Friends have often asked me what my favorite album is of all time. My boys definitely know, because I have one copy for each one after I am gone. One of my long-time buddies, Mike Bond, may know, but few others will know. I’ve spent hours and hours writing about albums on this blog, but never have I tackled my favorite of all. And believe it or not, the album is NOT by my beloved Cheap Trick or Prince. Nor is it by R.E.M., nor Tom Petty, nor Bruce Springsteen, nor Daryl Hall & John Oates (that’s how you say it, nephew Tim!), nor Talking Heads, nor Queen.
No, this album is by an artist that I have yet to give credit to. As the years pass on, this classic album’s stature has only grown with music lovers. To my ears, this album is perfect in every way: songwriting, order of songs, diversity of music, and growth in the artist’s playing. It was the album we needed upon its release, as much as it is needed today, not to mention all days in between. I expressed my love of the album upon its release in my album review in the school newspaper back in 1980. The album is London Calling by The Clash.
The album cover drew me in as teen, a photo of bassist Paul Simonon getting ready to wreck his bass. The artwork around the picture paid homage to Elvis Presley’s first album, along with a sticker proclaiming that this album was by the only band that matters. I had loved The Clash’s first album, but I was not ready for the beautiful musical onslaught that awaited me when I first dropped the needle on my record.
And, although the band stayed true to its punk ethos, the band was delivering an American musical lesson as distilled through British musicians. For the first time, I understood why the Boomers loved The Beatles or The Stones so much. London Calling was made for the early Gen X-ers and late Boomers. Unfortunately, radio had just been taken over by the bean counters, so The Clash, with their strange name and challenging sounds could never displace Neil Diamond or Kenny Rogers on their playlists.
So, it was word of mouth that passed on the greatness of this album. First off, it was a double album sold for the price of a single album, at the time. Second, the first hit from the album was added so late that it is not even listed on the album’s track listing. That song, “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)” barely scratched the Top 30, yet has become somewhat loved as the years have passed. Likewise, the title track, which was NEVER played on Central Indiana radio, is commonly listed among the Eighties best songs ever.
There is not a clunker on this masterpiece. Some of my favorite songs include “Jimmy Jazz”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Lost in the Supermarket”, and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”. I’m listening to the album right now, and I’m every bit as moved by it as I was when I first listened to it 36 years ago.
Yet, I do feel a little bit sad, knowing that the band would fall apart just three years later as they were on the cusp of becoming the biggest band in the world. Seriously, if The Clash had soldiered on making great music, would there have been a musical need for U2? Or could the world have supported two sincere, over-reaching rock bands at the same time?
Back in the summer of 2002, my family made it first journey to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There were signs of The Clash all over the place, from the trashed bass guitar to actual lyrics written by Joe Strummer. But nothing rang truer than the words that Strummer said in a film played at the RRHOF when he simply stated that when you have a great band, you should do everything in your power to keep it together, not to break it up over some stupid purity of punk ethos. I remember tears welling up as he spoke those words. He had broken up one of the great bands of all-time just because Mick Jones was dabbling in the Hip Hop scene of New York City. While, it was perfectly normal for them to play reggae, Strummer was scared to travel further into this culture than what was recorded on their next album, Sandinista! But, during that moment of clarity recorded for posterity, Strummer was able to look back clearly to see where he made mistakes and only wished them away. Unfortunately, he passed a short time after that interview, forever putting the final nails in The Clash’s coffin.
But, for that heady moment of time in 1979 when the band recorded London Calling, The Clash were the only band that mattered. At least we still have their music find comfort in to this very day. For that, I am thankful.