London Calling

Punk Rock band The Clash may seem like an odd choice of an exhibition for the Museum of London to host, but for a brief time, it was a popular attraction for people of several generations. Based on one of the band’s best songs, London Calling, the exhibition examined how the capital city influenced the popular 20th-century British band.

The Clash in 1980

The Clash was formed in 1976 at a time when Punk was the leading genre of music. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon, The Clash became pioneers of a blend of styles, including reggae, dub, funk, jazz and hip hop. Although they had several turbulent years, the band went on to be one of the most iconic of the era, reaching the Top 10 in the USA.

Before forming The Clash, singer and guitarist John Graham Mellor (1952-2002) played in a band called The 101’ers. He quickly dropped his real name and went under the stage name Joe Strummer, referencing his guitar playing skills. After a gig, Strummer was approached by bass player Paul Simonon (b.1955) and guitarist Mick Jones (b.1955) to ask if he would be interested in joining a band they were forming. Keith Levene (b.1957), a guitarist, was also a founding member of The Clash but was soon fired due to his lack of interest in the band and rumoured use of drugs.

With Strummer on board, The Clash came to life under the management of Bernard Rhodes (b.1944), a record producer who also had connections with the influential punk rock band The Sex Pistols. Rhodes was a rather unorthodox manager and may have influenced the band’s manifesto: “We’re anti-Fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative.”

Bernard Rhodes encouraged the band to write about the issues in society that affected their lives. For example, living in run-down areas of London, The Clash were regularly witnessing racism, violence and trouble with the police, all of which crept into their lyrics. They also wrote about drugs, boredom and tower blocks. Their music was influenced by the areas they lived, for example, Simonon had a preference for reggae after growing up in Brixton and Ladbroke Grove where there was a growing population of blacks and West Indians.

In January 1977, The Clash signed up with American broadcasting network CBS and welcomed the drummer, Terry Chimes (1956) to the band. Together, they released their first album, The Clash, which featured tracks such as London’s Burning and White Riot. The latter was in reference to police retaliation against a group of rioting black people.

Terry Chimes did not last long with the band, and Mick Jones revealed in an interview, “I don’t think Terry was officially hired or anything. He had just been playing with us.” After Chimes had left the band, The Clash held auditions for a new drummer and, despite having hundreds of applicants, there was only one man they thought good enough: “We must have tried every drummer that then had a kit. I mean every drummer in London. I think we counted 205. And that’s why we were lost until we found Topper Headon.” (Joe Strummer)

Nicholas Bowen “Topper” Headon, so nicknamed because he resembled Mickey the Monkey in the Topper comic books, joined The Clash intending to make a name for himself as a drummer before moving on to bigger things. Yet, he soon realised the band’s potential and stayed with them for four and a half years until he was forced to leave due to heroin addiction in 1982.

Headon brought a new dimension to the band, having grown up in Dover, Kent rather than London. As well as the drums, he could play the guitar, bass and piano when needed, which was a real bonus for the band. A year after Headon had joined, The Clash released their second, more controversial album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope.

By this time, The Clash was gaining fans in America as well as England, touring the USA twice in 1979. Despite this, they continued to get themselves in trouble with the police, as they had done in their teens and were arrested for shooting racing pigeons in Camden, London, and for starting a punch-up with bouncers in Glasgow. These violent actions were a result of pent up emotions and even followed them onto the stage where Simonon smashed his bass guitar in frustration.

Simonon’s destruction was caught on camera by photographer Pennie Smith (b.1949), which they used on the cover of their next album, London Calling. The album, which features a song of the same name, was voted the best album of the 1980s and remains at number eight in the Greatest Albums Of All Time. It was this album and song title that inspired the Museum of London’s exhibition.

London Calling was released in 1979 (1980 in the USA) and was named after the BBC World Service’s radio identification: “This is London calling …” used in broadcasts during the Second World War. The song, written by Strummer and Jones, features a politically charged rant that reflected their apocalyptic fears, particularly after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, which caused panic in the area.

The song also reflected concerns about the River Thames flooding: “London is drowning / And I live by the river”. Flooding had been a problem in London for centuries but, after the North Sea flood of 1953, which affected the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, people began to fear the River Thames could burst its banks and flood the entirety of Central London. In order to prevent such an event, discussions began about various methods, resulting in the construction of the Thames Barrier. When The Clash wrote London Calling, the barrier had already been under construction for five years but would not be completed until 1984.

The Clash also alluded to their run-ins with the police: “We ain’t got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing”. Having attended many riots in London, members of the band were very familiar with the Metropolitan Police’s truncheons, which were standard equipment at the time. A truncheon or baton is a compliance tool and defensive weapon used by the police until the 1990s. The first “policeman’s club” was recorded in 1856 and if it had the Royal Crest painted on it, it also acted as a Warrant Card. The Clash’s experience with these truncheons would have been negative, making the police appear to be attacking people rather than trying to bring situations to order.

Despite being a popular record, London Calling was criticised due to its allusion to recreational drugs: “We ain’t got no high / Except for that one with the yellowy eyes”. It is likely all the band members had some experience with drugs or addiction as it turned out in Headon’s case. The song also expressed their financial worries. The Clash had never intended to make money with their music but sales had done well at the beginning. A few years on, their income had dwindled and they were facing high debts. “Now don’t look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. “Beatlemania” refers to the fan frenzy surrounding The Beatles during the 1960s. The Clash had a similar but briefer experience that ended in 1977.

