Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray

Are rock albums worthy of a 500+ page book?  In this case, all I can say is there are worse ways to spend one's time.  I liked the book.  Marcus Gray's detailed study of London Calling is much more than a by the numbers "making of"  account, but a portrait of a time eerily similar to our own.  The year 1979 witnessed the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, massive unemployment in the West, the end of detente after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the rise of conservative leaders, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  All  the songs on London Calling were an indirect response to those events, but also a dialogue with the past that offered some glimmers of hope for the future.  Route 19 Revisited will immerse you into the world of The Clash and make you reexamine your own world- in a good way.

The Clash (1976-1985) Joe Strummer (guitar, vocals), Mick Jones (guitar, vocals), Paul Simonon (bass), and Topper Headon (drums) burst onto the scene in 1976 as part of the "punk" movement.  During the mid 1970s, disillusioned youth were angry at the direction of popular music with corporate rock bands that played safe middle of the road music (Boston, Wings), ego driven bands who made their millions and then ignored their fans (The Rolling Stones), and pretentious "art" rock (Pink Floyd) (Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten was noted for wearing "Pink Floyd Sucks!" t-shirts).  The release of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols in 1977, dubbed "Year Zero" in the punk manifesto, sent a sledgehammer into the music industry. All the songs were under three minutes with sneering vocals spewing venom at anyone that pissed them off.  The punk manifesto divided the world up between the loves and the hates. The hates were establishment and "souless consumerists", while the loves were charismatic outlaws, amoral, unconventional. 

Their debut album, The Clash (1977) was received as a punk masterpiece, but also hinted at their ambition to go beyond the confines of punk.  While tracks like "Remote Control," "I'm So Bored with the USA," and "Career Opportunities" all fit into the anti-authoritarian punk ethos, others like "Police and Thieves" experimented with reggae.  After touring America with Bo Diddley, Strummer and Jones traveled to Jamaica to prepare for an album of all reggae music.  Their sophomore LP, Give Em' Enough Rope, which featured a cover with an army of Maoists marching over a dead American cowboy, flopped with critics and nearly forced the band out of their recording contract with CBS.

In 1979, the Clash regrouped and wrote one of rock's all-time great albums.  The iconic cover, with Simonson smashing his bass guitar, symbolized their rage at the bleak world of 1970s Great Britain. But as Gray points out, a recurring theme throughout the album is dealing with that anger and channeling it towards positive ends.  The styles of the songs move from 1950s rockabilly, disco, reggae, ska, rock - blending genres and styles in a way not seen since the Beatles.  Many of the songs originated from newspaper articles, books, and movies they were watching - with subjects running the gambit from the Spanish Civil War, Montgomery Clift, consumerism, coca-cola, and revolutionary politics.

Gray wrote an essay for every song that delves into the cinematic, literary, and musical influences behind them.  Like the Beatles, the Clash rarely created anything original, but took all their influences and shaped them into their own distinct style.  For instance, on "Death or Glory," Gray connects the ideas in the song to Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and the 1942 film Casablanca.  Strummer wrote "Spanish Bombs" after reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.  The opener, "London Calling," drew upon news headlines that predicted another ice age, the end of the world's oil supply, and a Third World War.  The lyric "zombies of death" came directly from the first modern zombie novel, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, another book they were reading.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in rock and roll history. Gray wrote that London Calling continues to endure not because of its dark themes, but its "defiant spirit, its power to uplift, and determination to lead by example . . .  it looks fear in the eye, then pulls on its boots and goes out to face the day."  Like any great album its meaning will change after repeated listening - and of course, be sure not to get lost in the supermarket.