So now we are getting down to, as President George Bush 41 might have said, the Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird. Only one song left. One more song to represent all of rock’n’roll, and this is the hardest choice of all, because of everything that will have to be left off. No David Bowie, can you believe it? No Rolling Stones. No Pixies. Bob Dylan, Creedence, Iggy and the Stooges, the Who…sorry about that, fellas, you didn’t make the cut.
After much debate I finally settled on a song by the Clash because I thought it was important to represent the key role punk rock played in the history of rock’n’roll. I was reminded of this recently when I had occasion to visit the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in scenic Cleveland, OH. I had always thought the Hall of Fame was a bad idea, but since I was passing through, I decided to check it out. Turns out I was right. The moment rock’n’roll starts getting full of itself, patting itself on the back for all it’s accomplished, is the moment it starts to die. You can’t really freeze it and put it in a museum. Sure, it was cool to see Jimi Hendrix’s fringed jacket and childhood artwork, John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper outfit and report cards, David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” outfit and solid gold coke spoon (just kidding on that one), but in the end so what? What do I take away from that experience?
The one voice crying out in the wilderness that was the R’n’R Hall of Fame was Joe Strummer’s. Appearing in one of the movies in the Hall’s dedicated theaters — the best part of the museum, by the way, but did I need to go to Cleveland to see a movie? — he gave a great little speech about how rock’n’roll was meant to capture the passion of the moment. And this was what punk rock did: When rock’n’roll had become bloated and sanctimonious, punk came along to remind us that passion was what mattered — not classical chops, not clever time signatures, not being able to play a keyboard with each hand and a third one with your feet.
Daniel Levitin, whose list of six songs inspired this seemingly endless thread, chose to represent punk with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” This is a valid choice, although one might argue that among Pistols songs “God Save the Queen,” with its famous couplet “God save the Queen/She ain’t a human bean” and “No future” chorus, would be the better choice. In any case, while the Pistols were crucial to the ignition of the punk movement, so were the Ramones, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls; the band that most completely fulfilled punk’s promise was the Clash.
It’s difficult not to lapse into hyperbole when discussing the Clash, who during their relatively brief but insanely productive career were known as “The Only Band That Matters.” For instance, I kind of want to say that they single-handedly (actually eight-handedly) enabled rock’n’roll to have a future at a time when it was sinking under the weight of its past.
For this to happen, that past had to be symbolically destroyed. Hence “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,” hence the legendary photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass, hence that hurtful line about “phony Beatlemania.” But the genius of the Clash was that they didn’t stop there; in contrast to the flat nihilism of the Pistols, the Clash showed the way to a possible future. This was a future where rock dropped all its accumulated baggage, all its rules and conventions and reverence, and opened itself up to a whole world of new influences. By incorporating reggae, funk, rap, and whatever else had their attention at the time, the Clash created an entirely new and suddenly relevant kind of rock. It was this aspect of punk that opened the floodgates to the wild creative rush of the late 70s and early 80s, and made possible everything else that’s mattered in rock music since, from the Pixies and Nirvana to Beck and the Beastie Boys.
There was a price to pay, however. By mutating in so many different directions, rock’n’roll lost something of its distinct identity, and this I think is why there’s nothing on this list from the last 28 years and counting. London Calling the album was released in the UK in December 1979 and in the US in January 1980, neatly bridging rock’s last great decade and the beginning of its diaspora.
I was 12 years old at the time. But “London Calling” (the song) got my attention with its throbbing intro, apocalyptic lyrics, and passionate intensity. I went out and got the album, but I was not yet ready for it; my young and squishy brain simply could not absorb all the information being transmitted on those four sides of vinyl. I listened to “Train in Vain” a lot, but it was not until many years later that I started to appreciate London Calling as a whole. I realize now that it was one of those rare, perfect moments when everything falls into place for reasons that are beyond human comprehension. From its iconic cover image and Elvis-referencing design, to the inspired choice of genuine lunatic Guy Stevens as producer, to the obvious hit single being tacked on at the last minute and left off the sleeve, everything about London Calling seems to have been predestined to work out the way it did. There’s not too much more I can add at this point. I’ll give the second-to-the-last word to author David Quantick, who says this in his book The Clash:
London Calling could be a Rolling Stones album if the Rolling Stones had had the humour and wit without the cynicism and arrogance, it could be a Beatles album if the Beatles had ever been really mad about everything, it could even be a Sex Pistols album if the Sex Pistols had been able to compress the entire history of rock, soul, punk, and reggae into one short, busy hour. In the end, London Calling is a great album that only the Clash — with their disparate blend of Strummer’s shamanistic, self-mythologizing, street-preaching, reggae madman ranting, Jones’s urban rock star image and alienated yowling, and Simonon’s love of cool gangster posing — could have made.
But the last word rightfully belongs to the Clash themselves. Good night, everybody.