This is an apocalyptic song, detailing the many ways the world could end, including the coming of the ice age, starvation, and war. It was the song that best defined The Clash, who were known for lashing out against injustice and rebelling against the establishment, which is pretty much what punk rock was all about.
Joe Strummer explained in 1988 to Melody Maker: "I read about ten news reports in one day calling down all variety of plagues on us."
Singer Joe Strummer was a news junkie, and many of the images of doom in the lyrics came from news reports he read. The initial inspiration came in a conversation Strummer had with his then-fiancee Gaby Salter in a taxi ride home to their flat in World's End (appropriately). "There was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on, and we knew that London was susceptible to flooding. She told me to write something about that," noted Strummer in an interview with Uncut magazine.
The title came from the BBC World Service's radio station identification: "This is London calling..." The BBC used it during World War II.
The line "London is drowning and I live by the river" came from a saying in England that if the Thames river ever flooded, all of London would be underwater. Joe Strummer was living in a high-rise apartment, so he would have been OK.
The line about the "Nuclear Error" was inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in March 1979. This incident is also referred to in the lyrics to "Clampdown
" from the same album.
The Clash recorded this album after returning to England from a short US tour. The band was intrigued by American music as well as its rock'n'roll mythology, so much so that the album cover was a tribute to Elvis Presley's first album.
This was recorded at Wessex Studios, located in a former church in the Highbury district of North London. Many hit recordings had already come out of this studio, including singles and albums by the Sex Pistols, The Pretenders and the Tom Robinson Band. Chief engineer and studio manager Bill Price had developed a slew of unique recording techniques suited to the room.
Fellow Punk band The Damned were recording overdubs to their album Machine Gun Etiquette in the studio, and as they were old touring buddies of The Clash they roped Strummer and Mick Jones into record backing vocals for the title song to their album - the shouted lines of "second time around!" in that song are actually Strummer and Jones in uncredited cameos.
Interestingly, the band initially wrote most of the London Calling album at the Vanilla rehearsal studios near Vauxhall Bridge in London. Roadie Johnny Green explained: "It had the advantage of not looking like a studio. Out front of a garage. We wrote a sign out front saying 'we ain't here.' We weren't disturbed."
With a great vibe going in the studio and having already recorded some demos with The Who's soundman Bob Pridden, Strummer had the crazy idea to record the entire album there and bypass expensive studio time. CBS refused point blank, so Wessex was chosen because it had a similar intimacy to Vanilla. The original Vanilla demos were made available on the 25th anniversary edition of London Calling.
London Calling was a double album, but it wasn't supposed to be. The band were angry that CBS had priced their previous EP, The Cost of Living at £1.49, and so in the interests of their fans they insisted that London Calling be a double LP. CBS refused, so the band tried a different tactic: how about a free single on a one-disc LP? CBS agreed, but didn't notice that this free single disc would play at 33rpm and contain eight songs - therefore making it up to a double album! It then became nine when "Train in Vain" was tacked on to the end of the album after an NME single release fell through. "Train" arrived so late on that it isn't on the tracklisting on the album sleeve, and the only evidence of its existence is a stamp on the run-out groove and its presence on the end of side four. So in the end, London Calling was a 19-song double-LP retailing for the price of a single!
Rolling Stone magazine named London Calling the best album of the '80s. Pedantic readers noted that it was first released in the UK in December 1979. In the US it was released two weeks into January 1980, meaning that from a US perspective, it's a 1980s album. And if anyone can come up with a better alternative to best album of the '80s, Rolling Stone would love to hear from you!
According to NME magazine (3/16/91), we know that Paul Simonon smashed his bass guitar - as photographed on the cover of the album - at exactly 10:50 pm. This is because he broke his watch in the process and handed the busted bits to photographer Pennie Smith.
Smith thought the photo wouldn't be good for an album cover, citing that it was too blurry and out of focus. "I was wrong!" she admitted in the Westway to the World documentary!
As a tribute to Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer, who died in 2002, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello and Little Steven Van Zant played this at the close of the 2003 Grammys as a tribute to the band. All 4 played guitar and took turns on vocals. The Grammys is the type of commercialized event The Clash probably would have avoided, although they did win their first Grammy that night when "Westway To The World" won for Best Long Form Music Video.
In 2003, The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was rumored that Bruce Springsteen would join them to perform at the ceremony. The classic lineup of Strummer/Jones/Simonon/Headon were in talks to reunite to perform at the ceremony and play on stage for the first time since 1982, but Simonon was always against a reunion. In the end, Strummer's death in December 2002 put paid to the reunion of the original lineup, and the remaining members declined to play. Said Simonon: "I think it's better for The Clash to play in front of their public, rather than a seated and booted audience."
This is one of the most popular Clash songs, and has been used in many commercials and soundtracks. It was used in promos counting down the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, as well as the film soundtracks for Intimacy, Billy Elliot, and the James Bond movie Die Another Day (2002).
The lyrics contain an observation about how society often turns to Pop music to make them feel better about world events, and how The Clash didn't want to become false idols for folks looking for escapism. This can be heard in the line, "Don't look to us - phoney Beatlemania (a reference to The Beatles' massive fanbase in the 60s) has bitten the dust!"
There's also a subtle reference to Joe Strummer's brush with Hepatitis in 1978 with the mention of "yellowy eyes."
A check of the archives reveals that this song - hailed by many music journalists as a monumental track - received far from unanimous praise from critics when it was released. David Hepworth in Smash Hits criticized the band for playing too loud in the studio. "Why won't Joe Strummer let us hear more than one word in every three? Until they face those elementary facts, sides like 'London Calling' will always fail to condense all that fury and grandeur into a truly great record," he wrote.
The sales figures and continuing popularity of the song suggest that not many other people had the same problem!
The video was filmed at Cadogan Pier, next to the Albert Bridge in Battersea Park in London. It was directed by longtime friend of the band Don Letts, and made on a wet night in December 1979 which sees the band performing on a barge. Letts didn't have a happy time doing the video. He explained:
"Now me, I am a land-lover, I can't swim. Don Letts does not know that the Thames has a tide. So we put the cameras in a boat, low tide, the cameras are 15 feet too low. I didn't realize that rivers flow, so I thought the camera would be bouncing up and down nicely in front of the pier. But no, the camera keeps drifting away from the bank. Then it starts to rain. I am a bit out of my depth here, but I'm going with it and The Clash are doing their thing. The group doing their thing was all it needed to be a great video. That is a good example of us turning adversity to our advantage."
Many cover versions of this song have been recorded, including variants by One King Down, Stroh, and the NC Thirteens. Bob Dylan covered the song during his 2005 London residency, and Bruce Springsteen has followed up from his performance of the song at the 2003 Grammys by performing it at some of his concerts, including on his 2009 London Calling: Live in Hyde Park DVD, which is named after the song.
In late 1991, the Irish folk-punk band The Pogues sacked lead singer Shane MacGowan just at the height of their fame. Joe Strummer, by now well split up from The Clash, agreed to take over on vocals for a couple of years until he departed in 1993 on good terms - he didn't want to be the permanent replacement for MacGowan and wanted to do his own thing. During his time with the Pogues, the band would often play a searing version of "London Calling" at live shows. Like many strong Clash songs, Strummer took it with him to play with his solo band the Mescaleros in the late 1990s.
This was also featured in the October 13, 2013 Funny Or Die episode, where a costumed Fred Armisen interviewed the real Mick Jones and Paul Simonon.