Released 40 years ago and now the subject of its own exhibition, The Clash’s London Calling simultaneously paid tribute to rock ‘n’ roll and took an iconoclast’s hammer to it.
When Boris Johnson claimed in his first party election broadcast of the 2019 campaign that his favourite band was The Clash (either them or the Rolling Stones, he unconvincingly claimed), it sounded like a line cooked up in a Tory HQ brainstorming session. Not since Johnny Rotten fronted a butter advert has punk been so shamelessly co-opted.
Punk’s status as a great British export and shorthand for cultural edginess (signalling, therefore, being ‘in touch’) is grist to the political image-making mill, and The Clash were presumably deemed entry-level punk by aides and a name that would be known by the British public at large.
The political message the band tried so earnestly to promote (indeed, Rotten condemned their songs as ‘Just a few quotes from Karl Marx around a merry little melody’), was completely elided – one doubts Johnson is fully on board with the socialist Joe Strummer’s songs about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Spanish Civil War – and The Clash became mere cardboard cut-out ‘punk icons’.
While the band are celebrated in a more three-dimensional manner in a new Museum of London exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the release of London Calling, reverent treatment can bring its own problems.
Their weighty posthumous reputation sees their ‘relics’, including the splintered Fender Precision bass Paul Simonon wields in Pennie Smith’s photo on the LP’s (yes – ‘iconic’) cover, put on show for the faithful. Ephemeral minutiae, including scraps of paper with fragments of Strummer’s handwritten lyrics, appear not only in the exhibition but have been published as quasi-sacred texts in Sony Music’s anniversary cash-in London Calling Scrapbook.
This kind of worship can frustrate a real understanding of a band’s failings and achievements, and while London Calling was The Clash’s greatest moment, this was in large part because it came after critical ignominy and creative meltdown. The album turned out to be a prediction of the turbulent 1980s, and it is a record that speaks to the future still…
The New European, 28 November 2019, pp. 31-35.