In emphasis of all these worries and potential apocalyptic dangers, the song fades out to a beat that spells S-O-S in Morse Code. Despite the pessimistic nature of the lyrics, London Calling went to number 11 in the UK Charts and has been hailed by critics as their best song. In recent years, the track has been used by Arsenal Football Club as an opening anthem at home games.

Regardless of their success with London Calling, trouble continued to find The Clash, beginning with Strummer’s arrest in Hamburg, Germany after hitting a member of the audience over the head with his guitar. The incident occurred after a group of people disrupted the concert because they were disappointed in the music choices. The Clash was moving away from the Punk Rock genre and experimenting with other styles of music, which they released in 1980 on their fourth album, Sandinista!

Sandinista! was named after the socialist political party Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had just seized power in Nicaragua, thus ending the dictatorial Somoza dynasty. The Clash, who identified with left-wing ideological sentiments were in favour of these left-wing rebels. Many of the tracks on the album referred to political issues around the world, for instance, Washington Bullets, which mentions the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Dalai Lama, and the death of communist Victor Jara (1932-73).

The Clash continued to be daring in their style of music, which increased their popularity, particularly in the USA. Between May and June 1981, the band performed 17 times at Bond’s Casino in New York’s Times Square where they became aware of post-Vietnam War opinions, which became the basis of their next album, Combat Rock.

Combat Rock reached number two in the UK album charts and number seven in the United States. One track, Straight To Hell, referenced the children fathered by American soldiers to Vietnamese mothers and then abandoned. Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah were two of the more popular tunes on the album. The latter was written by Topper Headon who, unfortunately, had to leave the band due to his health-damaging addiction before the track reached the top ten in the USA.

The band continued for a while without Headon but the following year, 1983, Mick Jones decided to leave the band. The Clash had already been working on their sixth album, Cut the Crap, but by the time it was released, the group had broken up.

The break-up was not the end of the band members’ music career, and each musician went on to make new achievements. Mick Jones formed a new band called Big Audio Dynamite and was joined by Strummer who helped write the band’s second album. Paul Simonon, on the other hand, kept his hand in the music business but also decided to become an oil painter.

Topper Headon played the drums for a variety of bands after he left The Clash, but his heroin addiction was rapidly eating up all his money. He briefly worked as a minicab driver to finance his addiction but ended up busking in desperation on bongo drums on the London Underground. In the late 1980s, Headon was diagnosed with Hepatitis C as a result of his alcohol and drug intake, leading to severe liver problems. Fortunately, he responded to treatment and has been the spokesman for the Hepatitis C Trust since 2007. Unfortunately, this was not his only disease to battle. In 2003, Headon was diagnosed with hyperkyphosis, a curvature of the back. Back problems are common for drummers, but this condition needed intense posture adjustment treatment to overcome. Thankfully, for the last ten years, Headon has lived a fairly healthy life in his home town of Dover.

Sadly, Joe Strummer unexpectedly passed away in December 2002 from a congenital heart defect. Although he had become involved with other bands since The Clash‘s break-up, it was his time with The Clash that fans remember. A month after his death, The Clash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Strummer was given a special tribute at the Grammy Awards in February 2003. Elvis Costello (b.1954), Bruce Springsteen (b.1949), Steven Van Zandt (b.1950), Dave Grohl (b.1969), Pete Thomas (b.1954), and Tony Kanal (b.1970) paid their respects to the late musician at the presentation ceremony by singing London Calling. Also in his honour, his friends and family set up the Joe Strummer Foundation, which gives opportunities and support to musicians and music projects around the world.

As the exhibition at the Museum of London proved, The Clash continues to be loved by many fans. Visitors were keen to see the drum sticks and guitars used by the band, particularly the one Strummer smashed on stage. Handwritten notes revealed how The Clash planned out their albums and wrote their songs, which would have been a great inspiration for upcoming musicians. The Clash has influenced many people over the years, including The White Stripes (1997-2011) and the Arctic Monkeys (2002-present).

The Clash may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and they certainly were not what people would expect to find at the Museum of London. Nonetheless, they form part of London’s history, capturing events, beliefs and fears from a working-class perspective. Regardless as to whether the exhibition gained the band more fans or not, it is always worth looking into new topics and eras. Perhaps some will discover something interesting, if not, at least some things may be worth knowing for potential future pub quizzes!

2 thoughts on “London Calling

  1. It doesn’t matter what type of exhibition Hazel always produces class material. How interesting, I had vaguely heard the name of the group but now feel educated enough to appreciate their work. Hazel has captured perfectly the essence of the band. They wanted to be authentic, they kept record prices low so fans could buy them, they wrote about what they saw and experienced at first hand. Thank you for bringing the band to life. You are a real gem.

  2. This may have been a departure for you Hazel but you have still managed to do a brilliant and very comprehensive account of this exhibition. Although The Clash passed me by when they were around I may just have to listen to one of their “songs”! It doesn’t mean I will like it but one has to be open to something new.

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