Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Clash's "London Calling"

This record always reminds me of mountains.

Let me explain: In the fall of 1979, I was living in Austin, working at the Record Town in Dobie Mall, and staying in a studio apartment on the Northside, up by Research Blvd. My phone number had previously belonged to a lumber yard, as a result of which I was always getting phone calls at 7am, which resulted in my sticking my phone in a drawer with a pillow over it. One night I awoke after a night of pub-crawling to find all of my furniture piled up in front of the door to my apartment. Not sure exactly what precipitated that.

One day I got a phone call from my old college roommate Bruce, the bass playing fella who'd taught me that there's more to playing music than stealing licks off of records. Our friendship was based on our shared ability to sing every instrumental part off Live At Leeds, discovered the night when I met him for the first time in a friend's dorm room after a kid up the hall had threatened to kill me for not giving him a cigarette.

Bruce impressed me with his ability to play Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart music, spoonfed me Trout Mask Replica a track at a time, and spent an entire semester teaching me how to play material by Zappa, Beefheart, Hendrix, Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig. With a drummer named Ronnie who wore a cowboy hat and looked like he was about 11 years old, we used to lug our equipment down to the quad, set up, and play until we heard police sirens. After that semester, we'd both dropped out -- no surprise. Now he was calling from Aspen, Colorado, inviting me to come up and make a band with him and his drummer from back home on Long Island.

Since we'd last seen each other the summer before, we'd both gotten into punk: the Ramones and Devo for him, the Heartbreakers and the Clash for me. Although we'd grown up within running distance of the city, the Bowery might as well have been the other side of the planet from our backwater burgs. In 1974, when Television was breaking the seal on CBGB, our respective bands were still playing stupid Cream and Allman Brothers songs.

I'd moved to Texas in 1978 after Stephen, my drummer from the year before I met Bruce, had called me from Dallas, where he was attending electronics school, and informed me that 1) he'd seen the Sex Pistols and they sucked, but the opening band, a Dallas outfit called the Nervebreakers, was great; 2) you didn't need liability insurance to drive in Texas (I was paying $900 a year in New York with a clean record); 3) you could drive up to a Texas cop with a beer in your hand and he'd just wave (or kick your ass, I learned later, if you happened to be in Fort Worth); and 4) you could earn $10 an hour for raking rocks in the road (the only work he reckoned I was capable of doing).

Long story short, I moved to Texas that summer, heard the Nervebreakers, the Huns, and the embryonic Big Boys, and listened a lot to the American version of the first Clash album and the Heartbreakers' Live At Max's Kansas City. When Bruce called, I didn't tell him that I hadn't touched a guitar in a year. Instead, I went out and bought the heaviest strings I could find (.013 to .056), practiced relentlessly like I hadn't in two or three years, gave up my apartment, and slept on the couch of a female coworker who was engaged to a guy that managed a minor league baseball team back East (which occasioned several very awkward telephone conversations) until I had saved enough money to buy a bus ticket to Aspen.

The trip up was a 36-hour ordeal. We were heading into the first big snowstorm of the year. In Lamar, the bus driver opened up the baggage compartment and told us all to get our warm coats out. I was supposed to have a six-hour layover in Denver and wound up barely making the connection. The bus from Denver to Aspen stopped in every bumfuck mountain town there was. We finally rolled into Aspen around 2am. I bought a six pack of beer, got a hotel room, drank the beer, went to sleep, woke up the next morning, opened the door to my room and saw snowcapped peaks everywhere I looked.

The sight struck me breathless. I ran to find a payphone to call the woman I'd been staying with in Austin, then spent the rest of the day walking from restaurant to restaurant, looking for my friends. (It might have made sense to have asked them where they were working, but that's not how I did things back then.) At the end of the day, I found John, the drummer, throwing pizzas in some spot. When he saw me, his jaw hit the floor. "Holy shit!" he said. "We were going to tell you not to come! We found another guitar player!"

Thus commenced the most dissolute winter of my life, which I spent working in a restaurant, staying in a three-bedroom apartment with six other guys, playing a little music, abusing substances fairly indiscriminately, getting in fistfights with my roommates/bandmates, and breaking my hand on the first day of the '80s by punching a cinderblock wall. Eventually we were implicated in some burglaries and invited to come down to the sheriff's office to talk. I was the only one foolish enough to go, and when I did, I was told that although they didn't think it was me, they did think it would be a good idea if I left town anyway, and never came back. They even escorted me to the airport. I've never been back to Colorado, either.

I left Aspen in March, but not before taking a ride down to Denver with a fella I worked with in the kitchen to buy the Clash's London Calling on the day that it came out. If my shakey memory serves, it was a sunny January day and the mountain passes were clear, and he drove his sportscar like a maniac, to the point where I feared for my life. But it was worth it.

I'd seen the Clash twice the previous fall, once at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin and once at the Palladium in Dallas, and I thought they were the most exciting band that I'd ever seen -- even more so than the Who. When Joe Strummer pounded his mic stand on the stage and snarled, you knew he meant it. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon bounded about like amphetamine-crazed madmen, and Topper Headon -- whose previous gig was with Canuck blooze rocker Pat Travers -- was a crisply precise and powerful drummer who made it all work in the same way as Stewart Copeland did in the Police (although Copeland had sophisto musos to work with, rather than the terrible tyros Topper had).

