Be sure to listen into The Opus: London Calling when it launches December 5th with host Andy Bothwell, aka Astronautalis. Never miss an episode by subscribing now. You can also revisit a selection of The Clash’s best tracks via all major streaming services, and enter to win both the 40th anniversary London Calling Scrapbook and Super Bundle.
The last time The Clash were in Japan was in 1982 for a whirlwind tour that would be the last featuring the classic lineup of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Topper Headon, and Paul Simonon. Jones said they were chased around like The Beatles, but internally, tensions were brewing. Shortly after they returned to England, Headon, a skilled and innovative drummer, was fired for his worsening heroin addiction. His ex-band members would later say his departure was the beginning of the end.
Thirty years later, I was just barely a teenager in Japan, commuting hours to my middle school, a sprawling campus for girls nestled in the mountains of the northern part of the country. Back then, my bright pink iPod Nano went everywhere with me, and if I wasn’t in class I was plugged in, listening to the occasional pop song (“Umbrella” by Rihanna and “Pocketful of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield were favorites). Mostly, though, I listened to The Clash — always alone, in the heated waiting room on the platform, on the bullet train ripping through tunnels, and in the dark of my room before I went to sleep.
This year marks 40 years since The Clash released the seminal double LP London Calling, an album that catapulted the band from beloved UK punk staple to what many consider the best output of their scene. Perhaps as much as for the music, The Clash are remembered for their politics advocating for the liberation of the working class, people of color, and disenfranchised youth. Over the years, The Clash’s music has been hilariously misused — “London Calling” often punctuates movie vacation scenes in the city, and “Rudie Can’t Fail”, a reggae track paying homage to Jamaican rude boys and rebellious living, was Rudy Guiliani’s walk-out song during his failed 2008 presidential campaign.
London Calling’s eponymous opening track bursts in like a warning shot, with Strummer’s voice eerily breaking in and out at the end, daring the listener to stay with him. When I heard London Calling for the first time, it was all I wanted. In Japan, I spent hours wandering through the train station after school listening to “Lost in the Supermarket”, an understated highlight of the album with a bass riff that feels like a ceaseless lifeline. The lyrics describe the paradox of choice that crumbles into nothingness, the facade of happiness tied to excess and consumerism. Around me, the city brimmed with movement and life, blindingly, numbingly propellant, but I felt stuck with the paralyzing knowledge of having to go through the motions of life the next day, and I knew they could relate. “I’ve got my giant hit discotheque album,” Mick Jones sings, voice wobbling slightly. “I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free.”
The Intersection of Indignation and Hope
When I was at the all-girls school, the rigidity of the mundane heightened the feeling of any insurrection, no matter how small. We rolled our school-issued pleated skirts up at the waist, shortening them a few inches, and talked shit about teachers in the safety of the bathrooms. Our world was so contained, and we would have done anything to break through the surface, like fish coming up for food, their mouths open to the air.
I learned about The Clash decades after the release of London Calling, in school of all places, when I was assigned a three-fold poster board synthesizing the year 1977. I breezed through the ascension of Jimmy Carter to the White House, briefly mentioned Star Wars and the Apple II computer, but went on at length about the first wave of UK punk, beginning with release of Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977). But the empty anger of the Sex Pistols didn’t ignite anything within me, and I found their nihilism — dressed in Vivienne Westwood — deeply untrustworthy. Legendary cultural critic Ellen Willis wrote that the Sex Pistols’ rage, coupled with the sexism of their music, invigorated her own fight for female liberation. However, I felt nothing emotionally when listening to their music. With The Clash, it was different.
Where the Sex Pistols scoffed and spat at what they saw as a decaying world without offering solutions, The Clash lived at the tenuous intersection between indignation and hope. School sucked and I was deeply lonely, but I still wanted my experience there to mean something in the end. I needed to be affirmed in the belief that there’s so much around us worthy of being saved. The Clash were also angry, but they challenged their world to be better. Take “Clampdown”, a bread-and-butter punk track describing the outsized impact capitalism has on human life. But even as the refrain of “work, more work” simmers through the song’s end, the track feels galvanizing, a rallying call for anyone who wants more from life than a job.
How We See Ourselves
I grew up listening mostly to music made by white men. But how we process our own identities has as much to do with who we are as it does with who we aren’t. When I listened to The Clash alone as a teenager, it was just me and them, no mediary to tell me all the ways I was any different from the people who made the music I loved. That closeness proved to be revelatory: when you hear something that resonates with you so intensely, whoever said it dissipates as suddenly as who you are is amplified.
The first time I saw an Asian woman on stage was when I was 20, leaning against the small stage at a Mitski show. Toward the end of the set, a wave of panic came over me; this is what I had gone without my entire life. There are people who look like me, making music that speaks to me in ways I haven’t felt before.
After seeing Mitski, I maniacally searched for art that was made by women of color and especially Asian women. A new bar was set for what it took to see myself in the music I consumed, and I chased and internalized this new slew of work that didn’t require as much imagination on my part to be fully in it. Yes, we all have disparate experiences, even if we share a gender and a race. But at least Mitski and I were starting at similar baselines. There was less to explain.
Now, I hardly listen to many of the artists I had considered irreplaceable when I was 13. The Clash are the one exception. Recently, after a few years of minimal engagement, I returned to their music more self-aware than I had ever been, and to my surprise, London Calling sounded even better than how I remembered it. My identity was never at odds with the material — who I was and what I brought to my listening gave it a new consequence that I wasn’t able to see before. The walls between The Clash and I had once again collapsed, but this time, everything around identity that went unsaid before was laid bare.
The Glitch in the System
Instagram tells me there are 327,000 posts tagged #theclash. Among the recent interview clips, fan art, and an edit of Barack Obama holding Combat Rock, there’s a black-and-white picture of Strummer, Jones, Headon, and Simonon with the following relatable comment:
“I’M 16 AND JAPANESE BUT I LIKE THE CLASH!”
I get why people all over the world are moved to say something like that. It’s not easy to navigate all that we are, like tall grass without a discernible pathway through. And to be challenged to relate, to see yourself reflected in someone with whom you have so many material differences is not just hard — it often feels like it’s not supposed to happen at all. But The Clash, like that comment, were deeply human. So violent and unwavering is our predilection for people like ourselves that it feels only natural to announce a glitch in the system: the remarkable accident where the self becomes endless and replenishing, precisely because we are both different and the same.