It started with the album cover, those neon pink and green letters, down and over, spelling out London Calling. And the photograph — THAT photograph — of Paul Simonon smashing his Fender bass into the stage. It is, says Ottawa musician John Carroll, “maybe the only truly meaningful instrument smash in rock history.”
The photo was taken at the Palladium in New York, when Simonon was angry that bouncers were hassling fans. Photographer Pennie Smith captured the moment, but didn’t like the photo’s soft focus. Years later, Q magazine named it the best rock-and-roll photo of all time. (The broken bass lives at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, though currently it’s in a London Calling exhibit at the Museum of London, in London, U.K.)
The album cover’s typography and colours were lifted from Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut, perhaps as an homage, though easily seen as a starting shot at pop music on an album that notoriously declared, in the very first verse, that “phoney Beatle-mania has bitten the dust.”
Punk attitude, but was it punk music? The album had pop of its own, plus R&B, reggae, ska, rockabilly, even some jazz — and, of course, a lot of punk, though it remains a matter of opinion whether the greatest album in punk is a punk album at all.
Nothing in punk had reached so high, nor had so broadly embraced other musical styles. It’s both opportunity and challenge for the Ottawa musicians who’ll play London Calling, from start to finish, in a fundraising show at the 27 Club on Dec. 14 — 40 years to the day from the album’s original release.
I interviewed (separately) the musicians Omar Montelongo and John Carroll about the concert and the album that inspired it. Their comments follow, edited for brevity and such.
Q: When did you first hear London Calling? What was your reaction?
Omar Montelongo: I had just joined a ska band called the Skatterbrains. Noah, the keyboard player, invited me to his parents’ house. He wanted the band to do Guns of Brixton. I was positive London Calling was a best-of compilation record. There was no way there could be so many amazing songs of such varied styles on one record. It seemed like everything I’d heard before, yet it was like nothing I’d heard before. I was blown away. The diversity of the songs, from the jazzy meandering blues of Jimmy Jazz to the straight up ska of Wrong ’em Boyo. The album is soulful, angry, rich in musical diversity and pretty much perfect.
John Carroll: It would have been around 10-11 years old. We were into the Beatles, Stones, Sabbath, Simon and Garfunkel etc. In spite of the fact that earlier punk, mainly the Sex Pistols, had no real appeal to me, London Calling was riveting. The Clash really grabbed me by the ears. It was new, and the songs all seemed so different from each other. It still hits me like a plane crashing through the roof of a house whilst I sit in front of a stereo in Nepean.
Q: Did it affect your own sense of how music can be made?
JC: I think it was definitely a gateway from a fairly whimsical sense of what a song was into seeing a whole new potential for songs.
OM: The album was a huge influence on my music making. It showed me that you could mix and meld styles within an album without coming off as a poser.
Q: How did the anniversary show at the 27 Club come about?
OM: Joel Carlson suggested it a couple of years ago, Greg Kerr took up the torch a few weeks ago, then I brought the idea to Shawn Scallen, who got really excited (for Shawn). Shawn offered us Dec. 14, the actual original release date, and we jumped on it. Everything else came together super quickly within a week.
Police N’ Thieves will kick off with London Calling, Brand New Cadillac, Jimmy Jazz, Hateful and Rudie Can’t Fail. Ready Steady Go (former members of Jimmy George, et al) will do Spanish Bombs, The Right Profile and Lost In The Supermarket. Police N’ Thieves will come back for Clampdown before the Radicals (former Rudeboy) do Guns of Brixton and Wrong ‘Em Boyo. Next up will be John Carroll doing The Card Cheat, followed by Juice (former Cardiff Giant) performing Lover’s Rock and Four Horsemen. Ready Steady Go will hit the stage again for I’m Not Down and Revolution Rock, and Police N’ Thieves will finish with Train in Vain.
JC: I’ll be doing Koka Kola and The Card Cheat. Scott Fairchild got a hold of me and asked for those two. Truth be told, I would have enjoyed doing any of the songs. I’ll be solo. The sort of fanfare like quality of that (opening piano on The Card Cheat) made me glad I got handed it, because it really lends itself to being done solo. A lot of the songs rely heavily on a rhythmic interplay that suit a band situation, whereas that one works as a sort of a folk ballad.
Q: Which raises the point, do you play it straight, or dare to interpret?
OM: We do it pretty straight. It would feel wrong somehow to try to mess with perfection. That being said, I haven’t heard the other bands and what they’re doing. I imagine John Carroll will do something interesting.
JC: I am reinterpreting the feel of both of them, keeping the forms relatively close and trying to roughly adhere to the melodies. I think the mark of a good song is it’s ability to shine through various interpretations, and while a big part of this album is the sound and style of the band at that moment in time, an essential aspect of its greatness is that these are really good or great songs. In short, I will be messing with them a bit, but hopefully not losing most of the magic.
Q: Any surprises for those in attendance?
OM: There may or may not be a bass sacrificed. There will be horns, as well.
Q: I see the show is a benefit for Carleton University radio station CKCU, which has been dealing with the financial consequences of provincial government policy on student fees.
OM: We wanted to do something to help CKCU in light of how Doug Ford was fucking with them. Since that has gone away, let’s say it’s a bit of payback for all the support they’ve given our various bands over the years.
In Town: Tickets to the performance Dec. 14 at The 27 Club are $10. They are available through spectrasonic.com and eventbrite.ca. The exhibition The Clash: London Calling, is at the Museum of London to April 19. Admission there is free. For more on CKCU’s fundraising drive, please see ckcufm.com.