In the fullness of time, it's easy to see that the Clash were more of a "rock" band than a "punk" band -- which accounts for the fact that they don't mean much to cats I know who are in their 30s now and got on board the punk train after the hardcore development, which made the Clash, with their CBS "only band that matters" hype and opening for the Who at Shea Stadium as though some fraudulent torch was being ceremonially passed, seem irrelevant and even a little bit silly. Like the Who, the MC5, and Bruce Springsteen before them, they were ambitious and thus easily manipulated by management.

They were "rock" rather than "punk" not just in terms of their ambition, but in musical terms, too. Their debut album, as revered as it was as an import, just wasn't that good because Terry Chimes' drumming was one-dimensional and about half of the songs were weak. Already, though, they were writing anthems and trying to rally their audience, which is something the Sex Pistols, who played more powerfully while expressing more negative emotions, could snicker at. To these feedback-scorched ears, the American reissue, which replaced the lesser songs with Topper-propelled singles like "Clash City Rockers," "Complete Control" and especially "White Man In Hammersmith Palais," was a big improvement.

The Clash started to show their hand when they had their second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, produced in New York by Sandy Pearlman, an ex-rockcrit who'd coined the term "heavy metal," then went on to assemble and manage Blue Oyster Cult. The songs were generally strong, filled with caustic wit, but the record was engineered to make the Clash sound like an American hard rock band. Like the Rolling Stones, they were seduced by their vision of a mythic America, and they wallowed in it when they toured here. London Calling was their Exile On Main St., only it sounds focused and committed where the Stones mostly just sounded enervated. If it hasn't worn as well as, say, its sprawling successor Sandinista!, it's only because so much sincerity can get hard to listen to after awhile.

London Calling is also the album where the Clash started reverting to type, Strummer to the roots-consciousness of his Ladbrooke Grove R&B band the 101'ers (which Joe Carducci maintains was better than the Clash ever were) and Jones to wanting to be in Mott the Hoople -- the band my high school buddies and I used to play air guitar to, even after a couple of us had actually learned how to play, whose performance at the Uris Theater on Broadway in 1973 put me off Big Rock Shows for life.

Mott, of course, was a Brit band put together in 1969 by Guy Stevens, a legendary pillhead, deejay, and producer (he'd previously pulled the strings behind St. Lester's favorite psychedelic extravagance, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat Featuring the Human Host and the Heavy Metal Kids) who had the bright idea of forming an outfit that would sound like Bob Dylan fronting the Rolling Stones. In due course, they became a popular live act in the U.K., and kids like Jones used to follow them around wherever they played. Although none of their records ever really took off, their end-of-the-road opus Brain Capers was a small masterpiece. They were on the verge of breaking up when David Bowie found them, wrote "All the Young Dudes" for them, and bought them another couple of years of quasi-fame.

Although Mott had a reputation for chaotic bashing, their real stock in trade was heart-on-sleeve sentiment, and that was exactly the facet of their legacy that Jones mimicked in all of the Clash songs that he sang. On London Calling, those included the Motown pastiche "Lost In the Supermarket," the faux Spector melodrama "The Card Cheat," the empty boast "I'm Not Down," and "Train In Vain," originally an uncredited "hidden" track that wound up being the song "classic rock" radio played more than any other Clash track up till Jones' "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" a couple of years later.

What Stevens brought to the table as the Clash's producer was a more spacious sound than Pearlman had provided, with a better balance between the rhythm section and the guitars, with the vocals clearly audible up front. (If you've got something to say, why hide it under a wall of buzzsaw guitars?) Also, his penchant for experimentation and out-of-control catharsis in the studio gave them room to stretch out in terms of both developing their material and incorporating sounds and influences, a tendency which would reach full fruition with the overindulgent Sandinista!

For his part, Strummer was busy interjecting rockabilly (Brit rocker Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac"), Nawlins R&B (the little snatch of "Stagger Lee" that opened the Clash's version of Clive Alphonso's "Wrong 'Em Boyo"), reggae (Jackie Edwards' "Revolution Rock," the 'riginal "Rudie Can't Fail") and even P-Funk (listen to "Jimmy Jazz" back to back with Funkadelic's "No Compute" and tell me that the similarity is a coincidence) into the mix. Lyrically, he was tackling subject matter that included history ("Spanish Bombs"), the cult of celebrity (the Montgomery Clift homage "The Right Profile" -- coincidentally, I'd read a Clift bio on the bus trip up to Aspen), emergent fascism in Thatcher's Britain ("Clampdown"), his own band's sellout ("Death or Glory"), and the exportation of culture ("Koka Kola") amid the anthems and invocations of apocalypse.

Like the Pistols' John Lydon, Strummer was a closet ex-hipi who willfully piloted the Clash into an anticlimactic crash-landing, then spent years in the wilderness as a sometime actor, soundtrack composer, and deejay before picking up the sword again at the ass-end of the '90s. Myself, I think he was the big talent in the Clash and that his posthumously released 2003 Streetcore album was one of its decade's best. Jones went on to found Big Audio Dynamite, while Simonon went off and became a painter. These days, the two of them tour with the Gorillaz. For me, London Calling is one of those records that resonates more for the memories it conjures than what's in the actual grooves, but I'm still happy to have it around to remind me of those days.

ADDENDUM: And I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that the Clash were the gateway that led me to the Wailers, the Maytals, and the Upsetter as inexorably as the Animals, Stones, and Yardbirds led to Hooker, Muddy, and the Wolf.


Anonymous Steve-o said...

Great post, Stash!

12:31 PM  

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