Tag Archives: London Calling

Songs of Summers Past: Part 2

(Carrie became so inspired by my list last week, that she wrote up a list of her own.  Check it out.)

(Me, circa 2006.)

The Clash – “Rudie Can’t Fail” (Summer 2003)

For me, “Rudie Can’t Fail” is the highlight of London Calling an album on which every single song would be a highlight on somebody else’s album.   London Calling was one the CDs that I brought with me on for a summer semester in Italy.  I had been to Europe before, but these trips were either with family or organized.  Living in a small town in Northern Italy for 6 weeks meant plenty of down-time to explore the subtleties of Italian culture I would not have otherwise been exposed to.  Each Wednesday morning the town opened its streets to a market.  The linens, Catholic relics, Italian leather were a link to the old world.  With my headphones on, I used to wander around the streets for hours trying to soak up as much as I could.  With its reggae and third world feel, “Rudie Can’t Fail” was the soundtrack to my self imposed Italian education.  The lyricsm “I went to the market, to realize my soul cuz what I need I just don’t have,” never seemed so prophetic and exciting.

“King of the Rodeo” – Kings of Leon (Summer 2005)

For everybody who thinks of Kings of Leon based on “Use Somebody”, I urge them to listen to this song.  It’s an entirely different band.  Matthew Followill delivers one of his sexiest and dirtiest guitar riffs, while Caleb’s vocals are incomprehensible and boozy, yet strangely melodic.  The only lyrics that can be deciphered are “let the good times roll, let the good times roll”.   I became obsessed with Kings of Leon’s Aha Shake Heartbreak earlier that year, due to their opening slot of U2’s tour.  While U2’s show was perfectly rehearsed with little room for improvisation (not a bad thing, by the way), Kings of Leon came out as if their instruments were weapons in a bar fight.  There was a sense that anything could happen.  Aha Shake Heartbreak became my “go to” CD that summer, as I drove to and from my shitty job.   I probably broke the skip button as I kept placing “King of the Rodeo” on repeat.  I can’t understand the rest of the summer, but “let the good times roll” became something of a mantra.

“High Fidelity” – Elvis Costello & The Attractions

I had recently discovered the genius of Elvis Costello about a year earlier, and was quickly becoming acquainted with his back catalogue, in particular Get Happy!! and “High Fidelity”.   On an album full of great songs, “High Fidelity” is a masterpiece – the piano never sounded so violent and menacing and also poppy.  A great sing-along song for the summer at full volume.  I used to always say that I never liked to drink too much a show, as I wanted to remember to it all.  Sadly, this was not the case at the Elvis Costello an Allen Toussaint show.  My friend, and my brother started tail-gating hours before the show.  To the audience at Wolf Trap, which is actually an outdoor theater sometimes used for a rock show, we were heathens.  Wolf Trap’s BYOB rules did not suit us well.  And our cans of Budweiser and bag of Lays was a direct contrast to everyone else’s wine and cheese.   At one point, I remember sitting on a pair of steps with my head between my legs desperately trying not to get sick.  As I tried to come to my senses, I did manage to hear “High Fidelity” in the background.

“Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince (Summer 2010)

A while back, I looked at my girlfriend’s Ipod and was surprised to see “Let’s Go Crazy” on it.  I never suspected her to be a Prince fan.  Even more surprisingly, she had mistakenly downloaded a remix with an extended ending.  That purchase has always made me laugh and “Let’s Go Crazy” has become a song that we listen to quite often when driving.  She even knows the opening monologue by heart, which is even more hilarious.  Last summer while in Florida with her family, I bought a copy of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of Rock and Roll that led to a rather humorous (and sometimes tense) discussion with her father over which songs should and shouldn’t be included. It turned out to be a great bonding experience even if we disagreed on quite a few songs. He argued there were way too many Prince songs on the list (including “Let’s Go Crazy”) while I suggested that “Born to Be Wild” really isn’t that good, and was only included for nostalgic reasons.

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What The Clash Mean to Me

I recently read the feature on The Clash in the new issue of Rolling Stone.  While it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the band, it certainly reminded me of why I love them so much.

