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Music

The very literal truth behind The Clash song 'Lost In The Supermarket'

Although nominally a sparkily produced band, The Clash were more than capable of writing yearning material that stemmed from their daily lives. And considering the vast nature of the London Calling project, Joe Strummer was capable of writing from a more emotional standpoint to the fiery rockers that made their way onto The Clash’s debut. If you ask this writer, London Calling is their best work

Deeply committed to the band, Strummer’s most far-reaching contributions were the most idiosyncratic, delving into his past experiences as much as they spoke about the world at large. Throwing himself into his stagecraft, he came to realise how quickly his energy was depleting the more he threw himself into the band.

“My five years with The Clash were just too intense,” Strummer admitted in 1999. “After releasing 16 sides of long-playing vinyl in that time, I’d had my say. Imagine it was a party and I’d been talking for five days and five nights straight. At the end of that anybody would go, ‘Wooo, I need a breather’. When you’re young and your group takes off, you don’t really have any life experience. I’d had a bit more than the others ‘cos, you know, I’d worked as a gravedigger and a toilet-cleaner, but there were times when I forgot what the world outside rock ‘n’ roll was like.”

1999 was also the year that the guitarist admitted that ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ came from his personal life. The guitars were whimsical, but the ennui projected within the song was raw, emanating from within his heart. Acquiescing to his personal environment, he acquiesced to the milieu, as it “occurred to me as I stumbled around dazed by the colour and the lights.”

The world presented in ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ is not a pretty one. It’s a place where loneliness hangs on the end of a ring-tone, as desolate citizens wave to the hedges, aching to see a familiar face behind the mass greenery. It was a deeply personal work, which might explain why Strummer asked bandmate Mick Jones to sing it for him. Jones claims that Strummer wrote it about him, envisioning the young Jewish guitar player living at home with his grandmother.

Considering the nature of the tune, it’s highly doubtful that Strummer intended it that way, but he spun that fable in the hope that Jones might gravitate to the lyrics. As it happens, Jones delivered an impactful vocal performance, brimming with fatigue and general unease at the world around him. He’s struggled to capture a more truthful performance in the years since. 

The recording is notable for Topper Headon’s drumming, as he spins from cymbals to bass pedal, exhibiting a style of playing that draws upon jazz, blues and rock. Inspired by Taj Mahal’s percussionist of choice, Headon vowed to put together a pattern that honoured the integrity of the blues band. “His drummer played a lot of snare beats on the floor tom,” said Headon. “When I went in the next day, I thought that sounded good last night, I’ll use it on this song.”

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Soaking in the atmosphere, Strummer plays a gentle arpeggio, as if saluting the folk singers of the freewheeling 1960s, while Paul Simonon’s bass performance is the epitome of the brutal economy. Deeply foreboding in its texture, Jones’ guitar sneaks to piece together a stylistic coda, closing the tune on a haunting note of exasperation and determination. 

 It’s not all doom and gloom on London Calling, thankfully. The playful ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, the chorus-heavy ‘Guns of Brixton’ and the glam-oriented patterns of ‘Clampdown’ offer a lighter perspective, while ‘The Card Cheat’-all barrelling pianos and brass- recalls Phil Spector’s all-encompassing production style. And as if that’s enough, the album ends with the surprisingly bouncy ‘Train in Vain’, initially released as a bonus track. 

The double-album luxuriates in contrast, which likely explains why it’s still held in such high regard, 40 something years after it was released to the public. Gently lyrical, ‘Lost In The Supermarket’ is beloved by fans aching for a respite from the barrelling, guitar-heavy epics that punk was known for. 

Punk didn’t need to follow one particular style of music or thought to make an impression, as long as the tunes in question were true to their intended sentiment. But the band’s modus operandi wasn’t to shock, but to entertain, even if meant committing their personal truths to tape. The Clash were less a band of McCartney’s or Harrison’s, but four disciples to Lennon’s confessional methodologies and practices. 

But The Clash managed something even The Beatles couldn’t. They released a double album that was wholly deserving of its runtime, giving the band a platform to showcase their various influences in one satisfying whole. And if you want my opinion, well, I prefer London Calling to The White Album.

Stream the track below.