Looking back, it’s funny that The Clash started out as a punk band. Not because they weren’t rebellious, but because they always seemed too absorbed by tradition and continuity to deliver the sonic and sociocultural rupture punk promised. If the Ramones’ take on “California Sun” and “Do You Wanna Dance” goofed on the naivete of early-'60s pop-rock, The Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was deadly earnest, a declaration of shared values with the rock myths that punk supposedly helped end. If the Sex Pistols had been suicide bombers, The Clash were ascendant generals, adapted to present terrain but romantically steeped in the past.
As great as the band’s first two albums had been, they’d mostly worked off a blueprint of punk that by 1979 had started to look a little limited, even retrograde. Installed in a makeshift practice space adjoining an auto body shop, they started rehearsing covers in styles seemingly outside their comfort zone: reggae, soul, rockabilly, pub rock. Soon, whatever allegiance they still had to punk as a social movement was eclipsed by their newfound power as a band unto themselves. In other words, London Calling not only replaced stylistic concision with experimentation (a move pushed even further with 1980’s Sandinista!) but marked the moment when The Clash became bigger than punk.
What was—and is—remarkable about London Calling wasn’t just how much ground it covers, but how comfortably the band stakes their claim to it. They’re heavy (“Death or Glory”, “Hateful”), they’re light (“Revolution Rock”, “Lover’s Rock”), they sing about public struggles (“Clampdown”) and private relationships (Mick Jones’ “Train in Vain”) and advance the old chestnut that our inner lives are always products of our outer realities. Take “Lost in the Supermarket”, the story of how an alienated kid from the suburbs seeks freedom through shopping because shopping is the only model of freedom capitalism gave him. In other words, politics on London Calling aren’t just something that happens at the polls, but at work, at home, when we’re pretty sure nobody’s watching.
Musically, the punk fascination with American soul and Jamaican reggae (“Train in Vain”, Paul Simonon’s “The Guns of Brixton”) that had developed in part out of a connection between blue-collar English workers and immigrant laborers from the West Indies broadened into something more eclectic: the Tex-Mex/reggae hybrid of “Rudie Can’t Fail”, the bilingual sloganeering of “Spanish Bombs”. What had once been framed as a local struggle—poor white English kids searching for a future in the face of diminishing prospects—became international, the plight of working-class people generally, the ballads of the common man. “El Clash combo,” Joe Strummer sings on “Revolution Rock”. “Paid 15 dollars a day/Weddings, parties, anything/And bongo jazz a specialty.” Anyone forced to run themselves down for money—now or then; black, white or otherwise—can understand. As for “bongo jazz”, the joke is that the band has probably never played it in their life, but could definitely figure it out if that’s what you were paying for.
London Calling marked not only a maturation for The Clash, but a crucible for punk in general. A month before it came out, Public Image Ltd.—a band fronted by former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon—released Second Edition, an album that took punk’s general nihilism away from the streets and towards the avant-garde. Hardcore was happening in the States; New Wave—a term essentially used to brand pop or rock music with punk energy for a more mainstream audience—marked an evolutionary step away from politics towards neutral fashionability: punk lite, in a way. And The Clash, operating under the principle that the biggest platform gives one’s message the widest reach, continued to try and reconcile marginal ideals with the fact that they had a UK Top 10 on their hands. A few months after London Calling came out, the band did a brief, explosive tour of the US, at one point stopping at San Francisco’s Warfield theatre (a venue that hosted Bob Dylan a few months earlier and would host the Grateful Dead 15 times later in the year). Surveying the room before the show, Strummer was bothered by how close the seats came to the stage. He asked if the house manager could take out the first couple of rows. The manager worried what he would tell customers annoyed that their seats were suddenly gone. He replied, “You tell ’em Joe Strummer took ’em out so they could dance.”