April 30, 2005

The Deal with London Calling

(Because London Calling nearly won most overrated album in this poll, that's why. Look, just be happy I posted.)


There's this guy I know. I'll call him Samuel C. Jackson, not to be confused with Samuel L. Jackson, who as we all know could kill you just by thinking about it. Yes, I am so not wanting to be sued by Samuel L. Jackson.

Anyway, Samuel C. Jackson is a friend of the boyfriend's and mine who has really only two minor flaws. The first we will not deal with in the interests of preserving me from the sin of gossip. The second has relevance to my topic and really isn't a sin so much as it is A Thing That Annoys Me A Whole Bunch.

The Thing That Annoys Me a Whole Bunch is that this guy, Samuel C. Jackson, he reads the movie critics / the music critics / the infotainment critics / the op-ed columnists like, devotedly, and then, worse, he takes them seriously.

So one night I'm hanging with Samuel C. Jackson and assorted others when Samuel C. Jackson turns to me and says, "Oh, hey, Ilyka, I been meaning to ask you. I think you told me once--you like The Clash, right?"

"Uh, yeah."

"So you probably know that Rolling Stone voted London Calling the top album of the 80s."

I did not know that. The last copy of Rolling Stone I bought featured Axl Rose on the cover. The last copy of Rolling Stone I bought was pre-Nirvana. I hadn't bought a copy of Rolling Stone--nor any of their music guides--in over 20 years.

But I could believe it, because I had memorized the second edition of the Rolling Stone Music Guide, and I knew they gave London Calling the highest mark in that one: Five stars.

"Really? Well, the critics loved that one," is all I said to Samuel C. Jackson.

In response, Samuel C. Jackson gave me a hunted look and leaned in closer to whisper, "That's what I don't get."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, look, I read all these guys, right, and even if I don't like something I can at least see why they're into it. I love Dave Marsh, I love John Swenson, I think those guys nailed The Who, okay, but I don't see why they were both so in love with London Calling."

"And it's not just them," Samuel C. Jackson went on. "I've had friends. Close friends. Friends whose taste I trust. They think that album is the bomb. And I bought it, too, so about every other year I put it on and say, 'Well, let's see if it sounds any better this time.'"

Samuel C. Jackson looked around as though the FBI were about to close in on him, and then he finished:

"But it never does. It always leaves me cold. I don't get the deal with London Calling."

"So you think it sucks," I offered, because I am helpful like that.

Samuel C. Jackson winced. "Not sucks, but not, you know, not best album of the 1980s."

Well. I didn't know what to say to that, because that's not, to me, an arguable point. I'm always confused why people do feel compelled to argue these things. Person X said it was the best; you said it wasn't all that. And? And . . . ? Where do we go from here? Why's this got to be discussed at all? Come on, I have like 2 Andy Gibb CDs in the changer right now. I AM NOT ASHAMED. But I'm not someone you should be discussing taste in music with, maybe.

So I said some general things about how I didn't think Samuel C. Jackson should take the word of a few respected critics so seriously. And Samuel C. Jackson eventually looked away disappointed, because apparently he was really looking for some sort of musical conversion of the heart regarding London Calling, and I didn't have it in me to give him one. I did not have me a testimony.

And I still don't. Look, London Calling, it's my favorite album. When I did learn it was actually voted top album of the 80s--even though I think Rolling Stone has sucked for, basically, years--I got a little tiny secret thrill in my heart: Finally, let the people recognize.

But I love that album for personal reasons. I love that album because I think it kept me going when nothing else would have. I love that album because--I can't tell you why. I can tell you two things that point to it:

One, this interview I read with Pete Townshend where he said he got this letter from a teenager saying, and I'm paraphrasing, "You don't know how much time I spend looking at and thinking about you lot."

(Incidentally, for the whole two Clash fans that may or may not be out there, that Who fan is someone I think Joe Strummer would have called a "bedroom kid," i.e., the sort of kid who never takes up guitar or drums or bass but merely spends hours in his bedroom with the stereo on, gazing at rock posters of his heroes--you know, those guys who actually take their passion for music and do something with it? But the bedroom kid, he never does anything.)

Anyway, Pete Townshend apparently wrote back, "You don't know how much time I spend looking at and thinking about teenagers." Hey! I'll thank you to spare me the obvious I-heard-Townshend-got-caught-with-child-PR0n-on-his-home-computer jokes, okay? Thank you; I just made half a dozen of 'em in my own head already, and I don't need your help.

