In 1979, London Calling was sold with a sticker declaring that the Clash were the only band that matters, and they acted as if they believed their own hype. Broadcasting from the middle of the wild-eyed mess that was English punk rock, a milieu that often dismissed idealism as a liability, the band was criticized as being too serious, even too nice, while its peers, the Sex Pistols, were uniformly regarded as the real thing. Twenty-five years later, Sony has expanded this reissue of the group’s third album with some raw demo recordings and a DVD of documentary films, even as the basic political nightmares the Clash ripped into on the album have expanded exponentially. Then as now, it would seem that idealism was underrated. London Calling is indeed a serious, ridiculously ambitious punk album that resonates within a largely American history of rebellion — the lyrics invoke anti-heroes from tough-guy actor Robert Mitchum to gangsta legend Stagga Lee. It was originally underestimated as simply a bridge to reggae, classic rock & roll and pop radio.
True, “Lover’s Rock” is a jubilant rush of electric guitar and piano that breathlessly evokes the tenderness of reggae without becoming reggae. And the shuddering, unforgettable “Train in Vain,” which broke the band commercially in the States, is that rarest of hits: The hand claps and harmonica sound vaguely prefabricated, but Mick Jones’ wounded vocal feels utterly genuine, and the tune stays with you like a black eye.
The “lost” Clash songs unearthed for this release were lost for a reason: “Heart and Mind” is an anthemic throwaway, and “Lonesome Me,” had it been released, would have killed cow-punk before it was invented. But London Calling proper sounds crucial right now because of righteous blasts such as the title track, which wails like a hundred car alarms. “The Guns of Brixton” is a dread-sick skank, a reggae song that evinces punk’s political violence. The most astonishing number is “Clampdown,” which burns through the middle of the album with kneecap-cracking beats and a heroic three-note guitar solo. It may be the most defiant rock song ever committed to plastic. (An early version, “Working and Waiting,” is also here.) Feeling resigned to another four years of the Bush administration? Listen to London Calling and flame on, brothers and sisters.