The Clash: London Calling @ the Museum of London

The Museum of London is hosting a FREE exhibition celebrating the 40th birthday of the release of The Clash’s third and probably best album, 1979’s London Calling.

In what amounts to one large-ish room divided up by a few partitions they’ve manged to cram over 150 items from The Clash’s personal archive, including notes, sketches, song lyrics, loads of leather jackets, some bondage trousers, a couple of guitars, lots and lots of photos, wall labels explaining the social background of England in 1979, profiles of all the band members and key players in the album’s creation, such as the record producer, the photographer and the designer, newspaper headlines and cuttings from the New Musical Express, fanzines and freebies and badges and various vinyl versions of the LP and single – and, on a big screen dominating proceedings, footage of the band playing live in 1979.

1979

There’s a detailed timeline of what the Clash were up to in 1979:

  • in May they checked into the Vanilla Rehearsal Studios in Pimlico
  • in August they moved to Wessex Sound Studios in Islington at 196 Highbury New Park, to be precise) to work with ‘shamanic’ producer Guy Stevens
  • in September they set off for their second tour of the USA, titled Take the Fifth
  • in November they returned to the UK to put the finishing touches to the 19-track double album
  • 14 December 1979 London Calling was released and immediately hailed as a classic.

Joe Strummer’s typewriter from 1979

A melting pot of styles

There are quotes from band members littered around the walls. Mick Jones explains that by 1979 punk felt like it was getting narrower and narrower, whereas the band were becoming more proficient and wanted to expand their musical horizons. Hence the inclusion on London Calling of straight crawdaddy blues, jazz, ska and reggae, plus softer songs like Lost in the Supermarket.

Social history

There’s a video of news footage from 1979 accompanied by a brief summary of social history, namely the winter of discontent, rubbish bags piled high in Leicester Square due to the dustman’s strike, the election of Mrs Thatcher to power in May (with a majority of 43, compare and contrast with Boris’s majority of 80), the Iranian revolution which overthrew the Shah in February, the assassination of Earl Mountbatten in August 1979 and, eleven days after the album was released, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Those were the days 🙂

Exhibition highlights

– The band and their crew took it in turns to record each other at Wessex Studios on one of the new home video recorders. These tapes have just turned up and are playing on a monitor.

– There’s a knackered old mixing desk playing songs from the album, on which you can shift the mixing controls up or down to raise or lower the vocal, guitar, bass or drums on various tracks.

– In a sense the highlight, and given a case to itself, is Paul Simonon’s broken Fender Precision Bass. The bass was damaged on stage at The Palladium in New York City on 20th September 1979, as Simonon smashed it on the floor in an act of spontaneous and complete frustration.

Paul Simonon’s smashed-up bass guitar © The Clash

It is mildly interesting to read there was a squabble between the album designer Ray Lowry and the photographer Pennie Smith, who didn’t like the photo because it is out of focus.

– Talking of Pennie Smith there’s a wall of photographs by her taken during The Clash’s ‘Take the 5th’ tour of North America in September and October 1979. These are printed and shown here for the first time. It was a selection of them which were used for the album’s inner sleeve.

– One of Joe Strummer’s notebooks from 1979, open at page showing Ice Age, which was to become lyrics for the song London Calling.

– Joe Strummer’s typewriter used to document ideas, lyrics and other writings

– Topper Headon’s drum sticks, which are one of the only remaining items of Headon’s from this time.

– The 1950s Fender Esquire used by Joe Strummer during the recording of London Calling.

– A handy map of central London with red pins marking the homes, venues, recording studios and other places of Clash interest during this period.

– The handwritten note by Mick Jones showing the final and correct order for the four sides of the double album ‘London Calling’.

Mick Jones’s hand-written running order of tracks for the album © The Clash

Clothes

If you like clothes / fashion / punk fashion, you’ll enjoy admiring Paul’s leather jacket, Paul’s uniform cap, Paul’s shirt, Joe’s shirt, Harrington jacket and uniform cap, Paul’s trousers, Joe’s sunglasses and brothelcreepers, with full details of who designed them, and much much more!

Testimony and stories

All this memorabilia is sort of interesting, but I found the the stories told by various members of the band’s entourage much more grabby.

For example, the DJ Barry ‘Scratchy’ Myers describes how he was given more or less complete freedom to play whatever tracks he liked as the crowd came into each venue – and that The Coasters’ Riot in Cell Block H was a favourite, as was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons. He tells us that the night Simonon smashed up his guitar (21st September 1979) the intro track was MPLA by Tapper Zukie. In fact there’s a whole display case devoted to a selection of Scratchy’s records and the very headphones he wore on the tour!

