The Clash: London Calling (1979)

Image: The Clash – Three of the band members (1980) Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simanon

Blog by Adrian M. McGlinchey || Re-posted from original, dated: July 09, 2020.

Editor’s Summary

This article was inspired by my thoughts on the British punk-rock band The Clash; more specifically their hit song “London Calling”.

Introduction

I wasn’t always a fan of the punk rock music scene because its material sounded a bit raw to me. I don’t wish to name names here and end up offending anyone. Afterall, music is a personal taste game. However, the British rock band The Clash had, in my humble opinion, better musicality and better lyrics than certain others. Some say that musicality is not the goal of Punk or, for that matter, Rap or Hip-hop; but a bit of rhythm, good singing, and great lyrics are always the key ingredients of any great song worth remembering, to my way of thinking at least. Reflection on these aspects brings to my attention one of my favourite songs by the Clash, “London Calling”.

We could debate whether The Clash were really Punk, but they did have their origins in the Punk style and went on to become Post-punk and New Wave, much like the band Blondie on the other side of the Atlantic in the US but in their own unique way. Both these bands eventually incorporated other elements into their sound, such as: Reggae, Dub, Funk, Ska, and Rockabilly, while retaining some of their Punk origins. So, getting back to the song “London Calling”, what does it all mean and what are my responses? Let me point out, before continuing, that pop and rock lyrics, much like lyric poetry, can have an intended meaning of its creators, and sometimes lyrics can be left open to personal interpretation of the reader or the listener. With this consideration in mind, I hope my thoughts do justice to The Clash band members and the fans, but please be lenient if I come up with a different take on the meaning intended.

Lyrically, the song “London Calling” evokes powerful frightening images of apocalyptic events that may happen to the world and particularly to the City of London. The words forebode the possibility of anything from nuclear annihilation to a flooding of Biblical proportions. These potential catastrophes have always been a concern to ordinary folk everywhere since the Cold War that began in the 1950s and lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; yet the haunting fear remains with the rise of political states such as China, Iran and North Korea, and also the prevalent alarmism about global warming. I won’t include the entire lyric here; simply visit the Song Facts website, listed in the Resources and Accreditations section at the end after reading this article if you wish to know the complete words to the song. I intend only to quote specific passages to back up the points I wish to make.

A Race to Destruction

The song seems to race from one potential disaster to another, either natural or man-made. These catastrophes include police brutality, martial law, insurrection, environmental collapse, and nuclear annihilation. Even the beat of the music has a strong heartbeat pulse that rushes toward inevitability. All these potentialities sound imminent. I love the throbbing bass line that adds drama to the words. The line, “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” may have been a put-down of the Beatles, but it might also have also been an expression of a distaste for record labels pumping out Beatles tracks ad nauseum until they became as cheapened as elevator Muzak. That may be incidental to the song’s meaning anyway. The sense of apocalyptic drama is still prominent.

I would like now to deal with some expressions in the song that I must admit I don’t completely understand but I will take a stab at them, according to my own sensibilities. The first expression that I stumbled upon is the limitation zone. I can’t help wondering if that represents the private gated enclaves of the ruling elite – the phonies who lord it over everyone else with their platitudes of dubious virtue. The next one is, “I never felt so much alike/alone”. Is this about how, when devastation strikes, we are all reduced to one common denominator?… or was the word meant to be “alone”? I’m not sure The one that really mystifies me is, “… see we ain’t got no high except for that one with the yellow eye”. Hmmm… strange to me. In Australia we have a term, “The Yellow Peril” which indicates a fear of communist China. In the British context, though, I’ve really no idea what The Clash is talking about here. If anyone out there, living on the other side of the planet (especially UK) understands these Brit expressions, kindly post a comment, but keep it clean. Differences of opinion are welcome; profanity is NOT!

Another expression that fascinates me is this: “I have no fear ‘Cause London is drowning, and I… I live by the river”. I have saved this one for the very last because I have a deeply personal response to this, even though it may not have been what The Clash intended. I must say these words smack of dramatic irony and they are the most memorable to me. With lack of better information, I allow my mind to contemplate these words as they present themselves to me. I can’t help noticing the gaping chasm of contradiction between a city drowning in a great flood and the false sense of security in living by the river, albeit in a high-rise apartment. When the great flood is deep and wide, and all facilities are broken down and disconnected, how many electric pumps will you require to drain your humble abode, six storeys up, and to flush out the excess water and sewerage back into the River Thames which is already choked, I wonder? Will your pumps even work when electrical power runs out? Despite my flippancy, my observations of this specific piece of the lyric are important to my conclusion, which does take The Clash seriously. As is by now apparent, I have noted a dramatic irony in the song “London Calling” and I wish to bring this observation forward into my conclusion.