My point is, I never had that sense that a band considered or remembered its fans like I had with The Who--until The Clash.

Two: This song off My Aim is True that never, to my knowledge, shows up on any critics' "Best of" lists: "Pay It Back." It's track 10 on the disc I've got. I can quote you the first verse:

Stop, thief!--You're gonna
Come to grief, if you don't take a little more care.
You're gonna get more than the family plan from this
One shoe-string affair

I may be principled but I can hardly wait here
Trapped between the doctor and the magistrate

One of these days, I'm gonna pay it back, pay it back
One of these days . . . .

It's one of those things that reads terrible without the music, but it's like this: There are times when I've felt trapped and that song, whether I've heard it in days or months or years, will spring into my mind and when it does, I'm sort of immediately okay.

I don't even know what Elvis is on about with that family plan, one-shoe-string affair business, but there's something about "trapped between the doctor and the magistrate" (is he talking about an abortion? What?) line that seems universal in the sense that, everything you try to do, in this age when apparently we're enjoying more choices than human beings have ever enjoyed before--when every decision you make gets you to that place: Trapped between the doctor and the magistrate, between one source of authority and the other. You should pardon the total freshman English flavor of that interpretation, because as I suggested above, music criticism ain't my thing. Still, that lyric also explains why I think the Scots had it right with the proverb, "Better the devil ye ken than the devil ye don't." You need in this life to have some idea whether you'd be better off with the doctor or the magistrate.

So London Calling--it has to me both that sense that the band kinda cares and that the lyrics have some universal, uh, universality? See, I knew I'd regret sleeping through English.

It's to me two things: One, evidence that the Clash had heart, and to understand that, you need to understand the album before that: Give 'Em Enough Rope. Yes, titled after that stupid saying I always thought was attributed to Lenin**, about how the irony of capitalism is that the capitalist will sell you the very rope with which to hang himself; but it's saying something about how little the web records the actual literal sayings of Communists that I can't find a single direct quote anywhere, even after several Googlings. (Kids, don't ever let Google substitute for a good library). Hey, but I bet we have no shortage of Che Guevara t-shirts for sale on the internet. Am I right? Can I get a "¡viva la revolución!" out there?

So you have this Give 'Em Enough Rope album that's supposed to be so revolutionary and, and . . . it tries, but it's saddled with the huge ridiculous irony of having been produced by the guy who used to produce Blue Oyster Cult. You know, the cowbell band of legend?.

Thus here you have these guys from London whose whole mythology depends on the story that they used to subsist on flour-and-water paste (because they were TRUE! To their PRINCIPLES! Of not WORKING! For the MAN! Or the DOLE! Which is not technically WORKING! But still!)--here you have these guys from an ostensible socialist paradise with missing teeth, teamed up with this bloated, on-the-way-out, metal-lite producer from the Los Angeles region of a capitalist Mecca, and . . . well. You're gonna call that album Give 'Em Enough Rope? Without any irony at all? Who's hanging who here?

So after Give 'Em Enough Rope The Clash did London Calling, and, supposedly, the genius of London Calling is that The Clash, subsequently older and wiser from their Sludge-O-Matic sound experience with La Perlman, got this washed-up alcoholic Brit producer, Guy Stevens, to produce it. And supposedly that was way better, because supposedly Guy just turned them loose in the studio and sat on the couch drinking brew for breakfast and encouraging them to do whatever they wanted, you know, musically. Well, if you really truly have a producer like that, you wind up with an album that sounds like shit, which is why I agree with the later biographers who say that isn't precisely how it went down. But that's the story.

What you do have in London Calling, drunk producer or no, is an album that sounds like people having fun.

I think that's why some folks furrow their brows and complain they don't get it--because fun is individual, fun is personal. My fun and your fun might never meet. Your fun is not necessarily my fun. Your fun might be the very antithesis of my fun, and if your fun is spraypainting Grateful Dead logos on the back of your denim jacket, I can just about guarantee that it is.

In that sense, I think London Calling is a poor choice for top album of the 80s--because there's nothing that attempts to reach OUT, nothing on it that attempts to embrace the early 80s rock audience, save maybe the last (hidden) track that went to, oh my, number 39 on the American billboard charts. Woo-hoo! Just barely in the top 40!