Then there’s cartoonist and artist Ray Lowry. Lowry had already had cartoons published in the NME, struck up a friendship with the Clash’s manager after seeing them in Manchester in 1976, and was invited on their Take The Fifth American tour in September 1979. He filled notebooks with sketches and impression, some of which were published back in the NME, and began to think about artwork for the album.

I had no idea the album cover for London Calling was such a straightforward rip-off of Elvis Presley’s first album.

Album covers for Elvis Presley 1956 and London Calling 1979. Notice the slight similarity?

Don Letts gives an account of the filming of the video for the title track in which he explains that he was such a city kid that he didn’t realise the Thames was tidal or that it rose and sank by up to fifteen feet, which meant he’d booked a boat moored by the river to film on but hadn’t factored in the change of tides. By the time they’d figured all that out it had become night-time and it was raining on a freezing December night, and the band was really pissed off… But it was that which gave it its atmosphere.

One of Pennie Smith’s many photos of the boys, left to right: Mick Jones (lead guitar and vocals), Topper Headon (drums), Joe Strummer (rhythm guitar and vocals), Paul Simonon (bass) © Pennie Smith

Personal reflections

I bought all the Clash’s singles as they came out – they’re in a box somewhere – I’ve got White Riot, Remote Control, Complete Control, Clash City Rockers, White Man in Hammersmith Palais – but I had stopped caring by November 1978 and so didn’t bother to buy Tommy Gun when it came out.

Like a lot of fans I was appalled when, after a whole first album devoted to the frustrations of life in London and England, and telling the Yanks to fuck off (the first album has a track titled I’m So Bored With the USA)… they then proceeded to jet off and make their second album, Give Em Enough Rope, in America with a producer who made them sound like a heavy metal band!!!!

From that point onwards the Clash seemed to become more and more slavishly American, or more and more in thrall to American culture, repeatedly touring America and going on to cultivate their obsession with Central America (their fourth album was titled Sandinista!).

London Calling was their comeback album after the appalling Give Em Enough Rope but really only confirms their American orientation, given that the second and third track are an American blues (Brand New Cadillac and the flaccid chordings of Jimmy Jazz) and half the tracks have got horns and orchestras on, such as the awful The Card. Horns and orchestra?

By this stage a second wave of post-punk bands had come along: Sixousie and the Banshees had released The Scream in November 1978, Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures in April 1979, The Cure released their debut in May 1979.

In other words the punk movement, taken in the purest sense (the Pistols, the Damned, the Clash) may have boxed itself into a 2-minute, three-chord corner, but it had opened the door to a whole new wave of weird and edgy sounds, which was to blossom in unexpected directions, creating the Gothic and post-industrial genres of music to name just two.

In the same month that The Clash were putting the finishing touches to London Calling, Joy Division recorded the early track Ice Age. It comes from a different universe, unlike anything ever heard before.

Next to the savage new worlds of the imagination opened up by Siouxsie or Joy Division, the Clash wearing their bandanas and berets and posing as rock stars in distant America , and their glib obsession with war (Tommy Gun, English Civil War, Spanish Bombs, Combat Rock, Revolution Rock) seemed risible, preposterous. By the time of their fifth album, Combat Rock in 1982, everyone I knew had long stopped listening to them.

Their early presence was a shock to the system, genuinely capturing the reality of violence and threat on the shabby streets of late 1970s London…

Cover of their debut album, the Clash, 1977

But five short years later, this is how they dressed for their live concert at Shea Stadium in New York.

Cover of The Clash Live at Shea Stadium 1982

They had become ludicrous clowns.

A lot later Strummer gave an interview where he said he was proud that The Clash didn’t stay stuck in London and the straitjacket of punk, taking the whole world for their subject – and looking back, you can cherrypick catchy songs from the later period such as Shall I Stay Or Shall I Go? or Rock the Casbah. But they had stopped being relevant or at the forefront of the movement by the time London Calling was released.

The Clash were there right at the beginning, creating a revolution in the language of guitar bands and went on to apply their abrasive, street attitude to the wide variety of existing styles you can hear on London Calling – the Clash do blues, The Clash do jazz, soul or reggae. But bands like Siouxsie, Joy Division and The Cure didn’t just bring a new approach to existing forms – they invented whole new languages, forms and shapes of music, terrifying sounds never heard before, anywhere on the planet.

The Clash set out to explore the existing world of music and, disappointingly, discovered most of it was based in America. Siouxsie, Joy Division, The Cure and a horde of second-wave bands invented entire new worlds for themselves (and us) to explore.