In 2003, when I saw Pearl Jam in Pittsburgh while in college, I decided to wear one of my Clash t-shirts.  For a long time, my concert credo was not to wear the shirt of the band you were seeing, unless you purchased one at the show.  One fan saw my shirt.  “Pearl Jam doesn’t like The Clash!” He yelled at me.  I brushed him off, because I knew he was wrong.  Later on during the show, when Pearl Jam busted out a cover of The Clash’s “Know Your Rights”, I seemed to be one of the few that recognized the song and cheered loudly when Eddie Vedder shouted its famous line: “This is a public service announcement with guitar!”

I discovered The Clash sometime in high school.  I had been exposed to a few songs – “London Calling”, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” through mix tapes my sister made for me.  But on my 18th birthday, I received a copy of their live album From Here to Eternity from my older brother.  From the beginning of the opening song – “Complete Control” – I knew right away that this would be a band that I could identify with.  Here a band cutting down their own record company in song – they weren’t going to bullied by anybody.  The backing vocals which point out that “CON” is spelled out in the middle of “control” were captivating.  Strummer was clearly drawing a line.  You could either go with them, or be left behind.  I quickly knew which side I was on.

I’ve often joked that I credit The Clash with moving me towards a leftist way of thinking.  And while it’s certainly true that songs such as “Clampdown”, “London Calling” and “Career Opportunities” are Marxist theories put to thrashing music, The Clash opened a lot more doors than a political awakening.

The Clash incorporated world-music into their repertoire, which eventually lead me to seek out some of these sounds.  The only reggae artist that I knew before listening to The Clash was Bob Marley, but soon I was scooping up albums by Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals.

When Joe Strummer died in December of 2002, it was the first time I felt a void when a star died.  If The Clash were the “CNN of rock”, then Strummer was its Walter Cronkite – providing positive insight into a world that seemed to veer out of control.  While other bands have attempted to take The Clash’s place of political rock for a new generation – particularly Rage Against the Machine – none of them succeeded on the same level.  The Clash made have been “the only band that mattered” but they were also one of the few bands that were really were for the people.

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5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”

 

 

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Clash Week, Friday: “The Call-Up”

The Clash followed up the magnificent London Calling with one of rock’s most interesting and frustrating albums –Sandinista! A triple disc, 36 song set Sandinista! found the Clash taking the multi-genre experimentation they explored on London Calling and taking it to its (often illogical extreme).  It’s been called the punk-rock White Album due to the few numbers of great songs piled in between loads of filler.  I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that – I’ve grown to like The White Album more in recent years, and Sandinista! just seems misguided, and egotistical to me.   The one thing I really do like about the album overall though is the production.

That being said – there are shades of brilliance, and “The Call-Up” is the best example of that and ranks among the Clash’s best work.  Musically, “The Call -Up” is one of the Clash’s better reggae/dance experiments.  It’s almost danceable, and its laid back and dreamy groove almost entirely glosses over the bitterness in the lyrics.  It’s a rallying cry for blind-patriotism that often sends young kids to their death  “You must not act the way you brought up,” Joe Strummer sings softly, almost with a hint of sympathy. Later he laments,  “All the young people down the ages/they gladly marched off to die/Proud city fathers used to watch them/Tears in their eyes.”  Sometimes The Clash could be too specific in their attack, but lines like these transcend time, and still applicable almost 30 years later.

I’ve got to admit that “The Call-Up” didn’t even really register on my list of songs from Sandinista! until I saw the Pogues a few years ago.  The connection between the Pogues and The Clash is no secret.  Shane MacGowan is known to have attended their shows in the late ’70s, and Joe Strummer took over the singer’s duties when he was forced out of the band.  Before the show started, the PA blasted “The Call-Up” and I realized how powerful of a song it was.  It’s dark groove proved a perfect introduction for the Pogues – fun sounding songs with serious lyrics.  As John Lennon once said, “Imagine was an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

The Call-Up:

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Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

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”:

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Clash Week, Wednesday: “Safe European Home”

“Safe European Home” is without a doubt the best song off The Clash’s second LP “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.  Even if the rest the album were good (which it’s not) it would be hard to follow “Safe European Home”.   It’s a bit more polished than the songs off The Clash, but it’s harder hitting.  Topper Headon’s opening drums commands you to listen – and if you’re not Mick Jones’ power chords will pull you in.  By the time you’re hooked, Joe Strummer is back from the place he never wants to go again, but ready to relay the story back to you.

