#8: The Clash, "London Calling" (1979)

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What are we gonna do now?

— “Clampdown”


We were pretending, all of us, comfortable middle-class college kids in New Orleans in the swelter and swoon of a final summer before life would steer us away from one another. It was June of 1982. We’d just gotten our degrees and were trying to figure out what pleasures and miseries lay ahead. First, though, was this shred of miracle: the Clash, veering toward ruin, about to implode, were coming to town.

So we did what you do for such an occasion: get yourself there, get yourself fucked up, get yourself lost in the blind raging energy and sweat and noise. Carl and Sal drove in from Baton Rouge, slamming down cans of Dixie and Miller pony bottles as they headed east on I-10 above the fetid swamps, Sal’s ripped red T-shirt clumsily stenciled with the word CLASH and a portrait of singer Joe Strummer—or bassist Paul Simenon? It was hard to tell—on the front. On the back, the outline of a gun.

We gathered outside The Warehouse, the giant brick and wood-beam, windowless, threadworn-carpeted and concrete-floored venue that had hosted countless ‘70s bands in New Orleans: the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Sly and the Family Stone, the Allman Brothers, the Who. We didn’t know it then, but it would shut down after only one more show, the Talking Heads later that year. We stood outside on the clamshell gravel and didn’t care (What the fuck did we know? Absolutely nothing) that we could barely hear local R&B legend Lee Dorsey, the warm-up act, above the thumping bass and the crowd’s electric hum. Anne—who had once been my girlfriend, but who’d furtively become my buddy Chris’s when I spent my junior year abroad in Wales—pierced her ear with a safety pin in the parking lot, her hair teased as high as the black heavens, the lines of her eyes thickly penciled in, her spandex worthy of a groupie for the sort of metal band her older brother was in. I don’t remember where Chris was that day—we’re not as good at keeping in touch these days as I wish we were, and Anne died six years ago. I assume Chris was there, that he and Anne were together. I’d spiked my hair, worn a gray-blue sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, knotted a red bandana around my neck. I smoked and drank whatever I was handed: cigarettes, joints, K&B beer, Tommy’s famous rum & Coca-Cola-Icee concoction. Was Sharon there as well? She was still with Tommy then, I think, and not, as she would be later, with me. Who else was at the show that night? Everyone, probably. Where else would they be? Today, no doubt, there’d be photos, selfies from our phones. It’s both a mournful truth and a mercy, I guess, that memory fades like a nasty bruise.

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None of us had yet met Paul, who was there as well, but we’d seen his band playing around town. We knew who he was. He was dark-eyed, paper thin, all skin and bones and manic flinching; he jerked and swayed around the stage with antic grace, guitar slung low. He was the only one not pretending. For him, a Clash show was high Mass, not theatre, not recreation. He already recognized what, years later, I came to understand—the need, as Frank Turner sings, for guitars and drums and desperate poetry. I was a writer, wanted to be a writer, dreamed I might someday have something to say about all the yearning inside me, all the useless beauty and torment, but I hadn’t found my way there yet. Paul, though, had done it, was doing it, was writing songs, playing guitar, letting everything out from inside of him. He watched Joe Strummer standing up on the warehouse stage and worshipped the defiant sneer, the slashing guitar. He held the microphone, Paul told me later, like the weapon it was for him. He showed me what a rock star looked like, what a rock star was. The first song they played, of course, was “London Calling,” that first repeated chord with its matching gunshot drum beat nothing less than a wailing siren, a squalling bell, a fucking call to arms: You better listen. You better listen.

We were listening, though we couldn’t have imagined that it was to us London was calling, that we were the ones being warned that war had been declared and the battle come down. What war? Which battles? We were kids, after all; we were acting out this adolescent rage. We didn’t imagine, I suspect, that the world we’d inherit might not turn out okay. Back in high school our hearts had been seized and shaken by Springsteen’s Born to Run, but that was a kind of pretense as well. It was his dusty streets we drove on, his language we learned, his blue-collar baritone we tried to summon up from our chests. Where was our own voice?

Those were the days of mosh pits, of flailing elbows and knees, but here’s one of that evening’s bits of magic: while the Clash played on the Warehouse stage, the entire crowd moved not in jerky spasms but like a mighty sea, a wave that lifted you and set you down five feet to the left then four to the right then two ahead then six behind. The band played nearly everything we loved, or at least enough of what we wanted: “Spanish Bombs,” “Clampdown,” “Safe European Home,” “Police and Thieves,” “Guns of Brixton”:

When they kick at your front door,
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?

They played the new songs from Combat Rock: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” “Rock the Casbah,” “Straight to Hell.” But Drummer Topper Headon had already been kicked out of the band, replaced by Terry Chimes. With his mohawk and sinewy arms and army fatigues, Joe Strummer looked like Taxi Driver DeNiro. We should have known the end was near.

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In the decades ahead we did what you do: grew up, got jobs, got married and divorced, had children or didn’t, succeeded or failed at our dreams. If you’ve ever heard the call, though, the urgent, desperate poetry of a band like the Clash, the barbaric yawp demanding a better world, it still rings in your ears, rings forever and ever.

Hearing the call and heeding it, of course, are two completely different things. I listen to London Calling now and still hear its power—the frustration, the rage, Strummer’s snake-venom snarl—but now I hear other things as well: the album’s remarkable art, its jukebox worth of catchy melodies, its frenetic tour through pop music history. And even this, a sweet fragile sincerity, as when Mick Jones steps forward on “Lost in the Supermarket”:

I wasn't born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see

I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That's how it's been all around me

It’s been nearly forty years since London Calling was released, and the week that I write this essay is the very week that Bruce Springsteen, after a months-long run on Broadway, has released an album inspired by ‘70s-era California rock.

The critics like it. Listening, I feel my soul crushed, beaten.

I’m sorry, and maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to imagine if Joe Strummer were still alive, he’d give the Boss a friendly call or, in the manner of the day, a text. This is the age of Donald Fucking Trump, I imagine him saying. This is no time for sweet songs set to sugary orchestra strings, for fucking California sunsets and cowboys and beach boy nostalgia. This is the time to raise your bloody fucking voice to high heaven.

What do I know? What do I know?

I know this: We need London Calling now, again, more than ever. Not the old one, though, great as it is. We need a new one, a new voice, though I confess I don’t know who it’s going to come from. Someone young, of course. Someone angry. Someone who can call out and get our attention like a sudden rifle shot, someone who can move a giant sea of bodies as if by magic, who can set us all on some new and better and necessary course.

This is the line I keep hearing: London is drowning, and I, I live by the river…

How is it, Bruce? How is it, Joe, that we’re going to rise up, find that higher ground, save ourselves from this awful flood?

We need to know.

—John Gregory Brown