The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ Lyrics Explained.
Above Photo: The Clash’s lyrics for London Calling, the opening track on their 1979 double album.
I was interested to recently come across photos of two sets of handwritten lyrics of The Clash’s song, London Calling, which was a single taken from their 1979 double album of the same name.
I’ve always liked the arrangement on this song, the reggae feel of it, the rumbling bass line and, of course. the lyrics.
Written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the title plays on BBC Second World War international radio broadcasts, which always opened with the words: “This is London”. The band frequently spoke about this single and its lyrical content, and I’ve dug up a few quotes, added below. I also found the answer to the unusual noises Joe Strummer howls on the record in various places too…
“Mick Jones: The initial inspiration for the song “London Calling” wasn’t British politics. It was our fear of drowning. In 1979 we saw a headline on the front of the London Evening Standard warning that the North Sea might rise and push up the Thames, flooding the city. We flipped. To us, the headline was just another example of how everything was coming undone.
Paul Simonon: Before “London Calling,” we didn’t really have a manager or rehearsal space, so we were drifting about. Our road crew found us space off Vauxhall Bridge Road in the Pimlico section along the Thames. It was a thin, drafty soundproof room upstairs in the back of a garage.
Mick Jones: Joe Strummer was living in a building along the Thames and feared potential flooding. He did two or three drafts of lyrics that I then widened until the song became this warning about the doom of everyday life. We were a bit ahead of the global warming thing, weren’t we?
The line about phony Beatlemania biting the dust was aimed at the touristy sound-alike rock bands in London in the late ’70s. We were fans of the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks—but we wanted to remake all of that. We looked back to earlier rock music with great pleasure, but many of the issues people were facing were new and frightening. Our message was more urgent—that things were going to pieces.
Once we had most of the words down, I began creating music to fit the rhythm of the lyrics. I wanted the urgency of a news alert. The two guitar chords I used were a bit jumpy at first but I figured out a trick with my little finger to change them smoothly.
Mick Jones: Most people aren’t aware that my guitar solo in the middle of the song is backward. After I recorded it, I turned the tape over and overdubbed it onto the mix that way. That’s why it whooshes. I wanted it to sound raw and unhinged.
Bill Price is the one who added echo and the sound of cannons firing. We also added Joe making seagull cries that were influenced by Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay.” 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.
The Morse code thing at the end was me. I turned off one of my guitar pickups and used the remaining pickup to tack out the radio signal—to give it that BBC sound on the fade out.”
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This is a You Tube link to the song: