The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers. For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms. “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.
I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ. He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on. In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.
As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls. It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it. (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.) The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.
The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager. It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans. I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape. It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.
“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well. Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll. (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.) It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
Videos galore, dear readers!
Studio Version of “London Calling”:
The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:
Joe Strummer & The Pogues:
And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”: