"London calling to the zombies of death/Quit holding out and draw another breath," the Clash cry out on the title cut of their third and latest album, "London Calling" (Epic E236328), like pterodactyls prehistoric age preaching to a nuclear era. Not since the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" has a drunk, loose romp been so enthusiastically captured on a two-record set, and not since Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" has a double-album offered such an awesome challenge.
"London Calling" is a work that does not know the meaning of the word fear. It takes risks at every turn as if to do so were as involuntary as blinking.
Unlike the clenched-fist anger of their English debut in '77, "The Clash" (or its American repackage, or 1978's "Give 'Em Enough Rope"), the Clash's new album bleeds with the concerns of the human heart. For critics who claim the clashS sound is to rough and sloppy, "London Calling" will be revelation: for loyal fans, it will be final proof that the band does not merely crawl along the punk/new wave axis but actually ranks with British rock's all-time big shots (the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who).
Produced with the bravura of a respectable budget, the album is as carefully mapped out as The Stones' "Let It Bleed." Its eclectic blend of styles is staggering -- punk, New Orleans r&b, rockabilly, shuffle blues, calypso, and, of course, reggae, a genre the Clash have usurped and shaped into their own form of potent voodoo. Yet it isn't the reggae cuts -- "Rudie Can't Fail," "The Guns of Drixton," "Revolution Rock" -- that expose the Clash's nerves thais time around; they've recorded more intense reggae on their covers of "Police & Thieves" and "Pressure Drop" and on the original "White Man in Hammersmith Palais."
Reggae may be in their blood, but their blood is boiling over, not with blind hate, but with the need to revolt against the conditions, poltical and technological, that have been imposed upon our fragile lives. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this has always been the primary motivation behind any significant rock 'n' roll recording. The best moments on "London Calling," then, arise not from musicology but from philosophy, a willingness to face the apathetic and lethargic present before it becomes tommorrow's tombstone.
The complexity of the Clash's new songs (which become even more labyrinthine upon repeated listenings) can be heard in "The Right Profile." The song is a spooky putdown of the modern ages's favorite pastime -- blood and guts. It begins inside the mind of the singer, walking toward an auto accident, as he thinks to himself, "Say, where have I seen this guy? In 'Red River.' 'A Place in the Sun.' Maybe in 'The Misfits.' 'From Here to Eternity.'" The bloodthirsty mob, a gathering of vultures, saves him the task if identifying the guresome victim -- "Everybody say is he alright. /And everybody say what's he like. /And everybody say he sure looks funny. /That's Montgomery Clift, honey!"
Shifting its perspective back to the singer, the song moves from his mind to his heart. "I see a car smashed at night. /Cut the applause and dim the light. /Monty's face is broken on a wheel. /Is he alive? Can he still feel?" Immediately the guiter intrudes, reverberating wth the hard bitter chords of the Bobby Fuller Four.
Yet amidst the confusion and the resounding chords, one comment hangs in the air -- "Shoot his right profile." Flash bulbs pop in unison, the onlookers bare their fangs, a saxophone shrieks for the mutilated.
"The Right Profile" is only one example of the many songs on "London Calling" that stun with their confessions of truth. Protesting totalitarian rule in Spain, the Clash, on "Spanish Bombs," evoke images of the Spanish Civil War that are as moving as the poetry of Spain's Cesar Vallejo. "Clampdown" is a plea for proletarian revolt, performed with so much heartiness from the factory that not even Mitch Ryder in his heyday could hit its stride. An assault upon the advertising mentality, "Koka Kola" aims a blow at the mad scramble of Madison Avenue by slandering its majestic soft-pop symbol -- "Coke adds life where there isn't any. /It's the pause that refreshes in the corridors of power."
As purists traversing rock 'n' roll traditionalism, the Clash occasionally choose to pursue American myths. On "Wrong 'Em Boyo," they reshape the legend of Stagolee in a Mardi Gras mood as spirited as the Wild Tchoupitoulas' colorful, festive march; on "Brand New Cadillac," they greet rockabilly's cool image (the ultimate incarnation of rock 'n' roll) with a growl, while simultaneously employing the metaphor of a girl speeding away in her Cadillac as a representation of rockabilly's sad demise.
But it's on songs such as "I'm Not Down" (an optimistic kick in the tush) and "Train in Vain " (a furious expression of fidelity that sounds exactly like the '70's Rolling Stones) where the Clash's old rage becomes transformed into a new faith, the commitment to a creative vision rather than to a destructive blindness. On "Lost in the Supermarket," instead of satirizing the self-satisfied middle class as the cynical Ray Davis would, the Clash sympathize with their Mr. Nobody, a pathetic figure who feels helpless in his hell of consumer goods. Caring for the poor man's empty existence, the band depicts his plight -- "I wasn't born so much as I fell out. /Nobody seemed to notice me. /We had a hedge back home in the suburb /Over which I never could see."
Clearly, the Clash is a band that can hear hearts beating on every continent, and during these days of international crises and contagious fatigue, that's not an easy trick. "London Calling" is their beacon of sobriety slicing through the tension, a mature expression of human responsibility.