© Copyright 2018 Benson McDaniel, Ryerson University.
The Clash formed in 1976, during the explosion of the first wave of British punk rock, when two members met at an early Sex Pistols concert in February, less than two months before the Ramones self titled LP would create the first hard evidence of punk in the Western Canon. The following year would see the release of their own self-titled debut, but it would be with their third LP, London Calling, released in December 1979, that would elevate the Clash to commercial success and international renown.
Calling’s artwork is simple in comparison to comparable seminal releases from the same niche period, such as Blondie’s 1978 Parallel Lines, which includes the respective band photographed on a black and white striped backdrop, or Joy Division’s 1979 Unknown Pleasures, which features an incredibly complex graphic of a pulsar’s waves over a black background. Conversely, London Calling’s cover features only a slightly blurry colorless photo, with the band’s name in small white lettering and the record’s title in larger, colored print super imposed over the black and white image; however, within this relatively simple image, composed of just three or so different elements, is a myriad of information, that might be extracted by a careful observer.
First, the title’s jaunty appearance: London in fat, salmon pink lettering descending the left side, then Calling in fat green lettering along the photo’s bottom edge. Visually, the primary colors and childlike typography seem contrary to the photo over which they are superimposed: a blurry snapshot of the Clash’s bassist, Paul Simonon, smashing his Fender Precision Bass over the stage of New York’s Palladium on September 20th, 1979; however, the careful observer may recognize this decision not as an arbitrary one but in fact as a reference and an homage to a previous, seminal rock record, one which the Clash intended to both tribute and lampoon: Elvis’s 1956 self titled album (Egan 105).
What does this reference imply? Well, for one, it’s a message regarding the music inside: Calling, like Elvis Presley, is a rock record, one meant to be widely enjoyed, shared, and played on the radio, like any rock record, like every rock record, and the music it contains is not a refutation, repentance or deconstruction of the music that preceded it, like Presley, but instead builds upon something essential that was established previously (Egan 105). Secondly, Calling is arriving in and addressed to the same world that Presley was, and where it diverges from Presley (namely its more instrumentally abrasive, experimental or confrontational passages as well as its darker themes and lyrical content) reveal something about the world, and how the world has changed (or failed to change) in the years allotted between the two releases. Elvis Presley was a soulful yet largely optimistic record for a largely optimistic world. Two decades and some change later, London Calling arrives, declaring itself the rightful heir to Presley’s legacy: an exciting, intoxicating, yet frightening record, full of tales of unemployment, poverty, political strife and suffering, existential despair and personal failures (Egan 105-106).
The photograph itself, then, blurry and difficult to discern, suddenly becomes crystal clear while contrasted against the crisp picture of a crooning, swashbuckling Elvis Presley on the cover of Presley. This is a photo of 1979’s answer to 1956’s Elvis, Paul Simonon a drunken and drugged hellion destroying his artistic tool of choice in retaliation to the concert’s bouncers disallowing their fans to dance, the King for a new era: intoxicated, enraged, adorned in shredded rags, blurry and difficult to take in.
Egan, Sean. The Clash: The Only Band that Mattered. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.