The Story Behind the Song: ‘London Calling’, The Clash’s apocalyptic classic
The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ is one of the most definitive songs of the 1970s. It changed the course of the band’s career as they went from underground sensations to bringing punk to the masses, if you’re reading this then the track will undoubtedly be one you’ve devoured 100s of times before. That said, when one peels back the surface of the punk rock anthem, you can hear the beating heart of The Clash and the ethics that they held so dearly to it.
The track is an apocalyptic anthem in which lead singer Joe 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 that’s 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. The song has become the living antithesis of the disco movement that was thriving at the time and was meant to act as a wake-up call to those the band determined to be sticking their heads in the sand.
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’. He did it through some visceral lyrics that he and guitarist Mick Jones had begun to create, making some of the most searing rhyming couplets punk has ever seen. Using the BBC World Service opening line of “This is London calling…” as their prefix, Strummer and Jones unleash all manner of ideas.
Their music is supposed to be a message to all those not paying attention that the threat of war was imminent, “London calling to the faraway towns/ Now war is declared and battle coming down.” But they were also keen to show that The Clash were not the answer as they sang, “London calling, now don’t look to us/ Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” It was an attack on apathy too, “London calling and I don’t want to shout/ But while we were talking, I saw you nodding out.”
The concerns begin to pile up, too. Strummer attacks the ideas of famine, drug addiction, nuclear meltdown and other varieties of the apocalyptic end. The song originated from a taxi ride Strummer was subjected to, as the singer explained to Uncut magazine, “There was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on, and we knew that London was susceptible to flooding. She told me to write something about that.” Mick Jones continued the sentiment when he spoke to The Wall Street Journal about how he helped Strummer complete the track: “Joe Strummer was living in a building along the Thames and feared potential flooding,” Jones said. “He did two or three drafts of lyrics that I then widened until the song became this warning about the doom of everyday life.
“Once we had most of the words down, I began creating music to fit the rhythm of the lyrics,” Jones added. “I wanted the urgency of a news report.” It would become undoubtedly one of the band’s most notable tracks and showcased both their intense interest in the world events around them and the fiery power they had within them.
‘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. But the real joy comes when you spin this one with the volume turned up to 11. With an extra bit of power, the message of ‘London Calling’ rings out across the airwaves.
The message is pretty simple too: if you’re unhappy with the world, scared of the fatal climaxes 2020 could reach, then get out of your comfort zone, your head out of the sand, and get moving to fix them. It’s what The Clash would have done.