07 August 2008

Clash in the playground: how football fuelled London Calling



In the spring of 1979, The Clash were in a funk. Despite coming off a tour of America's east and west coasts during which they were treated as visiting heroes, they were, as lead singer Joe Strummer later recalled, "at [their] lowest ebb". They had acrimoniously split with Bernie Rhodes, their domineering manager, and subsequently parted company with the temporary replacement. In addition, their fractious relationship with their bosses at CBS continued, as the label dithered over whether to back the band's third album.

Deprived of their usual rehearsal space, which had been leased from British Rail by Rhodes, the group had to find a new base. They settled on Vanilla Studios, a spartan facility in an upstairs room of a garage in Pimlico in central London. It was here that the new sense of brotherhood fostered during their American adventure, unencumbered by the "hectoring" of Rhodes, bore fruit. Thoughts and ideas were freely exchanged. The band worked diligently, eschewing the attractions of the White Swan pub down the road, and a collection of diverse, multi-dimensional songs soon emerged.

It wasn't just music, passion and work ethic that drove the process along. Across the road from Vanilla was a playground, on which the band and assorted friends and associates would every day have a game of football. The band attributed the nurturing of this atmosphere within which their creativity could flourish to this daily ritual. "We'd play football 'til we dropped and then start playing music," said Strummer. "It was a good limbering-up thing." "What they got out of that was unity, a sense of togetherness," said Kosmo Vinyl, trusted member of The Clash's entourage. Lead guitarist Mick Jones concurred: "I just think we really found ourselves at that time and it was a lot to do with the football. No, I'm serious! Because it made us play together as one". Pat Gilbert notes the echo of Bob Marley and the Wailers in this routine, adding that taking out their aggression in this manner must have had a hand in the lack of vitriol in the new songs, relative to their previous work.

Where they became most aggressive was when executives from CBS would come to Vanilla to check up on the band. Invariably dragged into the game, they would suffer at the feet of The Clash. "Brutal, brutal football matches. I mean, war!," said Vinyl. "Boy, they stuck it to them guys!" The band set upon their employers with glee. "They were kicked in the shins, they were pushed over...that was quite fun!," said Paul Simonon, the Clash's bass player. It seems they saved some of their fury for the rehearsal room, however. "I don't think anyone was hospitalised," said Jones.

It's tempting to see whether there is any correlation between the individual football style of each member of the band and their respective musical styles. Simonon remembers himself as "not[...]the most skilful footballer...I tended to chop everybody, so whenever I had the ball, everybody would run away". Strummer was another whose lack of technique was masked by a surfeit of energy: "Joe was the workhorse who'd be struggling to try to get there". Roadie Johnny Green recalled: "Joe would be well-meaning and try hard but wasn't very good". Simonon thought of Jones as "really swift and nimble," whereas Green said "Jonesy was really flash, but we all laughed at his style, because he wasn't as good as he thought he was". It appears drummer Topper Headon was the best of the lot: "pretty nifty," according to Simonon; "skilled and nimble," said Green.

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A clutch of new material in hand, The Clash decamped to Wessex Studios in Highbury, north London to record the new album. They selected Guy Stevens to produce. Stevens had been a stalwart of the London R&B scene, turning the Rolling Stones onto much of the music which would make up their earliest work, as well as naming Procul Harum and Mott The Hoople. The words most commonly used to describe Stevens are 'maverick', 'manic' and 'alcoholic'. He was summoned to helm the LP by Joe Strummer, who trawled the pubs of central London in search of him, and finally found him dishevelled in a watering hole off Oxford Street: "I found a row of blokes sitting slumped over the bar staring in their beer...I spotted him because of his woolly hat. I went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder, he looked round and it was like son-find-father in one of those corny films".


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During the making of what would become London Calling, Stevens had a daily ritual of his own. He had found out that there was Clash fan among the employees at Arsenal. Having bribed said employee with tickets and t-shirts, he would have his taxi-driver stop off at the ground every morning, whereupon he would enter the stadium and walk out onto the pitch. He would then kneel down in the centre circle and pray, teary-eyed, to Liam Brady.

