This is an apocalyptic song, detailing the many ways the world could end, including the coming of the ice age, starvation, and war. It was the song that best defined The Clash, who were known for lashing out against injustice and rebelling against the establishment, which is pretty much what punk rock was all about.
Joe Strummer explained in 1988 toMelody Maker: “I read about ten news reports in one day calling down all variety of plagues on us.”
Singer Joe Strummer was a news junkie, and many of the images of doom in the lyrics came from news reports he read. Strummer claimed the initial inspiration came in a conversation he had with his then-fiancee Gaby Salter in a taxi ride home to their flat in World’s End (appropriately). “There was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on, and we knew that London was susceptible to flooding. She told me to write something about that,” noted Strummer in an interview withUncutmagazine.
According to guitarist Mick Jones, it was a headline in theLondon Evening Standardthat triggered the lyric. The paper warned that “the North Sea might rise and push up the Thames, flooding the city,” he said in the bookAnatomy of a Song. “We flipped. To us, the headline was just another example of how everything was coming undone.”
The title came from the BBC World Service’s radio station identification: “This is London calling…” The BBC used it during World War II to open their broadcasts outside of England. Joe Strummer heard it when he was living in Germany with his parents.>>
The line “London is drowning and I live by the river” came from a saying in England that if the Thames river ever flooded, all of London would be underwater. Joe Strummer was living by the river, but in a high-rise apartment, so he would have been OK.
The line about the “Nuclear Error” was inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in March 1979. This incident is also referred to in the lyrics to “Clampdown” from the same album.
The Clash recorded this album after returning to England from a short US tour. The band was intrigued by American music as well as its rock’n’roll mythology, so much so that the album cover was a tribute to Elvis Presley’s first album.
This was recorded at Wessex Studios, located in a former church in the Highbury district of North London. Many hit recordings had already come out of this studio, including singles and albums by the Sex Pistols, The Pretenders and the Tom Robinson Band. Chief engineer and studio manager Bill Price had developed a slew of unique recording techniques suited to the room.
Fellow punk band The Damned were recording overdubs to their albumMachine Gun Etiquettein the studio, and as they were old touring buddies of The Clash they roped Strummer and Mick Jones into record backing vocals for the title song to their album – the shouted lines of “second time around!” in that song are actually Strummer and Jones in uncredited cameos.
Interestingly, the band initially wrote most of theLondon Callingalbum at the Vanilla rehearsal studios near Vauxhall Bridge in London. Roadie Johnny Green explained: “It had the advantage of not looking like a studio. Out front of a garage. We wrote a sign out front saying ‘we ain’t here.’ We weren’t disturbed.”
With a great vibe going in the studio and having already recorded some demos with The Who’s soundman Bob Pridden, Strummer had the crazy idea to record the entire album there and bypass expensive studio time. CBS refused point blank, so Wessex was chosen because it had a similar intimacy to Vanilla. The original Vanilla demos were made available on the 25th anniversary edition ofLondon Calling.
At the end of the song, a series of beeps spells out “SOS” in morse code. Mick Jones created these sounds on one of his guitar pickups.
The SOS distress signal has often been used metaphorically in songs (like the1975 Abba song), but in “London Calling” it’s more literal, implying that the disaster has struck and we are calling for help.
London Callingwas a double album, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The band were angry that CBS had priced their previous EP,The Cost of Livingat £1.49, and so in the interests of their fans they insisted thatLondon Callingbe a double LP. CBS refused, so the band tried a different tactic: how about a free single on a one-disc LP? CBS agreed, but didn’t notice that this free single disc would play at 33rpm and contain eight songs – therefore making it up to a double album! It then became nine when “Train in Vain” was tacked on to the end of the album after anNMEsingle release fell through. “Train” arrived so late on that it isn’t on the tracklisting on the album sleeve, and the only evidence of its existence is a stamp on the run-out groove and its presence on the end of side four. So in the end,London Callingwas a 19-song double-LP retailing for the price of a single!
Rolling Stonemagazine namedLondon Callingthe best album of the ’80s. Pedantic readers noted that it was first released in the UK in December 1979. In the US it was released two weeks into January 1980, meaning that from a US perspective, it’s a 1980s album. And if anyone can come up with a better alternative to best album of the ’80s,Rolling Stonewould love to hear from you!