There's nothing in London Calling, though, that attempts to convert. There's nothing that says, "Love me, for I am catchy." There's nothing in it that says "Get on this train." Either you were already on that train, or you went into your first listen of that album with a willingness or a need to get on that train--but if you didn't, it's no wonder you don't like it. It's no wonder you wind up like a reviewer whose name and affiliation I no longer remember, whose comment on "Koka Kola" was, "What, does Joe Strummer own Pepsi stock?"

That album isn't for everybody, is all I'm saying. I wouldn't go with overrated, unless, like Samuel C. Jackson, you're the sort to be genuinely upset when people you admire don't dig what you dig. But you're talking about a band who, as one of Michele's commenters so aptly put it, is chiefly remembered as "those guys who did 'Rock the Casbah.'" They didn't make a fortune. They didn't go on reunion tour after reunion tour after reunion tour. Their chief lyricist and singer is dead, their lead guitarist is so bald it's embarrassing, and last I paid attention their drummer was permanently missing, presumed strung out on heroin. They didn't end up with much.

Let them have their little nod from Rolling Stone. Would it kill you? You can still shake your head in bewilderment to your Echo and the Bunnymen discs. Or, hey, how 'bout that Randy Rhoads solo on "Goodbye to Romance," huh?

*I looked this song up on one of those lyric sites that're out there, and they had:

I may be crazy but I can't contemplate
being trapped between the doctor and the magistrate

This isn't how I've ever heard it, but likely I'm wrong and just a bad, bad, very bad transcriptionist. In my defense, Elvis is much more intelligible on This Year's Model and Armed Forces--but that's not much defense, is it?

**Gads, or is it Marx? Now that I think about it, it sounds more like Marx. Cripes, but I'd make a lousy communist. I'm not even a very good American.

Posted by Ilyka at April 30, 2005 10:46 AM in trivia

I think I fall somewhere between you and Samuel C. Back in my early prime record-collecting years, the 70s, critics mattered to me. They mattered because only a handful of songs from albums got played on the radio and you really couldn’t listen to music then like now, where most tracks have samples (I won’t get into the free downloading and file sharing debate) at online record stores. To find out if you liked a record, you had to listen to it. You had to borrow it or buy it to do so. There was no one for me to borrow from and I couldn’t afford to buy all of them. I learned almost immediately that I can’t trust Rolling Stone’s taste in music. They gushed about stuff I couldn’t stand and they hated stuff I still listen to. I preferred Circus magazine back then. Music critics no longer matter to me. I may read a review now and then but only after I have bought the CD and formed my own opinion and I’ve been known to argue about music that I know. One last thing: I certainly don’t want to meet the person who likes exactly what I like.

Posted by: Rob at April 30, 2005 05:28 PM

I just bought the Bee Gees boxed set.

According to the rest of the world, I'm now ready for the retirement home.

It's all subjective. I don't mind the critics as much as I mind the record execs telling me what The Next! New! Thing! is.


I'm old. And I liked London Calling too. I also have Funkadelic and Slave CDs jammed up against Adam & The Ants next to The Cure and AC/DC. Whatinhell do *I* know about music?

That's why I don't participate in those polls.

Posted by: Margi at April 30, 2005 08:55 PM

I think "give 'em enough rope" is short for "give 'em enough rope to hang themselves". Meaning is scewing somebody over by letting them do it themselves and being there to pull the lever at just the right time.

Posted by: Jim at May 1, 2005 12:10 AM

Oh, right. The Clash.

I like London Calling, the song. Never listened to the album. That I know of. I like the Clash songs that I've heard but was never into them.

Then again I was seriously into Concrete Blonde and few people even know who the hell they are.

Posted by: Jim at May 1, 2005 12:14 AM

I LOVE Johnette Napolitano.

I seriously (heart) her.

Posted by: Margi at May 1, 2005 12:33 AM

The first time we hit Berlin, after London Calling came out, I was sitting at this cafe, talking to this 16 year-old skinhead. He was saying he was horrified, that he coulcn't stand it, because his grandmother was grooving around to the London Calling album in his flat.
-Joe Strummer in the liner notes to Clash on Broadway

Cool piece.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 1, 2005 01:58 PM

It sounds like people having fun. Exactly! I'd say "Rudie Can't Fail" is a perfect example. (But maybe I'm just saying that because they're literally whooping it up on the fade-out.)

Posted by: jdc at May 4, 2005 01:23 AM

I love the Clash but I can never remember which songs are on which album.

Posted by: Yehudit at May 6, 2005 08:27 AM