Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Clash - London Calling

The Clash - London Calling
by Travis Morrison



I really do like the Clash a lot, but I cannot sit through London Calling and I have never witnessed anyone do it with my own eyes.

The Clash were a great pop singles band—the kind of band that is good for the two-CD box set. I think The Story of the Clash, a two-CD box set, is hot: I can listen to that the whole way through. Buddy Holly and the Police are two acts that also shined in the two-CD box. Smart pop overachievers are great on these, and yes, the Clash are smart pop overachievers like Buddy Holly and the Police. The rebel-chic thing is only a sign of how smart they were.

But like most smart pop overachievers—the Police!—the quality gulf between their hits and their other songs is big. This is why they don't deserve three CDs like Prince, or like nine or whatever is in that Ray Charles box. When Prince and Ray Charles exhale a bit and do some fucking around, they are such virtuosos that it'll be cool. That's why Prince's catalog is stuffed with hidden gems. That's why Prince's Sign ‘O’ the Times is the double album. Not all of it was built to dominate the culture, yet it all scores big. "Starfish and Coffee?" "Ballad of Dorothy Parker?" "Hot Thang?" Private and light music, no doubt. Not out to make headlines. But each one distinctive of its own merit, and worthy of anyone's time.

But bands like the Clash...when they don't have that dominate-the-culture wind in their sails that leads you to write big hits, they fall off. They don't have a lot of cold classics you don't hear in the street. What they do have is a sea of album tracks that sound the same. Would anyone really get excited to hear a mix CD that has this lineup:

"Brand New Cadillac"
"Jimmy Jazz"
"The Right Profile"
"Wrong 'Em Boyo"
"Koka Kola"
"The Card Cheat"
"Lover's Rock"
"Four Horsemen"
"Revolution Rock"

That's not a great set of songs. And that's half of London Calling.

The other half is amazing, no doubt. But if you're going to give me nine throwaways, I need to think, "you're throwing that away? Can I eat it?" like I do with Sign ‘O’ the Times, instead of, well, “that sounds like thirty of your other songs,” which is what I think as London Calling drags on.

I know it was a big thing for its time. I know, more-than-the-music, la la la. But that was then and this is now. I can't plow through that whole record and I've tried. I just pick and choose tracks, or wait for that new modern-classic-rock radio format to play the singles where they sound the best—in my car.

Travis Morrison fronted the revered D.C. quartet The Dismemberment Plan and currently leads the Travis Morrison Hellfighters.

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11 Comments:

Anonymous D. said...

Thanks for saying something that I've always believed but I never expressed anywhere. When I see all those five-star reviews on Amazon, I wonder if these people actually sit through the album start to finish, because I sure don't. But that's not to say that LC isn't brilliant in parts. The high points of this record ("LC", "Lost in the Supermarket", "Clampdown", and "Train in Vain") are tremendous - even today these songs sound as fresh as they did when the album first came out. This was really inventive, interesting rock - the spirit of punk drives this record, but at the same time, The Clash had expanded their sound beyond basic punk. LC also has two really good (but not great) songs on there also ("Guns of Brixton", "Spanish Bombs") that are worth a spin, but after that, the quality of this record drops off. The rest of LC isn't bad per se, but it's just not good enough to devote one's time to.

March 21, 2008 at 6:15 AM  
Blogger stephen b. said...

So basically, you're saying that London Calling is of about the same quality as Sandinista, which would be correct.

March 22, 2008 at 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I must call bullshit on this article for several reasons. Now, if it were about Sandinista – yes. That has no business being a triple album. Truth be told, it probably has no business being a double one. But it isn’t. Let the reasoning commence!

1. I’ve sat through “London Calling” several times. In fact, when the re-mastered set came out, me and (gasp!) 4 other people sat and listened to it all the way through. Twice. And are you really trying to say that “London Calling” sounds just like “Brand New Cadillac” or that “Train in Vain” sounds just like “Jimmy Jazz”? I guess you aren’t lying when you say you can’t sit through it because you obviously never even sat through it once.

2. I have a real problem labeling anything / everything as pop. Especially this whole hipster revisionist branding of all formerly labeled rock / punk music as “pop”. Seriously – what is pop? Does it mean eminently listenable? Does it mean 4/4 time? Does it mean verse, chorus, verse? Does it mean accessible? Or does it simply mean “popular”. One can’t just throw the term pop over everything like a music nerd’s version of salt.