So as you might expect, I prefer The Clash’s purer, angrier, earlier tracks from the start of their career. Not much can match up to the drive and venom of Remote Control, I’m So Bored with the USALondon’s Burning or the matchless White Riot – everything you need to know on the subject said in one minute fifty-three seconds.

Still… There’s no denying their early seismic impact, their huge influence, and then their sustained ability to produce good poppy, rocky songs right to the end of their brief career. Thanks boys, thanks for all the great sounds and good times.

This exhibition is a fabulously enjoyable trip down Memory Lane.


Related links

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers @ Tate Britain

The Asset Strippers by Mike Nelson

British installation artist Mike Nelson (b.1967) has filled the central atrium of Tate Britain with a rich collection of objects plundered from Britain’s industrial heritage, the entire installation titled The Asset Strippers.

There are old weaving machines, heavy-duty metal cabinets, two huge old-fashioned weighing scales, the threshing wheels of a tractor attachment, the huge rubber tracks from a mechanical digger. He has collected knitting machines from textile factories like the ones he grew up around in the East Midlands, woodwork stripped from a former army barracks, graffitied steel awnings once used to secure a condemned housing estate, doors from an NHS hospital, and much, much more. It is a rag and bone yard, a paradise of defunct paraphernalia artfully arranged to clutter and fill Tate’s long narrow central space.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

My experiences of manual and physical labour

I absolutely loved the sight and smell of this installation. It took me right back to my childhood. I grew up in a village store-cum-petrol station. I started working in the shop when I was about 11, graduating to the till when I was 14. They let me serve on the petrol pumps when I was 16, waiting for cars to pull in then leaping up, pulling the cold, metal, petrol nozzle out of its socket on the pump, and guiding the long, thick, dirty, rubber tube away from the pump itself and over towards the fuel filler door. Some doors you could open manually, some you had to ask the driver to ping open for you. Unscrew the metal cap or pull out the cheap plastic cap. Insert the nozzle and pull the trigger, setting off the familiar noise of the fuel pump. Asking the owner how much they wanted, then asking if they wanted their oil and water and tyre pressure checked as well.

Off to one side of the forecourt was the tyre bay where customers left their cars for a few hours and where a succession of the village lads eased the rubber tyres off with long heavy metal tyre levers, and patched up or replaced the inner tubes. Later there was an expensive new machine which gripped and removed the tyre from the metal wheel with great snorts of compressed air.

The bay was dark and smelt of rubber and oil and Swarfega. Out back of the main house was a huge shed, really a small warehouse, in which were piled hundreds of tyres of all shapes and sizes in vertical columns, towering tubes of smelly dirty rubber, often half full of stagnant oily rainwater which spilled over you as you made your way along the narrow walkways between them looking for a particular size and manufacture.

Beyond the village were the fields where you’d see the migrant workers endlessly bent over the ploughed furrows during the summer and autumn, picking vegetables, cabbage and kale, sometimes in the blistering sunshine, sometimes in the driving rain, chucking them onto the flat-bed truck pulled by a tractor which lumbered slowly in front of them. I stood at the pumps in a waterproof coat, the rain streaming down my face as I filled up another car, and wondered which of us had it worse.

Like many students, I got Christmas work as a temp postman. Going out on the rounds was fun, so long as it didn’t rain. I was fascinated by the big sorting rooms, with their arrays of metal cabinets and pigeonholes, the hundreds of fraying postal sacks everywhere, and the huge industrial weighing scales. There’s a pair of giant scales here in this exhibition. They are set on a brace of stinky, oily, creosoted old railway sleepers, with a couple of big granite rocks surreally placed on the scales themselves. They made my heart sing.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Working as a dustman

Later, during my A-levels and in the holidays from university, I worked on building sites, and in factories. I worked as a temporary dustman in my local new town, up at 5am , on the road at 6.30am, done by noon. (Most of the dusties had second jobs they did in the afternoons. Each round had been designed to end at a pub where we a) processed all their rubbish b) had a well-earned pint.

There were two roles – pullers-out and chuckers-on (plus, I suppose, the driver). Pullers-out were dropped at the edge of this or that estate and spent an hour or so pulling out every single rubbish bag from every single rubbish bin and assembling them in piles out on the pavement. The cart would be off somewhere else for a while, clearing up another area, then, suddenly, would come storming into the puller-outs’ estate, and the chuckers-on would jump down from the bar at the back of the cart and walk along beside the cart as it drove slowly through the estate, stopping at each pile for the chuckers-on to, well, chuck the rubbish on.