Conclusions: May I take it personally? I think I will!

Having done my best to take an objective view of The Clash and their song “London Calling”, I am left with all the personal impressions that I simply can’t avoid when I have a moment to listen. When I let myself drift away, I vividly see this potential apocalyptic world. The things I take from this song are profound with notions of how humans might endure, survive, or succumb to a cataclysm. Another angle that I see is the vanity of a new elitist political order in the West that that makes enemies on multiple fronts and yet maintains a false sense of security for its followers. We may wax and wane between preference for the royalist and democratic traditionalism of yesteryear or for the extreme cultural-Marxism of recent times, but we need to recognise that all total power is corrupt. Whatever our political stance, I can’t go past the lines, “London calling to the limitation zone. Forget it, brother, you can go it alone”. Let me explain in the next paragraph.

I hear in this statement, “London calling to the limitation zone…” something that seems indicative of the vanity of today’s ruling class. I can’t help but see this as a scenario of the political ruling elite living in their posh gated communities, while they virtue signal to the less fortunate. Once it was kings and queens who lived high on the hog at everyone else’s expense; now it is the cultural-Marxists. These fake, hollow people, like King Lois XVI and Marie Antionette of France, and the reviled King Charles I of England who all went before, seem to have transformed themselves into a new generation of champagne quaffing, upper-middle-class socialists in high professions. These people have never known what it means to go hungry and homeless, nor have they ever known any kind of wanting in their lives. The kind of arrogance this situation breeds is not unique to any political persuasion. The monarchist superpowers of Europe and Britain did it, as so do now the communists and the cultural-Marxist infiltrators into western democracy. These are not necessarily the views of The Clash, but the song does arouse this angst and feelings of hurt in me. Can’t help myself guys and girls – a bit of a rant! Sorry folks… Make yourselves a hot cup of drinking chocolate and hug your cat or snuffle your puppy dog if you feel uncomfortable with facing this modern reality. I don’t like it either. Let’s all take a few deep breaths.

The entire song comes absolutely together for me with the chorus-like verse endings, “… but I have no fear ‘cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”. This is a magnificent lyric. I’ve heard that one of the band members lived in a high-rise on the river, which could be the inspiration for this phrase. Perhaps, in exaggerated bravado, almost tongue-in-cheek, he would be entitled feel above all the suffering, and immune from all the damage; hence “I have no fear”. Was it meant to be sarcastic? I don’t know. Can we not see a deeper metaphor? The metaphor, to me, is one of corrupt people in ivory towers; a portrayal of the political elite forever looking down upon us and gleefully sneering at us? I have concluded with my own personal vibe and, if I got this wrong, it’s just what I take from a song (sorry about the unintended rhyme – wrong/song). Feel free to post your comments. Please keep the language decent! I would be interested to read your interpretations and ideas.

Special Note: Thank you for reading me. I realise I could do some splendid video presentations if I were determined enough but I honestly don’t feel ready or confident. I dearly would like to get to that stage but that’s for another day. In the meantime, I pray that you my friends enjoy good reading, even though I feel it’s becoming a lost art, alas!

Resources and Accreditations

Song Facts (n.d.) “London Calling by the Clash”,
      https://www.songfacts.com/facts/the-clash/london-calling, Accessed 5-Jul-2020.

The Clash (Official YouTube Channel) (2019) “The Clash – London Calling (Official Video)”
      Released on Vimeo then later on YouTube Premiered on Dec 14, 2019.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3XqMtam1I0, Accessed 5-Jul-2020.

Wikipedia (n.d.), “The Clash”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clash, Accessed 5-Jul-2020.

Photo Credits: Frame from YouTube (2019)
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3XqMtam1I0
      Video: Duration 3:21 | Freeze Frame: 0:22 within the YouTube video Get the song lyrics at: https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/the-clash/london-calling

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