500 Greatest Songs of All Time

15

The Clash, 'London Calling'

Writers: Mick Jones, Joe Strummer
Producer: Guy Stevens
Released: Jan. '80, Epic
Did not chart

Named after the call signal of the BBC's World Service broadcasts, the title alarm of the Clash's third album was an SOS from the heart of darkness. When they recorded the song, the Clash — British punk's most political and uncompromising band — were without management and sinking in debt. Around them, Britain was suffocating in crisis: soaring unemployment, racial conflict, widespread drug use. "We felt that we were struggling," Joe Strummer said, "about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us."

Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones channeled that trial and worry into a song, produced with hellbent atmosphere by Guy Stevens, that sounded like the Clash marching into battle: Strummer and Jones punching their guitars in metallic unison with Paul Simonon's thumping bass and Topper Headon's rifle-crack drumming. Over that urgency, Strummer howled through a catalog of disasters, real and imagined. The "nuclear error" referred to the March 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The line "London is drowning/And I live by the river" — Don Letts' video of the Clash shows them playing the song on a boat on the Thames in drenching rain — was based on local folklore. "They say that if the Thames ever flooded, we'd all be underwater," Jones said — except Strummer was living in a high-rise flat at the time, "so he wouldn't have drowned."

Appears on: London Calling (Epic) 

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