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Where’d all the good music go?August, 21, 2013
It is my genuine, non-sensationalist opinion that mainstream British rock music today lacks the kind of innovation and passion that bands of Strummer’s era exhibited. That’s not for lack of musical talent; it’s down to improved nation-wide socio-economic circumstance and lack of options. By that I mean that the rock music phenomenon has somewhat out-evolved itself. It’s a great shame that musical innovators in the near future will likely just wade further and further into the quagmire of electronica. There’s no use being negative about the present and future, however, when you can be positive about the past…
Let’s transport ourselves back to the beautifully turbulent year of 1979. Thatcher’s fist-clenching, villainous drawl is echoing around the halls of Number Ten for the first time, and her despising reprobates in the squats and under the bridges and around the barrel fires of London are sulking because The Sex Pistols just broke up and there’s nothing exciting or new to stir their blood. Or, at least, whatever post-punk groups had filled that void weren’t doing a terrific job. In the words of Peter Capaldi narrating a recent excellent BBC documentary, “punk had become a parody of yuppish rockers and three-chord thrash”. But, in that year, in fact thirty-four years ago today, a group of around fifteen people were scribbling and pushing buttons in Wessex Sound Studios in the centre of the British capital. They were in the middle of producing The Clash’s London Calling.
Today also happens to be Joe Strummer’s sixty-first birthday. Strummer, the lead singer and guitarist of this group passed away at fifty due to heart complications in 2002… He has since gained recognition in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, and in May of this year, the Spanish city of Granada named a plaza after him.
London Calling, finally released in December 1979, is in my opinion the greatest album to come out of British rock music. Now, of course I wasn’t around to hear it played as a chart hit on the radio, just like I wasn’t around to hear Abbey Road exactly ten years previously. So how dare I comment? Well, what people of my generation lack in first-hand experience of albums gone by, we possess in the privilege of perspective. So just because my life wasn’t changed in the same way by those first ethereal clackety-clacks of Come Together as somebody my dad’s age would have been, means nothing. I don’t listen to The Clash thinking ‘I remember that year, this music meant so much to me’. I listen to them and think ‘this music commands enough vibrance and originality to have changed lives, perspectives, and an entire musical genre forever. That means a lot.’
The lives were those of the young English working and middle classes. The perspectives were those of the shy, the racist and the inward-looking. And the musical genre was punk. Before 1979, punk in London was full of screaming, spitting, swearing, swastikas and syphilis. Again: how dare I comment, you sigh. Well, I’m a History student and that generalisation was mostly for alliterative effect so get over it. But punk in London did largely consist of all that. The Clash were in the thick of it, but this album instantly became a landmark. It added sophistication, but lost none of the style.
The genre-spanning innovation of the album isn’t quite apparent within the first two tracks. But it immediately shows from Jimmy Jazz onwards. The Clash’s hard rock, with which the tempestuous English of the day were already familiar, sounded great; but then mixing it with jazz, reggae and ska was incredibly exciting. Come track five, Rudie Can’t Fail, and even in modern times the work feels deliciously inventive to listen to. It was as if a political triumvirate had formed between industrial England, the Caribbean and the American Deep South, with Strummer its figurehead. You can feel much more than the spice of punk coming through. Injections of Elvis and The Wailers break the surface in spectacular fashion.
What’s more, the guitar art of Mick Jones comes soaring in some tunes and trippy in others, adding to Strummer’s vocals to make the tastiest all-round soup that British rock had ever cooked. Most of all, the foursome’s ensemble in every single track had that unplaceable factor to make their sound one of sub zero coolness.
The sans-frontiere lyrical outlook of Spanish Bombs (a poetic, heartfelt song that amplified the political side of the album beautifully) is prevalent in the rest of the album in the form of the sheer musical diversity London Calling boasts. From characteristic Jamaican off-beat reggae guitar to the incorporation of an entire brass band in many of the songs, The Clash knew for sure how to expand their audience. Such variety was a bold move amongst the thriving nationalistic environment but it paid off massively, and did well to unite the pockets of Afro and Caribbean communities in the big cities. Punk became a phenomenon that related globally, and one that sounded funky. In this way the album signified a new direction not just for the band, but also for the entire genre. It clearly worked, because it kick-started an entire punk renaissance, and a sub-culture that was far more musically diverse and internationally permeable. Cue the subsequent tsunami of British and American ska headed by The Specials and, later, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
…So long live The Clash, and happy birthday Joe. This entire sixty-five-minute marvel is cheeky, brave, lavishly multicultural, and five times as clever as anything the 70’s had spat out before. I like to think it reflects only the best of British society. Then and now.
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