This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Clash’s London Calling. Well, sort of. The album came out in England on December 14th, 1979, but didn’t cross the Atlantic to America until January 1980. That’s just a matter of weeks, but it’s the reason that NME has called it one of the single best albums of the Seventies and Rolling Stone labeled it the best album of the Eighties.
It’s a rare album that can considered among the best works of two separate decades, especially ones as packed with timeless rock records as the Seventies and Eighties, but the accolades are well earned. London Calling documents one of the mightiest bands in rock history operating at the absolute peak of its abilities. The double LP is a unique fusion of punk, rockabilly, reggae, R&B, and pop that’s unlike anything heard before or since. It also dated from a time when the group’s primary songwriters, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, were working together seamlessly and bringing out the best in one another.
The band soon began to fall apart, starting the next year with the messy, sprawling Sandinista!, and would disintegrate forever after Combat Rock in 1982. (Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon briefly kept the flag waving on 1985’s Cut the Crap before ending the band, but by then, they were the Clash in name only.) Joe Strummer’s death in 2002 means that the Clash can never re-form in any meaningful way, but they left behind at least one flawless statement with London Calling. Here are 10 things you might not know about the album.
1. The title track was originally called “Ice Age.”
Joe Strummer’s early drafts of “London Calling” are far different than what wound up on the album. Lyrics for the song appear in his notebook under the title “Ice Age.” “The USA is sinking,” he wrote. “The world is shrinking/The sun is blinking/While I’m drinking/The oil stops flowing/The wheat stops growing/The world stops knowing/The Ice Age is coming/The sun getting nearer.”
2. The “London Calling” lyrics reflect the chaos that was engulfing the world at the time.
Much of London Calling was crafted while the Clash traveled across the globe in 1979. It was a period of tremendous instability marked by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Iran Hostage crisis, the Ixtoc I oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the rise of Margaret Thatcher in England, and a major energy crisis. Drawing on the chaos, Strummer’s “London Calling” lyrics are essentially a radio broadcast from a dystopian future that was easy to envision at that point in time.
3. “Brand New Cadillac” is an old rockabilly song.
One of a handful of songs on London Calling not written by the members of the group is “Brand New Cadillac,” a 1959 tune by rockabilly great Vince Taylor. Everyone in the Clash loved the song and they often used it to warm up before recording. Notably, it’s the first song they recorded for London Calling and it set the stage for everything that followed. “Vince Taylor was the beginning of British rock & roll,” said Strummer. “Before him there was nothing. He was a miracle.”
4. Producer Guy Stevens is the unsung hero of the album.
London Calling was produced by Guy Stevens, best known at that point for his work with Mott the Hoople and the Faces. “He was really important, and he helped create a very positive atmosphere, even though he was a little crazy,” Simonon told Rolling Stone in 2013. “But he was like a conductor. He brought out the best in everybody, and he was the crazy one that let us not be crazy and get on with the job. I think if you put us all in the room together you’d look at Guy and you’d say, ‘Yeah, he’s the crazy one. Those other guys, they’re the normal ones.’” (Stevens died of a drug overdose in 1981. The Clash paid tribute to him with the song “Midnight to Stevens.”)
5. “The Guns of Brixton” was partially inspired by Jimmy Cliff’s movie The Harder they Come.
“The Guns of Brixton” was the first Clash song that Paul Simonon wrote by himself. He grew up in the South London neighborhood of South Brixton, where the song imagines Jimmy Cliff’s Ivan character from his 1972 film The Harder They Come residing. “The mystery of writing songs had become a bit clearer,” said Simonon. “That was a big moment for me. The thing I realized was songwriters get all the money. You don’t get paid for designing record sleeves and clothes.’”
6. “Spanish Bombs” was written about a real-life incident.
Strummer was driving home late one night from the studio when he heard a report about a hotel on the Costa Brava in Spain getting bombed by Basque terrorists. Around this same time, the IRA were setting off bombs of their own in the U.K. It didn’t take him long to write “Spanish Bombs,” which stretches from the Spanish Civil War of the Thirties all the way to the recent attacks on the country.
7. “Train in Vain” wasn’t originally listed on the album sleeve.
The final song recorded for “London Calling” was the Mick Jones composition “Train in Vain.” The band had already created the artwork by that point, so there was no time to list it on the album sleeve. That didn’t stop them from releasing it as a single in much of the world, though, and it rose to Number 23 on the Hot 100 in America, making it by far their biggest hit in the States. The song is quite poppy when compared to the rest of the album, leading many to assume they didn’t list it on the back because they were embarrassed by it. The truth is a bit more mundane.
8. Joe Strummer began writing “Lost in the Supermarket” on the back of a guitar-string package.
One of the most interesting items in the Clash’s vast archive is a package of Ernie Ball Custom Gauge Strings with these words written on the back in the handwriting of Joe Strummer: “I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily/I came in here for the special offer/Guaranteed personality.” It was the beginning of the anti-consumerist screed that he let Mick Jones sing on London Calling.
9. “Revolution Rock” is a cover of an obscure reggae song.
The lyrics of “Revolution Rock” seem so quintessentially Clash that many fans simply assumed they wrote it. But it’s actually by Jamaican reggae singer Danny Ray and released by him months before the Clash got their hands on it. It wasn’t a big success, but the royalties from the Clash’s cover have been pretty nice over the years.
10. The Cover shows Paul Simonon smashing his bass a day earlier than everyone thinks.
The Clash played New York’s Palladium on September 20th and 21st, 1979. When they were done, photographer Pennie Smith walked away with a photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage that became the cover of the album. For decades, it’s been written that the photo was taken on the 21st. But when Robert Gordon McHarg III was assembling the new book The London Calling Scrapbook he found a notebook by Ray Lowry, the man who designed the iconic cover, clearly stating that Simonon smashed his bass on the 20th. [Update: Clash fan Dave Marin proved this beyond any reasonable doubt back in 2015.]