- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Clash
London Calling: 30th Anniversary Edition
Sony Music

I was too young to be hip to the mini British invasion of the late 1970s that brought the Clash to these shores. And maybe now I’m too old to appreciate how important and influential a cultural document “London Calling” has become.

As a teenager, listening to LPs in suburban comfort, I barely glimpsed the anarchy and abandon that fueled punk as a movement. The lightening tempos and screaming vocals were enjoyable on their own terms. The lyrics to me were largely indecipherable, as were the radical politics that informed the artists. I lacked the commitment required to display the outer trappings of the punk-rock lifestyle — the extreme hairstyles, body piercings and torn clothing held together by safety pins.

Yet even as a dabbler in punk rock, I never thought the Clash sounded like a punk band. I came to the group right around the time it broke up. At times, it sounded like a pop-inflected version of Generation X, and at times I imagined the band as a more talented, better produced version of the Violent Femmes. Punk, to me, was the unmistakably aggressive, anti-social scrum of the Minutemen, Black Flag and Bad Brains.

It had been a while since I had played “London Calling” straight through. In fact, I hadn’t gone to the trouble of acquiring it on CD or MP3 — I had carried my high school copy of the double album into adulthood. The first hard-edged chords of the title track still ring out with icy familiarity. Topper Headon’s martial snare drum combined with Paul Simonon’s choppy, biting bass line feels classic separate and apart from any influence on today’s twee, collegiate rock.

The consumerist anomie described in “Lost in the Supermarket” seems too ordinary to be worth remarking upon at the end 2009 but seems prescient for 1979 — especially the line “Long-distance callers make long-distance calls and the silence makes me lonely.”

Maybe the finest song is “Spanish Bombs” for its melancholy contrast of the “trenches full of poets” of the Spanish Civil War with the planeloads of British tourists descending on the sun-drenched coasts of post-Franco Spain. The vocal duet of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, with its pidgin Spanish, is a weird, heady mixture of defiance and nostalgia. The primal rage of “Guns of Brixton” is leavened by the solemnity of Mr. Simonon’s vocal delivery and the comical twang of the Vibraslap.

There’s not much left to say about an album that the British pop bible New Musical Express calls the best album of the 1970s and Rolling Stone ranks as tops of the 1980s.

It’s impossible to listen to it without hearing the multiple vectors of influence arcing from almost every song. The most obvious instance is the reprise of the intro to “London Calling” on Submarines’ recent single “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie”- which received incessant play as the soundtrack to an Apple iPhone commercial. There are scores upon scores of such examples.

“London Calling” already got a major reissue on its 25th anniversary, which included a set of painfully raw takes known as the Vanilla Tapes. The new reissue wraps the original album with a making-of documentary and some archival footage in a package designed to look like the album release.

The 25th-anniversary edition is a more elaborate and musically interesting package. A better solution might be to dig out the original double LP and play it loud.

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