A lot of people confuse punk rockers to only be a green, spiky, mohawked, tattooed, nihilistic bunch of rebels, screaming nonsensically into their mikes, tearing their instruments apart and spitting on people. Well, they should actually be compared to the artsy Bohemians of the Moulin rouge days. Their music is orchestrated and their politically-charged lyrics should be compared to modern-day poetry. What mattered in punk weren’t the clothes or the music, but the DIY attitude behind them. And, one of the bands who pioneered this attitude was The Clash.
They were one of the earliest British punk rock bands and have been a major influence for the alternative rock genre for bands such as U2, The Ramones, Green Day, The Hives and even M.I.A of ‘Paper Planes’ fame. Despite their rebellious attitude and their leftist ideologies, they achieved mainstream success and critical acclaim, which was an unheard phenomenon for a punk band at the time.
‘London Calling’ is considered the band’s finest hit even though most mainstream labels received at the post-apocalyptic lyrics with apprehension. The song was the band’s first overseas hit, making it to the top music charts in the US and Australia. The song is reminiscent of the good old disco days. With its swinging rhythms and powerful bass lines, it would make anyone want to dance. But after you are done doing your beer-induced jig, do pay attention to the lyrics.
The Clash manages to critique just about everything under the sun. The title ‘London Calling’ is with reference to how the BBC radio identified themselves during WWII in British-occupied countries. The band goes on to talk about how mainstream bands like The Beatles make it difficult for the Punk Movement to thrive. Frontman Joe Strummer sings about the brutality of the police officers with their ‘truncheon’ (or ‘batons’ as they are better known), about the growing concerns of global warming, starvation, nuclear warfare and even the rising water level of the Thames. At the very end of this song, the Morse code for S-O-S can be heard, reflecting the idea of how Strummer wanted the ‘boys’ and girls’ to come out their ‘closet’ and be a part of their fictional revolution.
So, why is this song so controversial? Maybe it’s because it talks about British misery, injustice and the coldness of London towards the concerns of its citizens. In an interview in 2002, Joe Strummer revealed that the reason why people are terrified of ‘London Calling’ is because it talks about the troubles of the common man and the looming threat of censorship. It is a song about terrorism but it’s got nothing to do with the kind of terrorism we know today. However, this did not stop the London police from detaining Harraj Mann, a mobile phone salesman who was humming ‘London Calling’ on the way to the airport. A paranoid taxi driver called the authorities on Harraj after he requested the cabbie to turn up the volume when the song was playing. After being detained for several hours, Harraj missed his flight because of his taste in music.
This wasn’t the first time someone was harassed by the police over a Clash song. In 2004, Mike Devine was questioned by a ‘special task force’ after he texted the lyrics of another song called ‘Tommy Gun’ because they included the words ‘gun’ and jetliner’. Another one of their songs ‘Rock the Casbah’ was banned from being played on the radio after 9/11. The British did the same during The Gulf War.
Much of The Clash’s ethos can be found in the way the band treated the fans. It was truly a ‘people’s band’, pricing their tickets and souvenirs at a reasonable fee even at the peak of their popularity. Bono has famously commented that The Clash wrote the rulebook for U2.
What is most ironic about ‘London Calling’ is that, it is now set to be the anthem of the 2012 Olympic Games for their publicity campaign. This is a perfect example of how a song becomes so familiar that its original meaning is lost. The same can be said for Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ which was originally meant to be an anti-Vietnam ballad but is now misinterpreted to follow patriotic and nationalistic themes. While the song is meant to be a cry for help for Springsteen because of his loss in national pride, the song was used extensively for Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. Sigh. The heights of stupidity never cease to amaze me.