3. It is false to label the Police and The Clash as “pop singles” artists and not Ray Charles. Did I miss a Ray Charles song that is radically different to any other Ray Charles song? And hello – you don’t think he is one of the most public musicians out there? That’s exactly why he can have multiple disc box-sets because everyone from elitist losers to my mom will buy it. If Ray Charles did have some sort of paradigm shifting album a la “Bitches Brew” – I haven’t heard it. However, I do love Prince and totally agree with you on that point. In fact, I’d have a hell of lot more respect and time for you if you wrote this piece on “Sign ‘O’ the Times” which is ludicrously under-rated. But even I can admit that there is filler on that. Would anyone be psyched to get a mixed CD with 10 “Sign” tracks on it? No. That’s why there are called mixes because there is a mix. Now, if it was a Clash mix – then yeah – I’ll take those 10 tracks. Better still, I’ll just listen my copy of “London Calling”.

4. And why is their “rebel-chic” thing a sign of how smart they were? Do you think that was a calculated move to fool all the real rebels? The opening notes of “London Calling” sound like donkey kicks to the belly of a fatten establishment; spewing mouthfuls of youthful anger, energy – busting itself open to the ills of the world and trying to right it. “London Calling” was one of the first albums to alchemically mix ska, roots and ragga with straight-up rock. Building on the melding blues and rock tradition piloted by Led Zep and the Stones - they started something that many musicians (including, dare I say Prince) ran with. In fact “Lover’s Rock” could be a Prince track. Its all rum-soaked sweet licks and kisses – I mean yeah Prince would Prince-it-up but still – the private and light touch you speak of is already there.

5. You can’t just dismiss context by saying “I know it was a big thing for its time. I know, more-than-the-music, la la la. But that was then and this is now.” The whole concept of context is criminally overlooked by today’s society. That’s why we get into wars in Iraq – because no one takes the time to look back and unpack that was then and this is now. Or in simpler terms: “Citizen Kane" big thing for its time. Blah blah blah, but I just can’t sit through it. It’s really long and it’s in black and white.”

However, I do have to you cut some slack when the whole point of a blog is to dispel hype; you're bound to get yourself into a corner now and then: "The Sistine Chapel? Total Crap!"

So I’d advise you to turn off that new modern-classic-rock radio format you admit to listening to (that could be the problem right there) and really listen to London Calling all the way through. You’ll not only be a better man for it, you’ll be a better music lover too.

March 27, 2008 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

Some pretty hot arguments you make, Anonymous, but the one that jumps out at me as wrongest is that Sign 'O' The Times is underrated...I believe it's not only well-known as Prince's best work, but according the majority of critics who voted in Pazz & Jop, 1987's best work...over Bruce, R.E.M. and U2!

I think the Prince analogy is what best connects Travis' argument, that London Calling isn't a bad album, but that with its constant anthemic onslaught it's hard to take for 19 tracks. "Jimmy Jazz" and "Brand New Cadillac" are the only songs in his list of dullards that I'd personally go to bat for (and I thought I loved the thing until he pointed out all the forgettables!)

By contrast, he's trying to say that Prince's filler knowingly serves its purpose as "private" and "light" moments taking shelters in the corners of a record you need only focus on hard if you're seeking a deep groove.

I think it's the constant bash-out of London Calling's pace that's tiresome, and I know the feeling. Disc 2 of Physical Graffiti wears me out. There's a reason why most punk albums are less than half of London Calling's length...know it or not, they want their power to last by chopping off early and making you salivate for more plays, not more and more tunes.

March 27, 2008 at 2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hot arguments; I like that. I’m going to start referring to my strong willed stylee as hot – as opposed to confrontational or jerky. But nice time is over kiss out the jams – I’m gonna get flame hot! White hot! Prince hot!

