Vintage, 978099524205, £8.99.
London Calling is one of those classic recordings that regularly hits the upper reaches of any musical publication’s top 50 albums of all time, yet has still sold in relatively small numbers. It is an album of energy, power, anger and vitality that shows punk growing up and growing experimental, growing more comfortable in acknowledging musical roots and growing closer to other songs of protest and politics, from the ghetto as well as the gutter. Route 19 Revisited is 500 pages of sparsely edited pop-fact erudition, geekily dissecting every beat, every note, every line, every ad-lib, to lay the music bare, with all its innards plastinated like a Gunter von Hagens cadaver. It is fascinating and infuriating – packed with information and yet drifting off into an endless cycle of only tangentially appropriate musical history lessons. If this book was a Clash album it would be Sandinista!: sprawling, splodgy, hiding its talent amongst acres of self-indulgent filler.
Route 19 Revisited is readable – I stuck with it for the whole 500 pages without too many curses – and yet, and yet, there is something not quite right. It is not just a history of the recording of one album, it also gives an over extensive overview of the entire life of the band, culling much material from Chris Salewicz’s Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, Pat Gilbert’s Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash and Johnny Green’s A Riot of Our Own. Which I have already read, are sitting on bookshelves behind my desk, and are used here pretty uncritically as source material. These other books also give much insight into the recording of the album, as does the booklet, DVD and CD2 of the 25th Anniversary Edition of London Calling. So, what’s new in Route 19…? The track by track breakdown of the album which dissects each song into its constituent parts, details its musical antecedents and explores the literal content of the lyrics and ad-libs is the crucial heart of the book. This is useful and interesting, as far as it goes.
What it is lacking is an examination of the importance of this music to the many listeners who have been inspired by it over thirty years. There is no real attempt at interpretation. We have facts, facts and more facts. We don’t get any taste of the romantic flow of this music that seeps into the bones and fires the soul. Because London Calling is an album of romantic revolution, solidarity with the black ghettos (language of the time) of the UK as well as with the Rasta nation’s sense of oppression. Of course some of the songs are pompous and overweening or dumpily naïve, but this is rock music, which is never raised on subtlety and, more specifically, it is punk rock music which has an inbuilt intensity that doesn’t sit well with introspective musing. Strummer, Jones and Simonon’s lyrics aren’t meant to be seen in the same poetic light as Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. They have a more impressionistic quality where phrases float through, flirt with and filter into the listener’s consciousness to create an overall notion of positive rebellion against the incipient conservatism of the time. This is music about ‘doing’ more than ‘being’, about getting out of the rut, of pulling the trigger on the obvious, of fighting the system, sometimes simply just because it is the system, sometimes because it is a corrupting pressure keeping the good man down.
Marcus Gray states several times that in appropriating the rhythm of reggae the Clash were imbibing Rasta’s solidarity with the poor while rejecting its spirituality. Although I’ll reluctantly agree that religion, especially anything that might be counted as establishment, is not a positive focus for the band members I do think that their music has an implicit spiritual force. This is not music of anarchy – it is held too tightly to the beat for that, each song has far too well-formed a shape, but it is music about flowing outside and beyond the norms laid down by the prosaic daily round. To be lost in the supermarket is to be aware of the lack of wholeness in life. To be one of the guns of Brixton is to know your own dignity, but not necessarily the way to express it. To be a revolutionary, or a gangster, is to work outside of the rigid framework that society uses to scupper free thought. To be prophetic is to sing about environmental disaster and fuel poverty, but it is also to do something about it. The Clash always felt like a band who wanted to make a difference to the world – to force the individual to stand up and turn the system into a state of care. London Calling contains that uncomfortable edginess within it, that call to arms, to rise up against an amorphous, shape-shifting capitalism and to blow a new spirit into the lives of the marginalised, the down-trodden and the just plain ignored. None of this greasy, engine-oil beauty is hinted at in Route 19 Revisited. Reading this book does not convey the lasting power of London Calling. To discern that you need to look at the album cover (one of the most potent of all rock images, ever), listen to the music (all 19 tracks, in order), jump to the brand new beat and let deep call unto deep.