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Digital Subscriptions > Long Live Vinyl > Dec 2019 > DEATH OR GLORY

DEATH OR GLORY

Although ‘The Last Gang In Town’ may not have been quite drinking in the Last Chance Saloon during the spring of 1979, The Clash’s backs were against the wall. Entering the studio managerless and broke, the band came out all guns blazing with an album that sent a wake-up call to all the ‘faraway towns’. On the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest albums of all time, Dan Biggane hears why it continues to resonate so strongly today…

THE LONDON CALLING STORY

The Clash were never going to let themselves be shackled by the stylistic limitations of punk
MICHAEL PUTLAND/GETTY

By January 1979, the glorious ball of raging energy that was punk had burnt out. The Sex Pistols had been reduced to a shambolic mess live on stage in San Francisco a year earlier, and while John Lydon had regrouped with the more experimental Public Image Ltd, his sardonic “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Pistols sign-off seemed a fitting epitaph for a movement that had promised so much. The only true torchbearers left standing appeared to be Messrs Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. However, The Clash themselves were, as Strummer readily admitted in Don Letts’ excellent documentary The Clash: Westway To The World, at their lowest ebb. “I think,” he said, “that is when we showed our greatest mettle.”

ALL THE YOUNG PUNKS

Rewind three years and The Clash, alongside the Pistols and The Damned, were heralded as punk pioneers by the rock press when the scene exploded in 1976. Their eponymous debut album, released in the UK on 8 April 1977, had smashed its way to the Top 15 and featured anthemic favourites such as I’m So Bored With The USA, White Riot, London’s Burning and Career Opportunities, alongside a cover of Police & Thieves. The inclusion of the Junior Murvin reggae number set The Clash apart from their contemporaries and, no doubt already feeling constrained by the phlegm-soaked straight jacket of punk, Strummer knew their rallying cry had to be heard: “It needed to break out and be kinda global.”

With eyes on the US, CBS suggested Sandy Pearlman produce the second album. While Give ’Em Enough Rope contains some of the band’s best-loved tracks – Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Guns On The Roof and Stay Free – the LP received criticism from some quarters for its glossy finish. For many, Pearlman had stripped all the volatile vim and barbed nervous energy of The Clash.

MICHAEL PUTLAND/GETTY ROGER RESSMEYER/GETTY

However, it did claim the No. 2 spot in the UK album chart and helped cement a foothold in the States. Esteemed US rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in The Village Voice dated 11 December 1978, that …Rope was “more evidence that The Clash are the greatest rock & roll band left standing.”

While the first two albums were well received, the band were in financial dire straits. “Economically, we were really tight,” Strummer told Melody Maker’s Chris Bohn in December 1979. The Clash’s relationship with their manager Bernie Rhodes had disintegrated and he was fired. As a result, they lost their Camden HQ at Rehearsal Rehearsals and Simonon’s then girlfriend, Caroline Coon, stepped into the Rhodesshaped hole. A Stateside tour was bankrolled by their US label Epic, and on returning to London the search was on for a new rehearsal space and the little matter of album number three.

BACK IN THE GARAGE

Johnny Green, The Clash’s road manager and all-round fixer, discovered Vanilla Rehearsal Studios in Pimlico. From the outside, Vanilla looked inconspicuous to any passers-by, a windowless garage that housed a rehearsal space towards the back. Offering seclusion and privacy, Vanilla was the perfect place for the band to escape friends, family and, most importantly, prying ears. In his book A Riot Of Our Own: Night & Day With The Clash, Green wrote: “One day, I caught Annie Lennox, then of The Tourists, halfway up the stairs, bending an ear towards the music, and I chucked her out.”

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About Long Live Vinyl

The Clash, Gang Of Four, Buzzcocks, The Pop Group… 1979 was a hell of a year for music! Our epic cover feature tells the true story behind one of the most influential albums of all time, London Calling, as a new deluxe 40th anniversary reissue is unveiled. We also speak to a host of bands who wouldn't have existed without The Clash's revolutionary masterpiece. In other 1979 news, we've rounded up the key members of the post-punk movement that shaped one of British music's greatest years to tell us why it was so special and dig out some of the essential records from the final year of the 70s. Elsewhere, we count down the 40 greatest double albums of all time, London Calling included – from Tago Mago to Daydream Nation via Songs In The Key Of Life and The White Album. How many have you got? Talking of great classic albums, we take an in-depth look at Gene Clark's lost masterpiece No Other, finally given a reissue by 4AD this month. And our packed interviews section brings you chats with ELO legend Jeff Lynne, rising Irish folk heroes Lankum, indie veterans Stereophonics and Tindersticks as they tell us about their new albums. If all that's not enough you'll find a host of new release and reissue reviews from the likes of Nick Cave, The Rolling Stones, Prince, R.E.M., The Who, FKA Twigs and Michael Kiwanuka, as well as the latest turntable reviews. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for vinyl lovers.