I do take your point about “Sign O the Times” being lauded by critics as his best work. But if we went by what critics deem as “best”, I shudder to think what we would be listen to. I know I don’t slavishly bow down to Pitchdork’s gospel and they certainly aren’t my arbiters of taste. And c’mon! Pazz and Jop – the clearing house of critic’s polls? The number of critics on that thing nearly equals the Voice’s circulation! I think my 92 yr. old grandma gets a ballot. Not the most discerning of groups. I guess that might be your point – so many “critics” picked it so that gives it some sort of credibility. Or perhaps your point is that my point is incorrect in that it isn’t under-rated and here is the proof. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m probably missing the point. Oh well, why should I break the habit of a lifetime now?

But just to be a jack-ass – I’ll point out “London Calling” was #1 on Pazz and Jop the year it came out, along with the quote “easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history” it also got more total points than “Sign”. (Prince’s “Dirty Mind” was 9th). I do wonder how “Sign” would have faired if had been released in its original triple album format.

It’s myopic to view the Clash as a punk band. That’s why you and colleague are missing the point of both The Clash and “London Calling”. You truly believe they were trying to be "anthemic" with every song? Please – that’s just crazy. Mick Jones thought that when he wrote “Train in Vain” that yeah – this is going to be the ANTHEM of love gone wrong songs. Of course he didn’t. The prism you are viewing this through not only skews your judgment, it interferes with your enjoyment of the music. You have the “punk” blinders on. Oh The Clash: punk. Done. That’s painfully narrow-minded for someone with your (and your team’s) breadth and depth of music knowledge and ardor.

Also, the Prince to Clash comparison genuinely does not make sense to me. I mean – is the point that Prince made a great double album and The Clash didn’t? Prince doesn’t write anthems and the Clash do? Prince isn’t relentless and the Clash is? (Prince is relentless. He’s just happens to be very funky with his relentlessness.) Prince varies up the pace, the beat and gets quiet and then loud? Are both of you really that unsophisticated in your listening skills that there needs to be an explicit a change of pace and beat for you to be able to discern that songs sound different?

However, deliver a mea culpa to Travis (seeing as you are his press secretary) on my misunderstanding of his terms “private” and “light”. Those terms are too obtuse for me to get my head around. Kind of like when every band was being described as angular. Huh? Angular?

It seems to me the bottom line both of you feel is “London Calling” should be one tight album, as opposed to two looser ones and The Clash should have known better and only picked the songs which ended up being hits. Well hindsight is 20/20. Still, Travis might want to inform bands that they should really try to only put songs on their albums that are going to be hits. Just between you, me and this blog, he might just be onto something with that idea.

March 28, 2008 at 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that other anonymous is kind of annoying.

Anyway, I must respectfully disagree with Travis.

I suppose the personal taste issue is pretty big, as I think Brand New Cadillac, Jimmy Jazz, the Right Profile, and the Card Cheat are just great songs, flat-out.

The Wrong 'em Boyo cover, on its own, is very good as well. Actually, I don't think there's a bad song on the whole album, save one. Anyway, it works as an excellent bridge between the dark-reggae of Guns of Brixton and the hugely anthematic Death or Glory. It is, basically, a really fun song, whilst still keeping the general outlaw/lowlife character theme going.

Koka Kola is also a bridge. It isn't great, but it's short and punchy and works well in between Death and the Card Cheat.

Lover's Rock is the one misstep on the album. It's long, it's slow, and the tune just isn't there to justify its existence on the album. Not a bad b-side, but not a great one either. It's a bit of flab that hurts the flow.

Four Horseman is a bit weak as well, but it works as it is pretty short and also because the thrilling Four Horsemen->I'm not Down->Revolution Rock sequence wouldn't work at all without it. I'm not Down is such a great pay-off, that I can't hear it without listening to the Four Horsemen first. The transition is untouchable. Revolution Rock is a great wind down. Fun and playful and a bit more relaxed, it still manages to be raucous enough to capture the spirit of what came before.

Train in Vain wasn't meant to be on the album, but it works well as a separate, bonus track and it's a great song, etc...

The best testament I can give to this being an album listen as opposed to a collection of songs to skip through is that I find it nearly impossible to listen to any of these songs on their own. I'll never include a single song on here on a playlist of random songs to listen to on a walk because I can't hear them without the whole. On the many, many Clash compilations, I find I skip all of the London Calling stuff.

Anyway, that's it. Rushed as the football has started so apologies for the scattered nature. Just had to chime in.

April 2, 2008 at 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Travis Morrison said...