According toNMEmagazine (March 16, 1991), we know that Paul Simonon smashed his bass guitar – as photographed on the cover of the album – at exactly 10:50 pm. This is because he broke his watch in the process and handed the busted bits to photographer Pennie Smith, who snapped the photo.
Smith thought the photo wouldn’t be good for an album cover, citing that it was too blurry and out of focus. “I was wrong!” she admitted in theWestway to the Worlddocumentary!
As a tribute to Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, who died in 2002, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello and Little Steven Van Zant played this at the close of the 2003 Grammys as a tribute to the band. All four played guitar and took turns on vocals. The Grammys is the type of commercialized event The Clash probably would have avoided, although they did win their first Grammy that night when “Westway To The World” won for Best Long Form Music Video.
In 2003, The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was rumored that Bruce Springsteen would join them to perform at the ceremony. The classic lineup of Strummer/Jones/Simonon/Headon were in talks to reunite to perform at the ceremony and play on stage for the first time since 1982, but Simonon was always against a reunion. In the end, Strummer’s death in December 2002 put paid to the reunion of the original lineup, and the remaining members declined to play. Said Simonon: “I think it’s better for The Clash to play in front of their public, rather than a seated and booted audience.”
According to Mick Jones, his guitar solo was played back backwards (done by flipping over the tape) and overdubbed onto the track.
This is one of the most popular Clash songs, and has been used in many commercials and soundtracks. It was used in promos counting down the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, as well as the film soundtracks forIntimacy,Billy Elliot, and the James Bond movieDie Another Day(2002).
The lyrics contain an observation about how society often turns to pop music to make them feel better about world events, and how The Clash didn’t want to become false idols for folks looking for escapism. This can be heard in the line, “Don’t look to us – phoney Beatlemania (a reference to The Beatles’ massive fanbase in the ’60s) has bitten the dust!” (Mick Jones said the line was “aimed at the touristy soundalike rock bands in London in the late ’70s.)
There’s also a subtle reference to Joe Strummer’s brush with Hepatitis in 1978 with the mention of “yellowy eyes.”
A check of the archives reveals that this song – hailed by many music journalists as a monumental track – received far from unanimous praise from critics when it was released. David Hepworth inSmash Hitscriticized the band for playing too loud in the studio. “Why won’t Joe Strummer let us hear more than one word in every three? Until they face those elementary facts, sides like ‘London Calling’ will always fail to condense all that fury and grandeur into a truly great record,” he wrote.
The sales figures and continuing popularity of the song suggest that not many other people had the same problem!
The video was filmed at Cadogan Pier, next to the Albert Bridge in Battersea Park in London. It was directed by longtime friend of the band Don Letts, and made on a wet night in December 1979 which sees the band performing on a barge. Letts didn’t have a happy time doing the video. He explained:
“Now me, I am a land-lover, I can’t swim. Don Letts does not know that the Thames has a tide. So we put the cameras in a boat, low tide, the cameras are 15 feet too low. I didn’t realize that rivers flow, so I thought the camera would be bouncing up and down nicely in front of the pier. But no, the camera keeps drifting away from the bank. Then it starts to rain. I am a bit out of my depth here, but I’m going with it and The Clash are doing their thing. The group doing their thing was all it needed to be a great video. That is a good example of us turning adversity to our advantage.”
Joe Strummer does some ominous echoed cackling about two minutes into this song. He was essentially imitating a seagull, as heard on the Otis Redding song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Many cover versions of this song have been recorded, including variants by One King Down, Stroh, and the NC Thirteens. Bob Dylan covered the song during his 2005 London residency, and Bruce Springsteen has followed up from his performance of the song at the 2003 Grammys by performing it at some of his concerts, including on his 2009London Calling: Live in Hyde Park DVD, which is named after the song.
In late 1991, the Irish folk-punk band The Pogues sacked lead singer Shane MacGowan just at the height of their fame. Joe Strummer, by now well split up from The Clash, agreed to take over on vocals for a couple of years until he departed in 1993 on good terms – he didn’t want to be the permanent replacement for MacGowan and wanted to do his own thing. During his time with the Pogues, the band would often play a searing version of “London Calling” at live shows. Like many strong Clash songs, Strummer took it with him to play with his solo band the Mescaleros in the late 1990s.
Authorship of this song was credited to Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but at some point the other two members of the band, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon, were added.
This was featured in the October 13, 2013Funny Or Dieepisode, where a costumed Fred Armisen interviewed the real Mick Jones and Paul Simonon.