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'London Calling' At 40: Greil Marcus Revisits His Original Review

Jan 29, 2020
Originally published on January 28, 2020 6:15 pm

On All Things Considered 40 years ago this month, here's how host Noah Adams introduced an iconic album:

"New music from a group said by some critics to be the best rock and roll band in the world: The band's name is The Clash, the record is London Calling."

London Calling stood out from the punk rock of its time: It was political, knowing and clever. Compact disks were still a few years away, so the album's 19 songs spilled over two vinyl disks.

"Rough. Funny. Expansive." That's how music writer Greil Marcus described the album on our program in 1980, the year it was released in the U.S. He said that London Calling "takes in many different styles, and yet is always instantly recognizable as The Clash. There's a wonderful sense that life is a struggle, and that the struggle justifies itself; that only when you're in touch with a sense of struggle are you in touch with, let's say, humor, delight, pain, suffering, anger, whatever. It's a very coherent record and it sounds just great."

After 40 years, we asked him back to tell us if he stands by that positive review.

Listen in the audio player above, and read on for Greil Marcus' thoughts in his own words.


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I wouldn't change anything. The Clash, from the beginning, presented themselves as a revolutionary band. Take the most minor provocations or insults or humiliations and make statements about them through their music, pump them up with emotion, and fear, and a sense of jeopardy and a sense of defiance that created songs that made the people listening to them feel bigger, as if they were living in a bigger world where nothing was trivial.

This album is just drenched in history. This is a great work; it's bottomless, it doesn't wear out. They could look back and say "I did something. I was there. It won't be forgotten; the proof is in the vinyl." They put something in the world that will always be there.

When I first heard it in late 1979, my feeling was "This is just an enormous challenge to the world." There's a wonderful line at the end of the [titular] song: "And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!" And that sense of "I've been fighting off paranoia my whole life and now I can't do it anymore because all of these awful fantasies that I've had, that I've heard, they're coming true."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Forty years ago this month on this program, host Noah Adams introduced a music story this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NOAH ADAMS: New music from a group said by some critics to be the best rock and roll band in the world - the band's name is The Clash. The record is "London Calling."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

THE CLASH: (Singing) London calling to the faraway towns - now war is declared and battle come down. London calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls - London calling...

SHAPIRO: "London Calling" stood out from the punk rock of its time. It was political, knowing and clever. Compact discs were still a few years away, so the album's 19 songs spilled over onto two vinyl discs. In 1980, journalist Greil Marcus described the album this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GREIL MARCUS: Rough, funny, expansive, takes in many different styles and yet is always instantly recognizable as The Clash - there's a wonderful sense that life is a struggle and that the struggle justifies itself, that only when you're in touch with a sense of struggle are you in touch with, let's say, humor, delight, pain, suffering, anger, whatever. It's a very coherent record, and it sounds just great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OR GLORY")

THE CLASH: (Singing) Now, every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world, ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl. Love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands, hands that slap his kids around 'cause they don't understand how death or glory becomes just another story...

SHAPIRO: After 40 years, we asked Marcus back to tell us if he stands by that positive review.

MARCUS: I wouldn't change anything. And The Clash, from the beginning, presented themselves as a revolutionary band and take the most minor provocations or insults or humiliations and make statements about them through their music, pump them up with emotion and fear and a sense of jeopardy and a sense of defiance that created songs that made the people listening to them feel bigger, as if they were living in a bigger world where nothing was trivial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH BOMBS")

THE CLASH: (Singing) Spanish songs in Andalusia, the shooting sites in the days of '39 - oh, please, leave the vendanna open. Fredrico Lorca is dead and gone. Bullet holes in the cemetery walls, the black cars of the Guardia Civil, Spanish bombs on the Costa Rica - I'm flying in on a DC-10 tonight.

MARCUS: This album is just drenched in history. This is a great work. It's bottomless. It doesn't wear out. For people to have made a record that cannot only take you back to the time that it was made but can rewrite your own time when you're listening to it, that's a great thing. They could look back and say, I did something. I was there. It won't be forgotten. The proof is in the vinyl. They put something in the world that will always be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDIE CAN'T FAIL")

THE CLASH: (Singing) We hear them saying, how you get rude and reckless? Don't you be so crude and feckless. You been drinking brew for breakfast. Rudie can't fail. We reply, I know that my life make you nervous, but I tell you I can't live in service like the doctor who was born for a purpose. Rudie can't fail.

MARCUS: When I first heard it, my feeling was, this is just an enormous challenge to the world and particularly to the United States, to listeners in America, saying, are you going to get this? Are you going to pay attention? There is a wonderful line at the end of the song. You know what they were saying? Well, some of it was true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

THE CLASH: (Singing) And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true.

MARCUS: And that sense of - I've been fighting off paranoia my whole life, and now I can't do it anymore because all of these awful fantasies that I've had, that I've heard - they're coming true. I can't believe it, but it's really happening. And that's both hilarious and terrifying. That is the hook of that song, the hook that goes right into your heart, and you can't pull it out. And you don't even want to because you get such a sense of truth. You know what they were saying? Well, some of it was true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

THE CLASH: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Greil Marcus re-reviewing the album "London Calling." The Clash released it in the U.S. in January 1980. Marcus' next book comes out in April. It's called "Under The Red White And Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment And The Stubborn Myth Of The Great Gatsby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

THE CLASH: (Singing) The ice age is coming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.