This Album Saved My Life: London Calling by The Clash
Ever read A Clockwork Orange? Seen the movie at least?
It’s a pretty intense read, and while some of its disturbing imagery is obscured by a futuristic youth slang, the murder and rape come across clear as day. Alex, the main character, is a violent leader of a gang of youths that partake in various ultra-violent criminal acts. Yet, in juxtaposition to his violent, youthful rage, Alex is also a young man who enjoys “a bit of the ol’ Ludvig Van“–a sane reprieve from the wild future he inhabits. It is a jarring image of the two sides of humanity–destruction and death on one side, high art and law on the other.
It is even more gruesome, then, when we see Alex “rehabilitated” towards the second half of he novel. Through a forced viewing of the violence of humanity, eyelids braced open, he sees the horrific history of humanity in full HD, set to Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Worse than the gruesome images to Alex is the trotting out of his favorite music, which would from that point forward make him ill every time he thought about or saw ultraviolence in his everyday life. His body is tormented to a point where he is driven to attempt suicide, rather than go through the pain of hearing his favorite music churn his stomach and make his brain wince with fear. Pavlovian to the core.
I get Alex’s torment, on an academic level at least. The one thing he loved most was used against him in an experiment in rehabilitation. My own experiment with The Clash, a part of a master’s thesis gone haywire, would make me convulse and twitch at the very opening strums of “London Calling.”
In early 2011, I handed in a thesis proposal and began the march towards graduation. My idea was a simple one: re-thinking The Clash not only as a seminal punk rock band, but as a band whose music was an alternative newspaper–using an idea that sprung from a Tom Snyder interview in the early 80′s. The Clash were not just a rock group but a “newsgiving group”–and one that was able to fill side after side of vinyl with the ailments of the world. I proposed that The Clash used their space as a popular band to bring light to issues ranging from the riots of West Indians in London to the rebellion of the Sandinista in Nicaragua to the Red Angels of New York City. In a pre-internet world, before mass media and he 24-hour news cycle, The Clash used their music to inform the public at large in a way that many bands would later emulate. U2 based most of the late 1980s after the blueprint The Clash created. And don’t get me started on every band they influenced with their infusion of politics and punk: Manic Street Preachers, Rancid, Public fucking Enemy. The Clash changed hearts and minds by explaining that the world was bigger than a city block, and that it was ours to change. Simple as that. To me, my argument was elementary. All I had to do now was write the damn thing.
And that was my problem. I would look at the books, the academic theories, the articles on The Clash and on popular culture and the contemporary problems of the real world and I would clam up immediately. I didn’t know what to do, how to convey what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say? The Clash fucking rule and Coldplay pales in comparison.
Not really. Okay, well, sort of.
My arguments seemed to re-invent the wheel as Joe Strummer howled the lyrics to “Jimmy Jazz” or “White Riot.” Their message seemed as clear in the 2011-2012 school year as they did in 1979. In 2014, the police brutality against young men and women of color makes the words of The Clash blatantly relevant. My thesis should read: “Go listen to self-titled and London Calling and get back to me, buddy.” I felt like there was nothing I could say that was as succinct as “Lost in the Supermarket” or “Rudy Can’t Fail.” Like a corporate dump site, I was muddying the clear rivers and streams of consciousness by my favorite band.
Plus, what could I really say that THOUSANDS of music critics and your roadie uncle haven’t been saying for the past four decades?
The worst part, besides the crippling fear of failure to The Clash and my advisors, was listening to and analyzing the many many Clash songs that make up their discography. I could not be poetic about my love of this band and in the same breath ACTIVELY point out each and every nuance and political point (both present and historical) that was highlighted in their songs and not become a bit jaded. I went through every album: their self-titled freshmen album all the way through the disastrous Cut the Crap. I documented how and why their albums tapped into the issues of the day and how they resonated in the contemporary. It was scary and revealing how little has changed since The Clash invaded the airwaves in the 1970s. Effeminate emo rockers in the middle east were being killed by radical groups, Indonesian punkers were being rounded up after benefit gigs to be “re-educated” in Aceh. Even today, “White Riot” means more and more as black men and women are killed in broad daylight. “A riot of my own” seems so apt as I yearn to stand behind by black brothers and sisters as an ally, but fear my own voice will silence theirs. It frustrated me to no end that, though my thesis argued otherwise, pop songs didn’t matter much when the world was still burning. The only song that mattered, it seemed, was the one Nero was playing on his violin as Rome burned.