Hi, Travis here... I'm not going to respond to things that are crazed mis-readings of what I wrote... welcome to the internet... but a few things caught my eye. Also, let's get one thing straight: I love a bunch of songs on this record to death.

"I'm not Down is such a great pay-off, that I can't hear it without listening to the Four Horsemen first. The transition is untouchable."

I went back to it and listened again. I agree with this, this is a sweet moment.

Actually, I noted that the way the songs faced each other were really artful. If I started a song 30 seconds before its end, and listened through, I felt like something exciting was happening, even with the tracks I think are bums. It's when I have to get through the entire song that I space out.


"I think Brand New Cadillac, Jimmy Jazz, the Right Profile, and the Card Cheat are just great songs, flat-out."

I went back to it and listened. No. Esp. the first two. Silly, but without a sense of humor.

"I'll never include a single song on here on a playlist of random songs to listen to on a walk because I can't hear them without the whole."

Fascinating. Totally opposite of how I react to the album. Damn you subjectivity!

"(Prince is relentless. He’s just happens to be very funky with his relentlessness.)"

This is so true. It's tragic. And it's gotten worse as he's gotten older. But I think Sign O' The Times is the one record where he drops the Olympian thing and actually seems like you and me, just much much more talented. He sounds like he's actually left the studio and met small children "Starfish and Coffee," waitresses "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker," and single moms "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man." Oh, he also went out and picked up the paper "Sign O The Times."

Oh, btw, after 11 years or whatever I still haven't called bullshit on "Seacaucus" by the Wrens. My estimation of it keeps rising. I would imagine it would be a double were it ever to come out on vinyl. That's an album that is much noisier than Prince, but still has places to get lost in.

April 5, 2008 at 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response Travis. I’m quietly confident I’ve overstayed my welcome (third post’s a charm!). One rather amazing outcome of this is that I had a snap me out of deep sleep panic (you know – like when you think you left the oven on). My snapper? What if Travis is right and “London Calling” isn’t the magical magicky magic I think it is? I re-read “Catcher in the Rye” as an adult and I have to say – not quite the amazing journey it was when I was a kooky young girl. So armed with the disc, my boyfriend, (an amazing musician himself who was just serenading me with Smiths songs yesterday. See what I did there? Made a link to the other post!), and a long car journey we put it to the test. Well, turns out I didn’t leave the oven on, and “London Calling” still rules. Hurrah! However, as Travis said “crazed mis-readings” and “Damn you subjectivity!” that’s the internet, and that’s taste and that’s music – a little slice of heaven for everyone. And I have to say the thought of Prince nipping out to his local newspaper kiosk makes me smile like a crazy person.

April 7, 2008 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger toddthesecond said...

Sorry to take so long to make this point/query but... WTF with the RAY CHARLES tangent? Have you never even heard of his Country and Western records? His instrumental jazz? If you think that stuff sounds like the rest of Ray Charles material -- or that his material didn't change significantly over the course of his VERY long career -- I'm not sure we should take much of what you say seriously...

Just my two cents. Thanks again to Travis for participating.

April 8, 2008 at 12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Hutlock - you're still the apple of my cyber eye!

April 11, 2008 at 5:36 AM  
Anonymous Travis Morrison said...

Todd #2--

I think I know what that guy meant. Ray Charles did have a default mode, and so did the Clash. But I can hear a lot more nuance in a coasting Ray than a coasting Clash. This could be perspective--I didn't grow up hearing punk much; I grew up hearing my dad's old R&B records, like Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, and Ike Turner. But I have a feeling there is just more nuance in a coasting Ray.

I actually think Ray's risky excursions, like the jazz and the country you speak of, are an area where the Clash can really sit right next to Ray Charles. Both made a real place for themselves on foreign and maybe hostile turf. Ray actually made a difference in country, and the Clash actually made a difference in the disco. (Their reggae stuff, eh--I think reggae people thought they were funny and inspiring, but I don't think they actually changed that game much musically.)

Also, let us note that I have put the Clash into the ring with PRINCE and RAY CHARLES. And they're still standing after ten rounds, if a little banged up. It's not like I'm comparing them to the Offspring. That's really high praise.

Good job on not becoming a flame war folks!

April 16, 2008 at 10:42 AM  

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