MUSIC POST #1: THE HISTORY OF THE “LONDON CALLING” RIFF

I used to think that The Clash was pretty cool when I was a kid and I saw the videos for “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” on MTV. Then I got to the age when I realized that I was supposed to think that the band and its 1979 (1980 stateside) album London Calling were among the greatest things to ever happen to music. I went along with it for a while, making sure that several Clash CDs were plain for everyone to see in my collection.

When I really made a point of listening critically to London Calling, I found that I didn’t love it. Not that it isn’t at least very good, nor do The Clash not deserve to be thought of as one of the most important bands of the post-Beatles era. But c’mon, the lyrics to the song “London Calling” are sing-what-rhymes stupid.

At some point, I started to discover several songs – some old, some new – that were driven by the same staccato chord progression that “London Calling” is. I seriously doubt that I have found all of them, or even most of them. Below are the ones that I have happened upon.

Clear Light, “Sand” (1967):

I discovered this band by virtue of the happy accident that it was alphabetically right behind another band that I was shopping for called Clear. Produced and engineered by 1960s luminaries Paul Rothchild and Bruce Botnick, Clear Light’s one album is a hearty serving of West Coast psychedelia.

This the earliest instance of the “London Calling” chord progression that I am aware of.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Walk On the Water” (1968):

This was the first song that I heard in which that familiar sound emanated from one of the guitars.

Although CCR was formed across the bay from San Francisco, there were not – unlike Clear Light – freaky people who wore flowers in their long hair. In spite of being somewhat against the grain with its 99.44% pure rock ‘n roll, Creedence was the most successful and popular American band (click for my Amazon.com review) of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Apart for the band’s endorsement from Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, however, its cred is minimal nowadays.

The Clash, “London Calling” (1979):

There it is: the hook that I have been writing about this whole time. It certainly has a hypnotic toughness to it in this context. The Clash was a basically a punk band. Clear Light was psychedelic and CCR was rock ‘n roll, and both were American. Therefore, there is a good chance that The Clash had never heard to two aforementioned songs.

But I wonder if Clash leaders Joe Strummer and Mick Jones thought that they had come up with something completely original here, or if they had heard the progression somewhere that I still haven’t.

Tom Petty, “The Last DJ” (2002):

Speaking of “sing-what rhymes stupid,” which I did in the second paragraph above, who has milked that cow longer and more lucratively than Tom Petty? I am glad that he has a lot of money and that so many people get such a kick out his songs, but I think he sucks.

Liz Phair, “My Bionic Eyes” (2003):

I will not say for certain that Exile In Guyville (click for my Amazon.com review) was the greatest album of the ’90s. I will also not disagree with anyone who says that it was. The two albums that our Phair lady released in the ’00s were probably among the worst of the decade. One of them included this song, complete with those old reliable “London Calling” chords.

And there you have it. Comment or email me if you know of any songs that I have missed. (blakesmad@gmail.com)

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