The blighted landscapes of the 1970s! Rundown estates, high-rise blocks, wheel-less Ford Cortinas up on bricks, abandoned kids’ bikes and toys strewn across grass verges littered with dog poo, and everywhere rubbish, rubbish, rubbish spilling out of ripped bags onto the verges and pavement. Chicken bones, all sorts of packaging, half-eaten meals, unknown rotting vegetable matter, cardboard, sacks of ashes and burnt coals. A world of waste, every day, pulled out, piled up and chucked on by sweating, dirty, working men.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

How Mike Nelson assembled The Asset Strippers

All these thoughts and feelings and memories came flooding back as I strolled among this wonderful graveyard of old, heavy industrial machinery and furniture (cabinets and benches, looms and equipment). Work. The universe of work and the countless tools and devices and machinery which people have built and worked with over hundreds of years.

Mike Nelson assembled this collection by scouring online sales and auctions, focusing on big ‘statement’ pieces of equipment which were being sold off from closing-down factories or defunct businesses. He then arranged them:

  1. as units – most of them being made up not of one object but a pair or more of objects artfully combined
  2. carefully situated these ‘units’ throughout Tate Britain’s long narrow atrium, to create a walk-through phantasmagoria of industrial junk

The curators suggest that the pieces appear first as industrial artefacts, then you realise they have been assembled into sculptures, and from that point onwards they shimmer back and forth between mementos of the real world and aesthetic contrivances. Maybe. But my sensibility was too flooded by their size and bulk and strong industrial design. I just saw them as beautifully engineered and designed tools.

Are we really living in a post-industrial society?

The wall labels claim all these wonderful objects are testimony to, or heirlooms of, ‘a lost era and the vision of society it represented’.

I can’t help wondering if that’s true. Every week the dustmen still come and empty my bins, in fact there are more trucks than ever since there are now separate bins for waste, recycling and food, as well as periodic visits by the big caged van which takes large objects, as well as the one you order up to remove garden waste, cuttings, and prunings.

Someone picks all those up by hand. Someone drives the dustcarts back to the depot, which is supervised, run and maintained by people, who then supervise the sorting of bags into different skips, which are then sent to waste food aggregators, or to the incinerator or – at my local tip in Wandsworth – loaded onto river barges and sailed slowly down the Thames to be offloaded and carted up slopes of waste and thrown into vast landfill sites in Essex.

People do that, all of that. Driving the carts, humping the rubbish, loading the barges, skippering the tugs, docking the other end, unloading, carrying from the docks to vast holes in the ground with big diggers. Hard physical work, all down the line, involving dustcarts, huge containers loaded by massive cranes onto giant tugs pulled by big trawlers down to industrial docks and unloaded onto giant diggers which carry the waste across derelict landscapes to the big holes.

Maybe it’s not ‘industrial’ in the sense of taking place in big factors, but it is industrial in the sense of being highly mechanised and relying on giant machines powered by oil.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

Certainly all this wonderful equipment has been thrown away. But that doesn’t mean all the functions they performed have been superannuated. Far from it. It just means they’ve been replaced by newer, more effective equipment.

Indeed it is a little too easy to dismiss heavy industry, manufacturing and labouring as having somehow disappeared from Britain. For sure, the vast coal mining industry has more or less vanished, ship building pretty much gone, and industries like car-making and steel-making are much reduced and hugely more automated than they were in my youth (in the 1970s).

But, to quote the Manufacturers’ Association:

UK manufacturing is thriving, with the UK currently the world’s eighth largest industrial nation. If current growth trends continue, the UK will break into the top five by 2021. In the UK, manufacturing makes up 11% of GVA, 44% of total UK exports, 70% of business R&D, and directly employs 2.6 million people.

In other words, there are still lots and lots of our fellow citizens working with heavy machinery, in light and heavy industry, making things. And tens of thousands of people still work in docks and shipyards, at distribution centres and industrial warehouses, in agriculture and in food packing plants up and down the country, and in the basic kind of street cleaning/rubbish collection, gas-water-electricity mains maintenance jobs which I’ve described above. In manual labouring jobs.

A moment’s reflection makes me think of the huge HS2 project, and the Cross-Link project, both huge feats of engineering which require skilled workers and supervisors working with very heavy drilling, tunnel-making and railway-building equipment.

So it feels, to me at any rate, just a bit too easy for the curators to dismiss these objects as:

remnants from a bygone era… [with which] Nelson creates a melancholic journey through Britain’s recent social and political history.

