The Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.

The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.

The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.

The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.

In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.

There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.

In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story;  In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout.  The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.