Popped an old favorite into the truck CD player yesterday. Had to oust a great Horace Tapscott disc, but that’s the way it goes. Ensconced in The Lab, I meditated upon the third consecutive great album of The Clash’s short life, and some amusing memories flowed to the fore…
London Calling was the first Clash album I bought, or even knew about. Small-town corner of southwest Missouri, no wonder. As I’m sure many did, I bought it because of the cover, without hesitation. Also, a two-record set for $7.99???
I often skipped lunch to hoard money to spend at Ken’s Records, two blocks down from the old high school in Carthage. Ken looked like Bela Lugosi cast as a mortuary director, but he always smiled when I came in, plus…he stocked some punk rock. Or maybe that was his young sidekick, John Norris. Ken watched the store like a hawk–I believe there was a bell on the door–and he made me very nervous, though I’d never have dreamed of shoplifting. One time I came in and he beckoned me into the mysterious back room of the store, where he handed me a small leather case. “This was stolen,” he said, “and the police have not been able to locate the owner. They brought it to me, and I’d like you to have it.” I opened it to discover 10 eight-track tapes, among them a couple of Queens (Jazz was one of them) and that big Head East album. I was bowled over by his kindness and listened to them constantly until I bought London Calling.
My copy did not have lyrics. This was a significant fact, as Joe seemed to my ear not to be ranting in English (and sometimes he wasn’t–plus, his and Mick’s were the first Spanish words to reach my ears). I strained, I leaned forward, I turned it up, but–other than the easy ones–I couldn’t understand the words, and they damn sure seemed to matter. “Satta Massagana / For Jimmy Dread”? And what was that about fucking nuns? But being sung like they mattered hooked me. It’s why I’ll always be loyal to Joe, one of the greatest non-singers in rock and roll history.
Later, in college, I discovered that my friend Mark’s copy had lyrics printed on the inner sleeves. In Joe’s cool handwriting! Talk about poring over a text–that was probably when I learned to close-read. “L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed / Across the knuckles on his hands / The hands that knocked his kids around / ‘Cos they don’t understand how / ‘Death or Glory!’ / Becomes / Just another story!” DAMN. That was on par with Dylan, and I was a raving Dylanophile. Some 15 years later, I would shoplift for the first and only time. I had just been screwed over in trade value by a clerk at a local used record store, and I got mine back by sneaking out the lyric booklet from their copy of the stupid The Story of The Clash box . That booklet was worth a ten-spot by itself.
In the winter of ’79-’80, when I (first) bought London Calling, I’d taken my first real job, loading and unloading trucks in the evening for a business called Interstate Free Delivery. I worked side by side with a classmate, John Babb, upon whom I forced the album at high volume when it was my turn to give him a ride home. As I am sure you know, great albums sometimes require a few repetitions to make their mark, and soon, John was a fan as well, though he couldn’t suss the lyrics any better than I. “These guys are weird, but they rock,” I remember him enthusing one night out of the blue. And Zep and Rush were his meat ‘n’ taters. Until I went to college, he was the only other person I knew who liked them. John was also the first person I knew in my graduating class who passed, and when he did, London Calling and his open mind was what I thought of.
The Clash were the essential glue that bonded me to my two best friends in college, and best friends we remain. We entered an air guitar contest at White Dog Records in Fayetteville, Arkansas–as The Clash. I got to be Joe–still one of the pleasures of my life. This was before I’d ever seen him in action or heard him speak, but I Method-acted from the evidence of London Calling: he was furious, funny, mad, intense but loose–and I figured he had to always slick up his hair. After preparing for the “performance” by road-tripping to Pine Bluff to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Paycheck (we never took no shit from no one–we weren’t fools) and staying up all night “practicing” (with nickels for picks and tennis rackets for guits), we lurched into the store, glowering out of a morning beer buzz. Inside, I was nervous but jubilant, determined to vindicate the band for the masses; outside, I was pissed off to the highest degree of pissed-tivity. We “played” “I Fought the Law,” the Bobby Fuller cover from their debut, but my energy came from London Calling‘s album cover, and its mood. Drained afterwards, we were disappointed to have finished behind The Beach Boys and AC/DC, but hey–the finish was true to the song. With my consolation $10 gift certificate, I bought Fenton Robinson’s Somebody Loan Me a Dime.
My first real critical argument about an album was over London Calling. I was checking out at a Springfield, Missouri, record store called, rather inaccurately, Liberty Sound, and was chatting with the clerk, a guy I knew from the Joplin clubs. We were talking about Slash Records (which took the store eons to stock), and I mentioned how much I loved The Blasters’ first album (then, however, much less than I do at present!). Dude equated them with The Stray Cats (SMFH!!!), then connected The Blasters’ “fake rockabilly” (motherfucker, that’s r & b! and it ain’t fake) to The Clash’s “sell-out” via London Calling and “Brand New Cadillac.” I just lost it. “Man, they’re learning to play, and they’re learning to play more, because they’re learning more about music! And, and, AND? No band’s learned that much THAT fast!” Period. See. You. Later. To this day, when I notice a band growing, I think of that conversation. Sometimes I have to check myself when I find myself wishing a favorite band would stay in its lane. Think of the styles represented, and done justice (and not just musically) on London Calling: rockabilly, reggae, ska, NOLA r & b, straight (and great) rock and roll, punk (of course), skiffle-y pop, Diddley-bop (twice) (in a row), soaring “I Can See for Miles”-styled anthemic hard rock. And I’m leaving things out. Sell-outs? As Ginsberg, I think, said about Dylan, they sold out to (a kind of) God. How else to explain the bittersweet melody of “Spanish Bombs,” lashed to lines like “Spanish bombs / Shatter the hotels / My senorita’s rose was nipped in the bud!”? (Now that line I understood when I was eighteen.)
Speaking of all that, all that led me to even more of that. London Calling made me feel I better get to know Stagger Lee and Billy, Montgomery Clift, The Harder They Come, The Night of the Hunter, Vince Taylor, The Assyrians, and–dammit, son!–why don’t you own a Bo Diddley record yet? I just this moment realized it, but they taught me omnivorousness (secret o’ life, right there).
One way I measure my love for an album is how many times I’ve bought it. London Calling? Five. Twice on LP (the second time, for the lyrics), once on eight-track (for the old Dodge Dart!), twice on CD (the second time for a really sharp remastering). I’ll probably buy it again.
As should you. Especially if you haven’t yet done it once.
A final offering from London Calling: “The fury of the hour / Anger can be power / You know that you can use it! / In these days of evil presidenté / Lately one or two / Have fully paid their dues….”