In the end, I was scarred because my band fought for a voice from the masses to change the world–to, dare I say, “Rock the Casbah.” Even more, London Calling became unlistenable to me. I would turn it on and have to turn it off immediately as I began to break down each and every line that was howled from the greatest punk record of a generation. Alex and I were on the same wavelength: we did this to ourselves, but how dare they use it against us.
My research was well received. My advisor gave me props, and one of my classmates told me never to question my abilities after our symposium because I apparently was very good. Do I think it was good in the end? It could have been better, but there were parts I liked. Writers always say that–and it was definitely my freshmen work. It taught me how to write and how to complete an argument, no matter how flimsy it was. It was also 30+ pages longer than my classmates’ on average, allegedly. It was all experience at the end of the day.
It also killed my love for The Clash. I killed my love for The Clash.
It caused me so much anxiety, making sure my argument stuck to my favorite band, listening to them day in and day out. I was tired of The Clash–and that broke my heart. Like Alex, it caused convulsions in me to hear my favorite band. Twitching at the very mention of the band. A roll of the eyes when people told me something they learned about punk in the 1970s. Academic conferences on punk rock became unbearable pissing contests from 40-somethings defending their teenage years. The Clash was now bound to my academic body, bound to the problems of the world and my world. It drove my future plans, but it also made me into a machine–a machine fueled by anxiety and my next publication. Instead of thinking about my next steps in any sort of rational way I found myself trying to do everything at once. It stunted me, if I am serious with myself. And I lost my love for The Clash in a whirlwind of publication deadlines, doctoral applications, and teaching work. My record collection became another citation, another thing to analyze and engage. I lost pleasure that I found in Mick, Joe, Topper and Paul.
Every time The Clash came on my ipod, I had to turn it off. There was no joy in “Jimmy Jazz” or “Guns of Brixton”–just the dread(d) that each of those songs held in my everyday life. It was a phantom limb in reverse–I knew it was there, it was a part of me, but I wanted to cut it off. Amputate and let it be its own thing once more. For two, almost three years, it was nearly impossible for me to listen to The Clash without fear. This doubled down after I crashed my Jeep on a snowy I-90 on my way to see a friend in Ohio…while listening to The Story of the Clash Vol. 1 skippin’ on the CD player. It was an albatross around my neck.
Alex jumped out of a window and into a full body cast to find joy in life and his favorite music once again. It took a similar move of masochism on my part to get hold of my favorite band again as well.
I went into a Hot Topic and I perused their vinyl section. This in itself was a cringe worthy and painful experience, since I usually buy vinyl online so as to not attract haters wanting to pigeonhole my tastes as that of a hipster-bohemian 20-something. I fear the youthful gaze of mall-hardcore kids with mall-hardcore blaring from a boutique that surely makes Malcolm McLaren giggle somewhere in the afterlife. I go into this world aware that I am 1. Old and 2. Out of step (with the world), experiencing a sudden urge to complain. It passes as I see The Lawrence Arms Apathy and Exhaustion crammed between a copy of the Bouncing Souls self-titled and The Clash’s Give Em’ Enough Rope.
I flip through the various founding fathers, trying to repress the headache forming by the constant howls of some asshole hardcore-Falling-In-Reverse frontman over the speakers. London Calling jumps into my hands, only way I can explain it since I didn’t see it until it was there. I pull it all the way out, flip it over to make sure that–yep, its London Calling. Reprint, sure, but its London Calling. Through the physical, visual, and aural onslaught of the Hot Topic, I found my way to the cashier–but not before I got the half-lecture-half-thumbs-up of the “importance-of-this-album-and-why-your-purchase-is-so-goddamn-meaningful” from the over-aged manager with a Mohawk so stale you could cut a pie with it. It was a simple “great album, bro” but it seemed like so much more of a critique of my being.