The Clash thrived on Stevens' near-lunatic method, which contrasted markedly with the meticulous approach of Sandy Pearlman, the producer of their second album Give 'Em Enough Rope. "He used to believe his job was to get the maximum amount of emotion on a record," said Bill Price, the engineer on London Calling. He achieved this by means of what Price described as "direct psychic injection," which involved leaping around the room while the band played, often stopping to bellow into the face of one of the musicians; trying to smash a plastic chair on the floor; whirling a ladder above his head during a take (Vinyl: "it keeps you on your toes...you've got to pay attention to what you're playing and what's coming...it kind of worked for them"); pouring a bottle of wine over the keyboard of a brand new Bösendorfer piano to "improve the sound"; and playing a recording of the commentary from the famous 1979 FA Cup Final at ear-piercing volume over the studio speakers while holding aloft a scarf bearing the words 'There's only one Liam Brady'.

The Clash released London Calling in December 1979 in the UK and in January 1980 in the US. It received the accolade of 'Album of the '80s' from Rolling Stone. At the risk of editorialising (hey, it is my blog), it's as near as dammit to the perfect rock and roll album.

Guy Stevens died on August 29 1981 after overdosing on a drug intended to combat his alcoholism. Three weeks later, The Clash recorded 'Midnight to Stevens,' an elegy to their friend:



(He may have had a shitty death, but at least he went out to a Mick Jones guitar line.)

The anniversary of Stevens' death falls tomorrow three weeks. It would perhaps be inappropriate to raise a glass to him, but I'll at least be rattling my prescription medication, having a kickabout and returning to stick London Calling on the gramophone before turning to face north London.



The information in this post has been culled from: Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash by Pat Gilbert; The Complete Clash by Keith Topping; the article How I Met The Clash by Kris Needs; and the documentary The Last Testament: The Making of London Calling by Don Letts, from the 25th anniversary edition of London Calling.

Photo of the playground in Pimlico from Don J Whistance's Clash site.

With thanks to Vandal-prone for, obliquely, inspiring this post.

7 comments:

Steve 8/8/08 3:51 PM  

London Calling is one of my top choices, too. An ex-pat English friend of mine told me about how in his spiked hair days he used to love seeing The Clash at his favorite punk clubs. To his mind, they had lost their raw energy by the time of their commercial success. The guy's a banker now and wears navy pin-striped suits, so I suspect he was trying, in part, to establish his street cred. I myself thought London Calling had plenty of umph to go with their burgeoning musicianship. They hadn't left it all in those punk bars, or on the playground pitch.

Your side stories about Guy Stevens and Liam Brady were interesting. Leave it to you to work Arsenal folklore into the thread.

fredorrarci 9/8/08 6:23 PM  

I totally agree with you on London Calling. I don't think the Clash ever lacked umph. The first album is great, of course, but to me, London Calling captures them at their best time: as you said, their playing had come along so well (plus they'd added Topper, without whose skills it's doubtful whether the record would have been so good), and they were happy and focused. They kind of lost the run of themselves with Sandinista - I like it, but it could easily have been pared down to a single album (try doing the same with London Calling).

Brian 11/8/08 9:58 PM  

I think the first album is overrated!* But as far as I'm concerned London Calling could be the soundtrack of heaven. Great post.

*exclamation point added as a barricade for the sentence to take cover behind as it's pelted with bottles and rocks.

fredorrarci 12/8/08 11:30 PM  

It does surprise me how many people seem to prefer the first album to London Calling. Perhaps I'm being unkind, but perhaps many who hold this opinion are similar to Steve's friend, testing it against the standard of the supposed purity of punk. Mick Jones has made the point about how ridiculous it was when punks would criticise the Clash for straying from the newly-established orthodoxy, when punk was meant to be about freedom of expression, not narrowing one's horizons.

The first album's still great, though.

don 27/8/09 11:05 PM  

Thank you for using my photo !!

Regards,

Don

Fredorrarci 27/8/09 11:16 PM  

Is that a "you've used my photo without my permission, you cheeky sod!" kind of thank you or just a normal kind? (He asked nervously...)

In any case -- thank you.

Ted 5/12/09 5:33 PM  

Fred,

Just found this post. Great background; I had no idea. I personally, can I just inject some hyperbole here, I personally think that LC is maybe one of the finest cultural statements of the 20th century.

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