Some of the greatest rock and roll songs are also dire apocalyptic warnings. When rock stars pull their heads out of their hedonistic you-know-whats and look around, things can look pretty grim indeed. Think, for example, of The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Neither is either band’s scariest song, but they’re both chock full of disaster, natural and otherwise, speaking to the sense of doom most everyone seemed to feel in 1969 when both tracks were released.
Fast forward ten years and rock and roll is mostly dead, punk has peaked, and The Clash are trying to make it all new, injecting their music with reggae and rockabilly and a lot of righteous outrage (tempered by a healthy sense of humor). In 1979, the band released their seminal double album London Calling, with its dire, apocalyptic title track (above), warning of an ice age, the sun’s end, and a “nuclear error.” (Read the lyrics here.) No longer are we just dealing with ho-hum war and murder or Biblical plagues. Joe Strummer and company took on the end of the world, initiating the late cold-war nuclear anxiety in 80s punk and new wave lyrics from The Dead Kennedys to The Smiths.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, the three surviving members of the band, all nearing 60, looked back on the writing and recording of that anthemic song, dissecting the line about “phony Beatlemania” and recalling the ecological and economic crises that angered and frightened them into inspiration. Co-writer and guitarist Mick Jones discusses the influence of sixties rock on the song’s composition, saying, “As musicians, you take the past with you, don’t you? The Beatles, Stones, Kinks and Small Faces had done something new and different and I wanted us to do that, too.” Bassist Paul Simonon, whose iconic bass-smashing photo graced the cover of the album, talks about the band’s history and context:
In the ’70s, when we formed the band, there was a lot of tension in Britain, lots of strikes, and the country was an economic mess. There also was aggression toward anyone who looked different—especially the punks. So the name the Clash seemed appropriate for the band’s name.
Drummer Topper Headon talks technique, and all three members are open about their influences and inspirations for the song. The interview comes along just as the band prepares to release a 13-disc box set, Sound System that Mick Jones—in a Rolling Stone interview—promises will be the band’s final statement. “This is it for me,” says Jones, “and I say that with an exclamation mark.” Read about his intentions for the collection and more Clash history in that excellent short interview here.