Many bands can claim to have a seminal album, but very few can claim a definitive record. One band who can undoubtedly put their cloying grasp around the neck of such a title is The Clash. Released in 1979, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and Paul Simonon, pulled together to create the ultimate punk album. It captured the spirit of the day, infused it with the myriad of sounds on the streets and delivered it with the kick and punching thrust of Muay Thai champion. Of course, we’re talking about London Calling.
The album is rightly seen, not necessarily as a foundational moment of punk — that had come some years before — but as the culmination of the genre’s burning intensity, political message and underlying rhythm. The album, it’s fair to say, is a bonafide classic and deserves its place on the mantel of classic LPs. However, as with every release, nothing can be 100% brilliance. With that in mind, we’re ranking the songs on London Calling from worst to best.
There aren’t many people who would disagree with London Calling being regarded as one of the foundational albums of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today. Ask pretty much any member of the current rock royalty and they will cite Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon’s work as a lightbulb moment for their own career. The album could have been very different too.
The band had originally intended for the album to be called The Last Testament with the concept being that the double LP would close the chapter on rock music. The chapter, which had begun with Elvis Presley, was now ready to be close by The Clash as the band looked to break punk tradition and pay tribute to those who had come before them. The group eventually changed the name but did pay homage to Elvis’ first record with RCA by mirroring the cover art.
The record is jam-packed with influences, references and cultural touchpoints which still feel revolutionary today. But, when the record landed in 1979, it tore up the punk rule book and confirmed that The Clash wasn’t just a simple band any more, they were now icons. They had previously followed the punk trend, but now they were carving out their own path to success.
The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ songs ranked from worst to best:
19. ‘Lover’s Rock’
It’s never easy to pick a ‘worst’ song on a classic album. Such is the beauty of music that selecting a track to act as the de facto bottom rung of the ladder will always be met with one or two who champion the song as their favourite.
Even still, we can’t imagine many will argue with ‘Lover’s Rock’ taking the spot of the worst song on the LP. While there are sketchy moments around contraceptive conversations within the song, it falls thanks to ironically mirroring the smooth reggae rock it was trying to making fun of.
18. ‘Revolution Rock’
Initially released by Danny Ray and the Revolutioneers, despite the song title, this is one of The Clash’s least political efforts. Rather than being a strong call to arms, this is the band at their irreverent best.
“Playing requests now on the bandstand!” Strummer announces on the song. “El Clash combo. Make fifteen dollars a day.” To promote the bandstand feeling, the group also welcome the Irish Horns to help out and boost the song full of smiling sentiment.
17. ‘The Card Cheat’
There’s no doubt about the epic pop-arrangements in The Clash’s song ‘The Card Cheat’. In fact, it was these arrangements which made the song impossible to play live. But while texturally there is plenty to enjoy, there’s something forced about the track in comparison to the rest of the record.
Using the pop trope of the falling hero, the band deliver another jumped-up punk adjacent track. It’s another Mick Jones push towards different spheres of music and highlighted the direction of travel for the group for the forthcoming years.
16. ‘Four Horsemen’
Not many bands can pull off being so directly self-referential but, then again, its is a band who triumphed with their classic song ‘Clash City Rockers’ some years prior, so perhaps it’s no surprise that ‘Four Horseman’ is a track about the band.
While that track saw the band take on the roles of radio DJs, changing the dial and the generational tone towards something different, this one is pure mythology, casting Jones, Strummer, Headon and Simonon as the fictional four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s a nod to their concept of The Last Testament which doesn’t land as well without the title in place.
15. ‘I’m Not Down’
It was still a few years before melancholia began to infiltrate rock ‘n’ roll in a more obvious way and The Clash always had resolutely rejected the notion of depression in their music. Instead, they championed a ‘get up and change it’ ethos. On ‘I’m Not Down’ the band are in an optimistic mood.
The group had certainly settled themselves as political activists by this time in their career. Still, this Mick Jones-penned track is all about self-discovery and improvement rather than bringing down the system.
14. ‘Jimmy Jazz’
Out of 19 songs on the album, to reach number 14 and already be concerned that a classic track is too far down the list is a testament to The Clash’s expert writing. This album is genuinely jam-packed with killer tunes, meaning other, perhaps less substantial, songs like ‘Jimmy Jazz’ can fall by the wayside.
