The Story Behind the Iconic Bass-Smashing Photo on the Clash’s London Calling

Pen­nie Smith was not a fan. Maybe that’s what made her the per­fect pho­tog­ra­ph­er for The Clash. “She was nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly into rock music,” writes Rob Walk­er at The Guardian; she wasn’t starstruck or over­awed by her sub­jects; and she also was­n’t even par­tic­u­lar­ly in love with the most famous shot of her career — the icon­ic pho­to of bassist Paul Simonon rais­ing his Fend­er Pre­ci­sion at New York’s Pal­la­di­um, sec­onds before smash­ing it to bits. “I said, ‘it’s com­plete­ly out of focus,’” Smith remem­bers of the image when Joe Strum­mer insist­ed on using it for the cov­er of leg­endary dou­ble-LP Lon­don Call­ing. “But Joe wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘That one is the pho­to.’”

He was obvi­ous­ly cor­rect, though Smith still doesn’t sound con­vinced. “I’m pleased I took it,” she says, “but it’s a bit of a weight around my neck. It keeps com­ing back to whack me on the back of the head — nice­ly in some instances, but aggra­vat­ing­ly in oth­ers.” Hit­ting one in the head — front or back — is the aim of the best album cov­ers in punk, and “punk rock’s rage and dis­sent have always been easy to rep­re­sent visu­al­ly,” says Noah Lefevre in the Poly­phon­ic video above. Tak­ing the per­fect punk pho­to­graph, how­ev­er, depend­ed on a num­ber of vari­ables all com­ing togeth­er per­fect­ly for a once-in-a-life­time shot.

For one thing, Smith had to have made the gig. She near­ly accept­ed an offer to go out with friends instead. She also decid­ed to change it up that night and stand on Simonon’s side of the stage instead of next to gui­tarist Mick Jones. And then, as Lefevre explains, there was the show itself. “In Lon­don, the Clash would play rau­cous punk bars and dance­halls full of stand­ing room crowds. In the U.S.,” dur­ing their first tour in 1979, “they often found them­selves play­ing in the­aters with fixed seat­ing.” The Pal­la­di­um was such a venue. “Bounc­ers would hold crowds back, make sure they stayed sta­pled to their seats.”

The seden­tary crowd killed the vibe. By the end of the show, “Paul’s frus­tra­tion turned to anger,” notes Snap Gal­leries, “and then he lost it com­plete­ly. His watch stopped at 9:50pm.” Smith remem­bers see­ing him sud­den­ly spin toward her. “He was in a real­ly bad mood, and that wasn’t like him.” She was so star­tled, she got the pho­to­graph. “It wasn’t a choice to take the shot. My fin­ger just went off.” That chance moment gave the band an ide­al image for the Lon­don Call­ing cov­er.

It was illus­tra­tor Ray Lowry’s idea to crib the typog­ra­phy of Elvis’ first record, and the font “called back to the roots of punk rock,” born out of the ‘50s rock­a­bil­ly tra­di­tion of sim­ple songs and bare-bones instru­men­ta­tion and arrange­ments. “Punk and rock and roll held the same cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance,” Lefevre says, but The Clash announced them­selves on the album cov­er as puri­fiers of the tra­di­tion, strip­ping out the “pho­ny Beat­le­ma­nia” Strum­mer decried in the title track and replac­ing it with right­eous, if bare­ly-in-focus, rage. Hear the full gig just above, includ­ing the bass-smash­ing at the end at 1:08:10.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Rare Live Footage Doc­u­ments The Clash From Their Raw Debut to the Career-Defin­ing Lon­don Call­ing (1977–1980)

“Stay Free: The Sto­ry of the Clash” Nar­rat­ed by Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8‑Episode Pod­cast

The Clash Play Their Final Show (San Bernardi­no, 1983)

The Clash Live in Tokyo, 1982: Watch the Com­plete Con­cert

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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