The story goes that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took a trip to Jamaica, and felt out so out of place that they came home and wrote “Safe European Home” is response.  “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer laments in the chorus.  “And sitting here in my safe European home, I don’t want to go back there, again.”  The Clash have sometimes been described as naive in some instances, and this is one instance where I can say that critics might have actually have a point.  Bob Marley was shot a year or two before Strummer and Jones arrived in Jamaica (depending on the time-frame) for trying to ease political tensions at a free concert.  Did Strummer and Jones expect to be welcome with open arms because they talked about world issues and played reggae music?

But Strummer and Jones’ misfortune made for great music.  Like John Lennon who turned his marital issues into the great (and perhaps under-rated) “Ballad of John and Yoko”, Strummer’s first person account in song was at times self-deprecating.  Strummer spits out each line with venom and Mick Jones calls back, “Where’d you go?” after each line.  It’s as if he can’t believe that Strummer actually went.  His calls demand Strummer to finish the story.    Strummer ends his tale stating, “I’d stay and be a tourist, but I can’t take the gun-play.”

The break-down in the second half of the song sounds like an escape.  Jones strums his guitar in a repeating crunch.  Strummer starts mumbling and scatting about “rudie can’t fail” (a theme that would be explored later on “Rudie Can’t Fail”) as the band tries to regain itself.  Topper Headon brings tension, by creating some of the best drum rolls ever put to record.  But ultimately, Strummer (as one most Clash songs) steals the show through his combination of Springsteen-sincerity, Dylan-esque sneer, and Lennon self-deprication showcased in this song.

Safe European Home:

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The Clash’s London Calling and Bob Dylan’s Electric Era

“I ain’t go no time to do battle!” Joe Strummer snarls at the end of “Revolution Rock” the last ‘official’ song on London Calling.   While he’s being serious in the song, it’s clear that The Clash were declaring a war on music with London Calling, which they won with one clean swoop.  

In America, The Clash are either known for their radio hits to the mainstream (Should I Stay I Should I Go, Rock the Casbah) or their eponymous 1977 debut to the punks who sometimes refuse to acknowledge they did anything worthwhile afterwards.  The Clash is a great album containing some of The Clash’s best songs.  It’s an album full of rage and disillusionment pointed directly at the heart of the Thatcher Administration.  

Much like Dylan and Joan Baez in the folk movement in the 1960’s, The Clash and the Sex Pistols were the two biggest names in the UK punk scene in the late 1970’s.   But just as Dylan did with Baez, The Clash outdid the Sex Pistols in every possible way leaving the other in the dust. Their songs were less about anarchy, and more about solutions.  Just as Dylan virtually decimated the folk movement that made him star by going electric, The Clash ended punk-rock as a movement in 1979 when they put out London Calling.  

London Calling like Highway 61 Revisited  and Blonde on Blonde, is an ambitious sprawling album that shows a band taking on the world, and also spawning a new musical revolution at the same time.  Their first two albums were focused mostly on punk, but London Calling proved that the Clash could play any type of music and make it their own.  It covers everything from rockabilly (Brand New Cadillac), ska (Rudie Can’t Fail), hard-rock (London Calling, Four Horsemen), reggae (Revolution Rock) and contained perhaps the best non-Dylan protest song (Clampdown).  

While there wasn’t the knee-jerk reaction to The Clash’s change in sound like Dylan’s, London Calling proved that they were willing to take risk for the sake of their art, everything else be damned.  But it certainly changed the music scene dramatically.  Without London Calling, there would be no Smiths, or early R.E.M. albums, or any post-punk for that matter.  And anyone who tells you that The Clash were better when they were punk, or just like those who say that Dylan was better when he was just a folk-singer – they’re missing the point.  

(Okay, I know it’s not fully realized.  Maybe I’ll really dive into it a later time.)

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