A jangly tune with a lopping jaunt, there’s not a lot to hate about this song. Imagine sitting in a smoke-filled bar with this knee-slapper coming on the radio and you’ll find the joy of this one. The track is charged with the poor treatment of black people by police in Britain, and it’s clear, whoever ‘Jimmy’ is, the band have his back: “If you’re gonna take this message ‘cross the town / maybe put it down somewhere over the other side / see it gets to Jimmy Jazz.”
13. ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo’
Many artists have taken on the tale of Stagger Lee during their careers. A Jamaican rocksteady anthem after the Ruler’s recorded a cover of Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’, the Clash picked up the track in much the same attitude. They wanted to pay tribute to the original but also take it down a brand new route too.
The result is one of the more fearsome moments on the album and comes out the blocks with both barrels pointed firmly at the audience. There’s a distinct sense of ska joy in the track, and it makes the whole affair one we’d want to repeat as soon as possible.
12. ‘The Right Profile’
Like many musicians of his age, Joe Strummer was perhaps as equally affected by the images he saw when growing up, those images and films predominantly emanating from Hollywood. It began a fascination with the glitz and glamour of the golden age of cinema that Strummer would take on into the rest of his life.
On ‘The Right Profile’, Strummer uses the jazz-filled tune to open up about his admiration for those stars of old, including Montgomery Clift, who inspired the song after Strummer read a book about the actor. Clift was horribly disfigured by an automobile accident in 1956, and this song is the retelling of his fall from grace.
11. ‘Koka Kola’
The most apparent punk-inspired song of the entire record, there’s a jaunty menace to ‘Koka Kola’ which has made it a fan favourite. A furious and fast-paced attack on the advertising world and the consumerism it supports, The Clash are fully-realised in these moments.
While Strummer is proclaiming his distaste for Coca-Cola and the brands who deliberately try to force-feed him products he didn’t want, the singer is also pointing squarely at those in “snakeskin suits and their alligator boots,” poking fun at the fat cats. “You won’t need a launderette,” he jokes, “You can send them to the vet!”
10. ‘Lost In The Supermarket’
Sometimes it’s refreshing to get a new perspective on a song, and Mick Jones’ vocal gave this classic Strummer-penned track a breath of fresh air. Somehow, his softer tone allows the imagery of the track to become far more vivid.
Strummer chose to use the song to aim the surge of advertising that had been swelling around the globe as the increase of consumerism continued to stagger the singer. He opted to use some attainable imagery to show how far the advertisement infection had spread.
9. ‘Death or Glory’
It’s the kind of title that will be revered up and down the punk landscape as a legendary motif but, in reality, Joe Strummer and The Clash were actually making fun of the punk scene on this track, and audibly laughing, one imagines, at all those who have seen this permanently branded on their skins.
The song depicts a punk who has begun to see the futility of his ways, mellowed out somewhat and instead “ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl.” After punk had begun to subside, the feeling that the bands who burgeoned the scene may fall into obscurity was a very real one — The Clash were keen to avoid such a plight and made sure they did with songs like this.
8. ‘Spanish Bombs’
The melody of ‘Spanish Bombs’ could be lifted straight from the glory days of pop. It is supercharged with pop sensibilities only to be scythed down with some of the band’s most obvious political lyrics.
The juxtaposition of the glossy sound with Strummer’s war-torn words turns the track into a worthy piece of the band’s catalogue. Concerned with the freedom fighters who fought in the Spanish civil war, Strummer effortlessly compares them to the holidaymakers and even sings in Spanish. It’s a rich piece of the band’s sound.
7. ‘Brand New Cadillac’
Originally released in 1959 by Vince Taylor, the man who would go on to inspire David Bowie’s most famous incarnation, Ziggy Stardust, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ seemed like the perfect track for The Clash to take on for this album. Not only were they firmly in their greasy-gangster stage, but they had given up on hating the past like a good punk band and were now happy to take the lead from history’s best.
It was the first track to be recorded for London Calling, and one can hear the intensity of the performance. It was clear The Clash were chomping at the bit to get going. The song had been routinely used as a warm-up track while on tour, so the group naturally perform it with ease. London Calling may have been about the here and now but to ignore how it arrived would be criminal, this is The Clash paying homage.
It’s hard to avoid the sheer catchiness of this track. The song may well be produced by one of the seminal punk band of the day, but it’s hard to ignore the pop sensibilities that underpin the very fabric of the band. The fact that such a catchy hook is written for the life and times of a junky makes this track a fearsome piece of music.