Or to comment that the installation:

presents us with a vision of artefacts cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…

Go ask the Manufacturers’ Association if we truly live in a post-industrial society, and they will tell you that the death of Britain’s manufacturing industry has been much exaggerated.

And in any case, many of these artefacts are not truly ‘industrial’.

Take the ‘doors from an NHS hospital’ which are included in the show. We still have NHS hospitals and they still have doors, so these objects are hardly ‘cannibalised from the last days of the industrial era…’

Similarly, the steel awnings used to block up the doors of abandoned council properties – well, I see the same kind of thing quite often as I cycle round my part of London, blocking up derelict buildings with steel panels still seems to be ongoing practice. So, again, there’s nothing particularly ‘industrial’ or ‘post-industrial’ about them.

The concrete tubing which features at the end of the hall, arranged on a couple of old telegraph poles, I’ve seen massive concrete tubes like that being installed in the current updates to the London water mains. And telegraph poles – we still have them, don’t we?

Many of these artefacts aren’t symbolic of anything, they’re just worn-out examples of objects which we still use and which still make up the built environment around us. To call all of this stuff ‘post-industrial’ or relics ‘from the last days of the industrial era…’ is to simplify their origins and effects.

Sure there are old-fashioned weaving looms and light engineering machinery which, yes, I dare say that’s been superseded. But rubber tyre tracks for diggers, doors for hospitals and metal grilles blocking up abandoned council houses – these are types of objects still very much in use.

What I’m driving at is I think the aesthetic and emotional, and even historical-intellectual, effects of this installation are far more complicated than the curators, and maybe even the artist himself, imagines. Some of the objects are relics of now-defunct industries and technologies. But others are just knackered examples of machinery and industrial designs which we are still using.

So the display is – in my opinion – saying something about the continuity between Britain’s heavy industrial era and the present, so-called, post-industrial age. Revealing unexpected continuities amid the wreckage of obsolescent machinery.

The dignity of work

Anyway. I loved this installation and loved these big heavy old smelly objects, loved their shape and size and weight, loved their smells of rubber and oil and machinery. I bent right down to smell the tough, rubber smell of the digger’s tracks, I wanted to open and close the huge heavy metal cabinets, I wanted to make the looms work again, I wanted to stand on the big red scale and see if it still works.

These are objects of love and veneration because they contain within them the cumulative toil and effort and care and labour of generations of workers who have spent the best hours of their lives building, installing, maintaining and using this equipment.

For me this huge installation is a hymn to the dignity of working life – which I know as well as anyone, is often undignified, dirty and degrading in itself – but which gains in human dignity by virtue of the effort and concentration and care which has gone into it. Here’s the section of big concrete tubing laid out on a ‘stand’ made of telegraph poles I mentioned earlier. I loved its round shape. I loved the smell of the wooden poles and the lost functionality indicated by the couple of white porcelain insulators, the bit which held the electric wires separate from the main pole and visible at the bottom of the photo.

All placed on rust-resistant-painted steel bars and laid on the kind of massive tarpaulin sheet you find in any number of industrial site.

Installation view of Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain. Photo by the author

The installation is divided into three sections, with knackered wooden partitions dividing them off and creating walkways across the atrium for visitors going to other exhibitions. Even these partitions are made from the remnants of old buildings, with heavy wooden doors which many of the visitors I saw hesitated to touch or open because they looked, well, old and intimidating.

What beautiful objects! What an inspiring installation!

It prompted all kinds of half-articulate thoughts and feelings. Made me remember all the physical labouring job I’ve had, the memory of all the things my hands have held and lifted, in sun and rain and snow.

And reflect poignantly on the trillions of man and woman hours of work which have been expended in this country, in the toil and use of so many machines, so much equipment, from trawlers hauling in nets in the North sea to coalminers using heavy drills in South Wales, from the shipbuilders riveting and welding on the Clyde, to the fleets of light engineering factories along the A4, where my old man started his working life.

We commemorate the dead of the Great War or D-Day in big public ceremonies. I can’t quite see how it could be done practically, but we should also rejoice celebrate mourn condole and remember the vast amount of work work work our forebears carried out, day after day, dutifully, sometimes with love, sometimes with loathing. For better or worse we live amid the result of all their efforts. It is insulting to dismiss this vast, unimaginable legacy of toil and sweat in a few glib sentences. This exhibition is a moving tribute to the pith and marrow of our forebears’ lives, to the achievements of all their work.

Work by the Blue Orchids (1981)

Curators

Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers is curated by Clarrie Wallis, Senior Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate, and Elsa Coustou, Curator of Contemporary British Art, Tate.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: