Monday, November 26, 2012

London Called 32 Years Ago. I Just Picked Up The Phone.

Four Horsemen - The Clash (mp3)

The first time I ever heard The Clash’s London Calling was... six days ago.

Seriously, do you know how fucking cool it is to be THAT late to a party?! I’m so late that the dudes who choked on their own vomit have long been buried, and the gals who got knocked up are already nursing babes to their breasts. It’s in moments like these that I feel like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but, like, in reverse.

When I pushed play on November 20, 2012, I was as close to a Clash virgin as a modern music lover could be regarding an album Rolling Stone claimed as the best album of the ‘80s and the 8th Greatest Album of All Time. Plenty of other critics have expressed similar high praise, yet I remained clueless.

Sure, I knew “Train in Vain” and “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” the Clash songs that entered the sock hop lexicon of my ‘80s youth, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I’d saved up my Clash Chastity for this moment, and I was ready to give myself over to the ecstasy.

Thirty seconds into “London Calling,” the eponymous first song, the sex analogy held. Waiting for stars to fill my eyes, for that muscle-quaking rush, instead I was just kinda looking around and counting the ceiling tiles, wondering what all the fuss was about. I had to readjust my expectations.

What had I expected? Instant and undeniable greatness? An opening riff to knock me through the drywall? The punk rock equivalent of an apple falling on Newton’s noggin, a crunching guitar chord that had me shouting “Aha! Holy shit!” to the musical gods?

While some of the greatest albums have obvious moments of immortality, most are immortal for the forest, not merely a few pretty trees, and London Calling is indeed a Giant Redwood Forest of musical awesomeness that gets more impressive the longer and deeper into it you explore.

My first surprising realization was this: I expected more Sex Pistols and less Replacements.

As a fairly devoted ‘Mats fan from the mid-80s on, halfway through London Calling, I felt guilty. It was like I’d read The Lord of the Rings trilogy without having first read The Hobbit. Sure, the trilogy still kicks ass, but without Bilbo, there’s never a Frodo! Without Strummer and Jones, there’s no way Westerburg and the Stinsons follow their yellow brick road.

My second surprising realization was how... normal... London Calling sounded. For a cornerstone punk album, it barely sounded punk at all. Sure, the lyrics and the delivery have that punk sheen, an annoyance and anger at the sold-out masses of moronitude, but the song structure and the riffs seemed downright standard fare to my 2012 ears.

In hindsight -- and I’m sorry that most of this will be obvious to Clash fans and others out there -- what was fairly groundbreaking in in 1979 so powerfully influenced the next two decades of rock music, which is to say the music I grew up on, that by 2012 the Clash’s sound hardly stands out. They’ve been assimilated. If the Clash gave the Replacements a guiding light, they served as a buoy for hundreds of other bands who stole their riffs, or their 'tudes, or both.

I feel like Charlton Heston when he saw the Statue of Liberty. But the first time you saw that movie, your surprise was the same as his, and those smart monkeys knew more, and they laughed at you.

Well, you damned dirty apes, I’m catching up... and beware when I do!


Bob said...

Maybe the album cover should have been your first clue--a visual that's referencing Pete Townshend rather than Sid Vicious. I guess I never thought of the Clash as all that punk, but then, like many people, I had my own latecoming, as in, not "discovering" the Clash UNTIL London Calling.

London Calling stands out for its literate, tuneful songs and the back and forth between Joe Strummer's and Mick Jones' outlooks. I think they are too "expansive" for punk, and that their progression is more like Elvis Costello's--from anger to social conscience. Elvis had better teeth, though.

G. B. Miller said...

Interesting post and follow up comment.

I have the CD sitting in my cabinet, but I haven't pulled the trigger in playing it, mostly because I'm suffering from burnout of the aforementioned Clash songs that are wickedly overkilled on the radio.

I think (like Bob said) you have to look and listen to the band from the perspective of the time frame when they came out.

There is a very good biopic of Joe Strummer that came out a few years ago that gives a good overview of the Clash and thier music that I would recommend viewing. Afterwards, pop the c.d. in again and give it another whirl.

Daisy said...

I became aware of the song London Calling about 3 years ago as a result of a late night drunken phone call from a bar in London, but all this time I thought it was by the Smiths. Oh. Well. Being late to the party is nothing new for me.

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