“It’s paid for,” Strummer screams, “And I’m so grateful to be nowhere.” It’s an honest reflection of a lifetime spent looking for an escape. While Strummer and Jones were never truly struck down by the addiction that plagued much of the punk scene, their visceral vision of life as a junky needs to be revisited at every moment possible.
5. ‘The Guns of Brixton’
One of the few songs to be written and sung by bassist Paul Simonon, the classic London Calling track not only offered a vision of the man who wrote it — effortlessly cool and somehow underpinned by danger. It also showed a side of London that was bubbling under the surface.
While Simonon indeed wrote the song because he needed the cash, revealing that “you don’t get paid for designing posters or doing the clothes”, when speaking to Bassist Magazine in October 1990, “you get paid for doing the songs,” he added. The track was eager to come out of him.
If there was sone song to define the figure of Simonon, then this is it. Deeply influenced by reggae and imbued with a menacing tone of danger, ‘Guns of Brixton’ is a cult favourite that deserves more praise.
‘Clampdown’, which was written by Strummer and Mick Jones, refers heavily to the failures of capitalist society and how people seemingly become trapped within the traditional ethos of work, debt and conformist society.
Bass player and Clash co-founder Paul Simonon, in an interview with the LA Times, spoke about the opportunities available to him after he finished his education and how it influenced the song: “What was worse was that when it got time for us to start leaving school, they took us out on trips to give us an idea of what jobs were available,” he said. “But they didn’t try to introduce us to anything exciting or meaningful.”
Adding: “They took us to the power station and the Navy yards. It was like saying, ‘This is all you guys could ever do.’ Some of the kids fell for it. When we got taken down to the Navy yards, we went on a ship and got cooked up dinner, and it was all chips and beans. It was really great. So some of the kids joined up—because the food was better than they ate at home.”
3. ‘Train In Vain’
There are few songs in the punk canon that can get us moving more frequently and as quickly as The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain’. A song engineer Bill Price once revealed ended up as a secret not-so-hidden track on London Calling: “‘Train in Vain’ was the last song we finished after the artwork went to the printer,” he said.
“A couple of Clash websites describe it as a hidden track, but it wasn’t intended to be hidden. The sleeve was already printed before we tacked the song on the end of the master tape.”
We’re glad they did include it as it might well be one of our favourite songs on the seminal record. “The track was like a train rhythm, and there was, once again, that feeling of being lost,” recalled Jones showcasing the song’s ability to lift you up and out of the cityscape mire the band found themselves in.
2. ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’
One song which showed of the band’s love affair with reggae is this punk-dub joy, ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. Featuring on the band’s seminal record, the song was a homage to Caribbean culture, according to acclaimed filmmaker Don Letts.
It was a song dreamed up after a long-hot summer smoking marijuana and enjoying reggae clubs that were popping up across London. The song doesn’t only use its lyrics to pay tribute “drinking brew for breakfast”, and the “chicken skin suit” but also the horns and groove of the track are undeniably influenced by reggae and ska.
It’s a joy to behold and is a guaranteed party-starter for any punk party. Aside from that, it’s just a bouncing embodiment of a musical smile.
1. ‘London Calling’
It’s hard to ignore the titular track as not only the best song on the album but the band’s entire canon. Of course, the most popular punk song form the band will have many detractors, but if you analyse the song on its own, away from its popularity, it’s hard to disagree with its potency.
The track is an apocalyptic anthem in which Strummer details the many ways the world could end which, during the current climate, feels more relevant than ever. It is arguably The Clash’s definitive song; it sums up everything great about their ethos wrapped up into three-and-a-half minutes as they stuck two fingers up at the establishment with their noted degree of intelligence.
Singer Strummer was unapologetically a news junkie, funnelling the world around him into his music. It gave him the inspiration for the track which was written around the time of the Cold War, and it is this impending sense of doom that is filtered through ‘London Calling’.
‘London Calling ‘would see the band gain notoriety in the US with the eponymous album being universally loved by critics across the globe despite its Britain-centric direction. Released around the time that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Britain, with their snarling intellectualism, The Clash soon became the voice of the disillusioned youth on both sides of the Atlantic.
The title track for the record perfectly captures the voice of the largely ignored majority at that period of time. As Joe Strummer pointed his gun at the neo-liberalism that he deemed to be ruining society, he unleashed a vocal which has gone down in the annals of rock and roll history as one of the most passionate of all time.