London, England

London Calling by The Clash

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The ice age is coming
The sun is zooming in
Engines stop running
And the wheat is growing thin Read full Lyrics
Released on the 1979 album of the same name, "London Calling" is perhaps The Clash's most famous and successful release: a post-apocalyptic anthem with nihilistic lyrics laid over a jaunty reggae beat. London Calling, the band's third studio album, represented a change in direction for the band as the album incorporates elements from various musical styles such as reggae, ska, jazz, soul and rockabilly with far greater affect than any of their previous albums. The album also deals with more grown-up themes such as unemployment, racial tension, social displacement, and drug use. These more mature themes resonated with fans as the album went on to sell more than five million copies worldwide and was named one of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone in 2003.

London – the capital of England nestled in the southeastern part of the country – was the site of numerous terrorist attacks during the 1970s, as well as the site of growing social and racial unrest which eventually lead to the Brixton riots of 1981. Due to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) targeted London with a variety of explosive devices. From 1973 to 1979, a staggering 12 separate attacks occurred in England's capital, injuring hundreds of people in and around the city. Given this era of violence and tragedy, it's no wonder Clash lead singer Joe Strummer seemed disillusioned with life.

London in 1979, looking a little bleak
Photo: daves_archive_1, via flickr, CC 2.0

"London Calling," written by Strummer and band mate Mick Jones, makes various allusions to concerning events taking place in England's capital and around the world. The title of the song itself refers to the radio identification used during World War II by the BBC World Service station, which broadcast to the occupied countries from London. "We felt that we were struggling, about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails, and there was no one there to help us," said Strummer. The chorus of the song refers to various apocalyptic occurrences with reference to "a nuclear error." This reflects Strummer's concern about the partial nuclear meltdown, which occurred at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant in March 1979. The next line of the chorus doesn't offer much more hope, "London is drowning and I live by the river," alluding to a speculation that should the River Thames flood, most of central London would be destroyed; a concern which lead to the construction of the Thames Barrier completed in 1982.

Strummer's concern about the general state of the planet wasn't limited to disasters. He was also concerned about the state of society, in particular, police brutality, referencing the swing of the truncheon – the standard issue weapon carried by London Metropolitan Police at the time. Strummer's social criticism doesn't end there, however, as he goes on to make a statement about casual drug use with the line "We ain't got no high, except for that one with the yellowy eyes." The 1970s were a time of personal turmoil, as well, for the band as they struggled with ever increasing debt, a lack of management, and a series of setbacks with their record label. The lyrics of "London Calling" reflect their desperation, particularly "Now don't look to us, phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust" after the punk rock boom ended two years before the release of their third album.

Musically, "London Calling" reflects Strummer's depressed outlook, foregoing their usual frenzied punk rock chord progressions, by opting for a minor key. This lends the song a more morose quality, further emphasized by the mid-tempo pace maintained by Headon's martial drumming in time with a staccato guitar line. Simonon's pulsating bass line lends the song a haunting quality accentuated by Strummer's baleful delivery of the pointed lyrics. Strummer howls during the instrumental bridge providing the song with an even greater sense of foreboding. The last cryptic line, "I never felt so much a-like..." fades away over Morse code feedback spelling out S-O-S and leaving listeners with a residual feeling of paranoia and despair.

Despite having been released more than 30 years ago, "London Calling" remains a popular radio classic and alternative club staple as the modern generation continues to struggle with similar socio-economic problems referenced in the song.

Suzanne van Rooyen
December 11, 2014

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me.
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Comments: 1

  • Svetlana from TjpndlfstrvvsaI think of Running With Scissors as his best album, but this song is right up there with his best. I hope we get to see him in concert again this year; I lost count, but I would guess we have seen him 10-12 times and it is aywlas awesome. I still remember 4-5 years back, he came out for a second encore and did Albequerque and the hardcore fans went ballistic for the whole 12-13 minutes (the studio track is over eleven, but he added more in). Love that guy!
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