‘London calling to the faraway towns’: How British music changed this American’s life | Geoffrey Kabaservice

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‘London calling to the faraway towns’: How British music changed this American’s life | Geoffrey Kabaservice

As 2020 began, I was wandering the streets of London listening to the Clash. And as the flaming wreckage of this accursed year burns down to its last embers, I’m still thinking about the band and its lead singer, Joe Strummer (born John Graham Mellor), who died 18 years ago on 22 December aged 50.

“London calling to the faraway towns …” As a teenager in a provincial part of Florida in the early 1980s, I heard the Clash’s music as a summons. I’d long had Britain on the brain; my parents did name me for Geoffrey Chaucer, after all. Apart from Canada and Mexico, Britain tends to be the foreign country that Americans know best, since sharing a common language, more or less, facilitates that awareness. And, growing up, I had absorbed a mishmash of British influences, which included reading Shakespeare in school, listening to my parents’ Beatles records, and watching a few utterly baffling episodes of Monty Python on the public television channel.

But then one day in high school a friend put on a tape of London Calling, the Clash’s double album released in the US in 1980, and I felt worlds opening up. Part of the revelation was the sheer quality of the music and the way it blended so many genres to make songs that I knew, immediately, I would be listening to for decades to come. I also felt a distinct sense of betrayal. For several years I’d heard American radio DJs making fun of punk rock, calling it unlistenable garbage without bothering to put so much as a note of it on the air. Here was plain evidence that they were lying. What else were the powers-that-be keeping from us?

Clearly, this was music to change your life. The friend who turned me on to the Clash observed that, as a teenager, the bands you listen to define 85% of your personality. To be drawn toward an esoteric genre of music like punk rock meant abandoning any hope of high school popularity, but also finding a tribe of friends attuned to those strange new vibrations.

The Clash made up much of the soundtrack of my college years. In practice, that meant taking a four-year course on British politics, history and culture from Professor Joe Strummer that was as important as anything else I learned. Mostly, for me, it was a musical education. The Clash may have been “the only band that mattered”, but they led me to discover hundreds of other groups that emerged from the creative explosion around punk and post-punk. That also was an exercise in personal self-definition, which involved trying out personas that ranged from the nihilism of the Sex Pistols to the doomed romanticism of Joy Division to the avant-gardism of My Bloody Valentine. Ultimately, though, the music that meant the most to me was from bands like the Clash, the Jam and the Buzzcocks that built their sonic experiments on the classic structures of pop melodies.

The only fraudulent song the Clash ever wrote was I’m So Bored with the USA. It was a lie because they so obviously were entranced by American culture and valued our musical heritage – much more than I did, at any rate. What did I know or care at the time about Elvis Presley and other American moldy-oldies from the 50s? But the Clash traced their musical lineage directly to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis and his black and white contemporaries drew upon gospel, country, blues and bluegrass to forge a new and revolutionary sound. The Clash wore this influence on their sleeves, to the point that the cover of their London Calling record paid homage to the green-and-pink lettering on Elvis’s debut album. Appropriately enough, Strummer played an unemployed Englishman nicknamed Elvis in the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, set in Memphis. Making these connections was part of what made me want to become a historian.

Another lesson to be drawn from the Clash was that all things new and brilliant are usually rejected by the critical gatekeepers when they appear. I still remember the arrogant sense of vicarious triumph I felt at the end of the 1980s when Rolling Stone magazine, whose early reviews of the Clash had scorned the band for Strummer’s admittedly hoarse and nasal vocals, declared London Calling the greatest album of the decade. The Clash’s rise from the anonymous ranks of pub rockers suggested that talent might come from anywhere, and that anyone capable of learning three guitar chords could form a band and create something indelible.

Strummer, as a poet of Bob Dylan’s caliber, was likewise one of the unacknowledged legislators of a world in which the economic order was turning against working-class people whose lives he compassionately described in songs like Career Opportunities and Death or Glory. I didn’t share Strummer’s anti-capitalism, but I did share his anger against racism, materialism and the abuse of power to push around the powerless. His underlying message, I felt, was that all humans have value and all politics that don’t proceed from that truth are pernicious. And, of course, keep in mind that the future is unwritten – and know your rights.

Does the subcultural music you listen to as a teenager make you different from your contemporaries who listen to more mainstream fare? Perhaps that was just a self-flattering conceit held by those of us who were obsessed with British indie and alternative. But Mark Twain’s famous quote about the broadening effects of travel – how it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” – might apply to any deep engagement with the arts of another society.

I couldn’t help but pick up that quite a few of the British bands from the late 70s and early 80s were painting a bleak picture of deadend existences in a declining culture. Song lyrics don’t get much drearier than the Chords’ British Way of Life, with its images of dirty streets, unstocked shops, meaningless jobs and the chorus: “This is the British way of life / I swallow my dreams like my beer.”

I saw some of that stagnation in the two years I spent in England getting a master’s degree, particularly on visits to northern cities like Hartlepool and Sheffield that seemed victimized by both the class system and inhumane redevelopment schemes. I felt that British society needed to be opened up, which made me more sympathetic to some of the ideas of both left and right about how that might be accomplished. Strummer’s political ideal may have been best represented not by his songs but by the campfire gatherings he started at the Glastonbury festival, bringing strangers together to share music and ideas, breaking down the forces that keep us all apart.

Speaking of musical communities, my postgrad years in Britain coincided with the rise of the rave scene that made Manchester the musical mecca of its era and which, in its way, channeled the punk spirit of 1976 and 77. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, which more than compensated for any complaints I might have had about the food and absence of central heating. The other great gift of that era was the ability to listen to John Peel’s DJ shows on Radio 1 and Radio Cambridgeshire. Peel had played an important role in promoting bands such as the Clash, and like Strummer he was a musical magpie of inexhaustible curiosity, interested in the ways that this universal medium can channel all that the world has to offer. I left Britain feeling deep affection for a culture that had such original geniuses at its center.

I met Peel but never Strummer. I once found myself at one end of a crowded room in which he was at the other end, but I was too tongue-tied to approach him. After all, the hero-worship of people like me, along with the other pressures of fame and success, was part of what led him to break up the Clash in the early 80s and spend years without any real direction, musical or otherwise. I was grateful that he experienced a creative renaissance with his last band, the Mescaleros, before his untimely and widely lamented death in 2002 from an undiagnosed heart defect.

I’m not sure when I will be in Britain next, and I no longer pay as much attention to the music being made there. But the influence of the music I grew up listening to means that London still calls to me. And maybe when this pandemic is over, some of us will meet around a campfire somewhere and talk about how that music and the people who made it changed our lives.

  • Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party

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