?
Two tracks in particular stand out. Not only as unforgettable when first heard but uncannily prescient four decades on too.
“We’re working for the clampdown / We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers / We will train our blue-eyed men / To be young believers
A clampdown that mixes authoritarianism, race hatred and economic power. This was what The Clash railed against in 1979, it remains the shape of Johnson’s and Trump’s resurgent right-wing, racist populism today.
And then of course the album’s title track, London Calling.
“London calling to the faraway towns / Now war is declared and battle come down.”
This was the era of a winter of discontent, the Special Patrol Group, war in Ireland, and soon enough war in the south Atlantic too, the neonazi National Front on the march, Brixton and Toxteth ablaze, civil disobedience against Reagan and Thatcher’s nuclear arms race, the year-long miners’ strike.
“War is declared” — they weren’t far wrong.
“The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in / Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin / Engines stop running, but I have no fear / ’Cause London is drowning, and I / I live by the river.”
The meteorology might be a tad skewiff, but a frightening vision of the future four decades on has become the vivid reality of the present-day climate emergency.
A melting polar ice cap, record-breaking heatwaves, agricultural growing seasons in crisis, rising seal levels.
“Live by the river” is no longer such good advice, mind, when the entire planet is on the verge of drowning.
And we can rest assured The Clash of yesteryear would have been playing Extinction Rebellion benefit gigs today.
Revolution Rock? ’79 vintage, play it loud, 2019 keep the faith.
Philosophy Football’s 40th anniversary London Calling T-shirt is available from www.philosophyfootball.com.
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