I suddenly wanted to jump down his throat with the very implication that I didn’t understand the importance of London Calling. I wanted to explain that the name is not only that of a punk band screaming across the Atlantic, but a tongue-in-cheek reference to the BBC overseas transmission. A transmission that once shaped the world. That “Guns of Brixton” is a paranoid thumping against the conservative tremors in the United Kingdom. That you have no fucking clue how important this album is, you twat, if you think “Lost in a Supermarket” isn’t punk as fuck when talking about suburban isolation DECADES before Blur even knew what “parklife” was. I wanted to tell him why I cry when I hear “Spanish Bombs,” and about the beautiful woman from South Amboy I left in Ohio, whom I think of as my Spanish rose despite her fully Polish ancestry. My head was full of rapid-fire responses to his smug punk rock mentality. This manager of the alternative consumer irked me into feeling, into emotion over an album I could not even stomach for years because of my thesis. I was ready to go 12 rounds of punk rock cred with this overpaid mall mercenary of cool.
“Yeah, I wrote my master’s thesis on it.”
But in the end, I was just not up for cracking skulls for Joe Strummer and co. in a Hot Topic in Freehold. Why? Do I need to flaunt all this at 27? Getting it out in some brain sweat seemed to be enough, though I am sure that will turn into a stroke at 65 for keeping it in.
“And,” as Alex said, ” I was cured.”
Most people forget about the last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, most likely because it was omitted from the original North American version and left out of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. After Alex is cured, he goes back to his old posturing and ultraviolent ways. It is not too soon after, however, that a chance encounter with his one old droog that didn’t stab him in the back causes him to realize there is more to life than violence or being a “reeducated” machine. The 21st chapter makes the reader aware that we don’t live in a world of binaries. Just because classical music was used as a trigger for unlawful behavior, because I chose to write a thesis on The Clash, does not mean I have been “cured” or “ruined” by the experience. Nor does it mean that I am a part of an academic consciousness designed to rationalize the world. If anything, my merging of the two had led to new insights, new worlds of fandom and academia to explore. One cannot be a “clockwork orange”–a mechanical organism. There are no binaries, nothing to fear from a rooster scream into the Thames on a foggy night in 1979.
My mind collapsed as the needle touched into virgin vinyl when I got home. “I never felt so much alike…alike…” as I sat there mumbling along: “J-A-Zed-Zed”….”Jay-Ay-Zed….Zed” and BANG–
“I know that my life make you nervous/But I tell you that I can’t live in service/Like the doctor who was born for a purpose/Rudy can’t fail.”
So, as they say, “what are we gonna do now?” London Calling is an album full of the unknown– violent and tragic from its opening title track, yet strangely hopeful, just like A Clockwork Orange. Overcoming the fear of the present in lieu of a hopeful future is “Train in Vain”–in a way the 21st chapter hidden from the record sleeve of most purchases of the album. Mick Jones moves you to move on to face tomorrow on your own. My writing has made it hard to digest some of my favorite bands: the Dropkick Murphys, The Clash, The Street Dogs. I broke from an intense mold of fandom to ask for something more in what my music means to me. Not to you, dear reader, not to the creators of these tracks, but to me. In that way I never wanted to let go of The Clash, cut them out of my life because of phantom pain. I had to re-embrace a part of my body, a part of my soul.
Next Course: Feast On!
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Sean X. Ahern (VulgarGenius) is a graduate of the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Claiming Kenilworth, New Jersey as his hometown, he has moved across the United States for most of his life, attempting to return to The Garden State. Likes: Hockey, Football, Devils, Giants, Chargers, Yankees, Superhero Comics, The Bouncing Souls. Dislikes: Basketball, Cowboys, Kings, Flyers, Rangers, Raiders, Temco Bowl Ronnie Lott, and the artistic works of Rob Liefeld. These are his musings.