Expat Chronicles: London Calling (Again)

London is an ancient city by American standards, dating back a couple thousand years, and there are plenty of museums here that let you soak that history up. But you don’t always have to step way back in time to catch a glimpse of a particular era that helped define London and set it apart from the rest of the world.

A recent visit to the Museum of London planted me but a wee 40 years in the past, not too long after the release of “London Calling,” the landmark double album by the Clash that came out in late 1979. In those days Old Blighty was rundown, economically depressed and filled with class and racial strife, and “London Calling” addressed many of those issues head-on.

The 40th anniversary of the album release is being commemorated in a free exhibit at the Museum of London. The exhibit opened in November and is due to last through April 19 (or, as the Brits would say, 19 April). You’ll find lots of cool stuff there – original handwritten and typed lyrics by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the bass guitar that Paul Simonon smashed in the famous album cover photo, drumsticks used by Topper Headon, the Elvis Presley album that the “London Calling” design was based on, photos and videos from the era, handwritten letters, interviews, a sound mixer you could fiddle around with, and assorted memorabilia.

It’s all set up in a nice, cozy little space near the museum entrance, small enough to fit on the back of a flatbed truck if you were of a mind to drive off with it – as I might have done if I’d had a flatbed truck with a racing engine and 500 miles of open highway to flee on.

The exhibit was pretty exhilarating for me personally because it took me back four decades, to early 1980, when I holed up in my room for maybe a week listening to “London Calling” over and over again, tracks 1 through 19, one after the other, mesmerized by the power and brilliance of the music and the breadth of the songs. I was between colleges at the time, taking a semester off as I transferred from the U. of South Carolina to App State, living at home in not always the most pleasant of circumstances, pretty bored and altogether rudderless.

I bought “London Calling” at the now-defunct Record Bar in Southpark Mall as soon as it came out in the States (I still have that same copy, by the way). It completely knocked me on my ass from the moment I dropped the needle from my Technics turntable and the sound blasted through my Advent speakers. Up until then the Clash had been a pretty straight-ahead UK punk band with a populist/Marxist bent. With “London Calling,” the band ventured into completely new musical and lyrical terrain.

There were some fast punkish songs for sure, but the album also served up generous helpings of reggae, R&B, pop, rock, rockabilly, Spanish music, jazz, dance beats, even a few passages that were almost operatic in their grandeur. The only hit single in the U.S was “Train in Vain,” a catchy pop number that wasn’t even credited on the original album. The subject matter ranged from the Brixton riots and London’s underground to violence in Spain, political revolution, Jamaican street crime, Montgomery Clift, Coca Cola and even Stagger Lee, the bad dude from the American blues song who killed a man over a Stetson hat.

“London Calling” crashed into my otherwise sleepy little universe like a giant, guitar-driven asteroid. It offered deliverance from the stifling tedium that comes when you’re a college-age kid with big dreams but no clear path or plan to attain them, who was living at home and working for a yard crew between universities, and who really just wanted to get out there in the world and experience something fascinating and unfamiliar.

What a circle life goes in. Little did I know 40 years ago, when I was in the midst of a months-long “London Calling” obsession, that in 2020 I’d be seeing a museum exhibit of the album while living in London myself, experiencing some of those fascinating and unfamiliar things I dreamed about way back when.

“The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river…”

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