In tribute of the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s, world renowned, ‘London Calling’, the Museum of London is exhibiting a free and exclusive display that captures the making of and impact of one of the most influential British albums of all time. 

Formed in London in 1976, The Clash played a critical role in the wave of Punk Rock that swept Britain in the late 70s. With Joe Strummer as the lead vocalists and rhythm guitarist, Paul Simonon on bass, Topper Headon on drums and Mick Jones as co-lead vocalist and lead guitarist, the four became one of Britain’s most important and popular bands in the late 20th century. This was due to their attitude, ideologies, lyrics and perhaps most notably, to their lack of willing acceptance of ,the monotonous slug, that life was for the overwhelming majority of the working class.

With the phenomena of punk rock spreading across Britain, came a backlash against all forms of establishment and aristocracy, which The Clash embodied perfectly: subsequently being signed to CBS records in 1977. The Clash’s music spoke to the young working class and related to hardships faced that were failed to be addressed by the government. Their lyrics were loaded with socialist and left wing sentiments that animated and encouraged people to think about their situation and what could be done about it.

Music around this time had become a source of expression, release, inclusion and a sense of mutual understand for the young and working class. In a 1978 interview on Something Else, hosted by Douglas Rogericks, The Clash were joined with Labour M.P Joan Lestor to discuss the state of the country’s social and economic divide as well as young people’s interest in politics. Strummer felt as though they had a duty to enlighten and bring understanding of the importance and mechanics of politics in order to change people’s current situation. When asked by Lestor, what they would do about the fear of the rise of the far right and fascism in Britain, Simonon replied, “What we are doing as a group is playing reggae on stage…provoking an interest,” believing that their influence did have an effect on audiences and listeners of working class individuals within the political, social and racial turmoil in England. They liked to be identified as a, ‘news giving group’. The band maintained that they were the one that cared about the normal, working people, as reflected in pricing of their ticket sales. Even at their height of success, records and concert prices were kept relatively low as they resented the music industry’s money and profit making desires. During an interview with Tom Synder on The Tomorrow Show, Headon stated that, “We haven’t forgotten what it was like, all the other groups have forgotten what it was like,” whilst being asked what their motivation was for selling records as discount prices. Their spirit and image captured the minds of many young rock musicians and helped pave a new way of expressing views and escaping typical and familiar lifestyle offered to most and that “the door of possibility had been swung open”. In the same interview, Mick Jones later added, “we got out…and we wanted to show other people that it is possible to get out.” With this, The Clash are now deemed as one of Britain’s most important and influential band, remembered not only for their music, but their image and wanting for change.

The band’s third studio album, on which this exhibition is based, was released on the 14th December 1979. London Calling was a step away from limitations of punk and instead infused a range of genres including; reggae, pop, rockabilly, soul, jazz, funk, and dub. These influenced and reached a new wider spectrum of people as it covered a huge range that spoke to a variety of people. With four sides, 19 songs and over sixty-five minutes of ardent and intense suit for social justice and equality, this album gave The Clash the position of “the only band that matters”.

Written, recorded and produced in a time of riots, strikes, recession, political turmoil and beginning of Thatcherism, London Calling summed up and spoke to and for a nation of working class and the oppressed: later earning Rolling Stone Magazine’s title for the best album of the 80’s. 

From football matches to film soundtrack, the impact, singles off the album has had, still lives on. With it’s lyrics being as relevant today as it stood forty years ago. Ironically, these songs that were designed to critique and test the name of the British establishment, but are now proudly present as one of Britain’s finest example of identity and culture, as it emulates the British spirit and mood of the time, that still continues to live on.

It is impossible not to mention the iconic album sleeve accompanying the record. Taken by Pennie Smith, whom toured with the band as their photographer throughout their career, the image was originally not seen as suitable for the album cover. After taking the images of bassist Simonon smashing his bass whilst onstage as he, “didn’t have much respect for them in the first place”, Smith, “spent the remainder of the night after they had seen the contacts, trying to persuade Joe that they wouldn’t make a very good front cover, as it was too out of focus”. However, after being overruled by Strummer and cartoonist Ray Lowry, the black and white image was used as well as being accompanied by the albums’s title in green and pink lettering. This was in resemblance to Elvis Presley’s debut album realised over twenty year’s previously. To this day, the sleeve is recognised world-wide and has been the subject of many t-shirts and other types of fan merchandise and memorabilia.

Upon visiting the exhibition, you are met with the music of live performances and studio recordings of the band’s singles off the album that create a pleasant atmosphere whilst you are captivated from the array of notes and scribbles that then where brought to life in a studio. Music and history lovers alike, would be fascinated by reading original scruffy song books and lyric attempts that are now considered to be some of the best ever written. It helps to get a real sense and understanding of what went into making the album that is now part of history and why it was so important to, not only the band, but to those who felt let down by the society and construction in which they were apart of. The exhibition also showcases track-lists, newspaper articles, photos, originally clothing, vinyl sleeves and impressively the original broken bass guitar used for the album’s cover. 

I would urge anyone able to do so, to visit the this free exclusive display (closing on the 19th April 2020). Whether you were there to witness it all unfold or only know of The Clash’s existence subsequently, this display helps to grasp a deeper understand of the importance of music in modern British history and significance it has had. It is deservingly placed in the heart of London as the legacy of The Clash and their iconic album is now deep rooted in London’s story and fascination and allure from the outside world. 

Margot Phillipson