The Clash traded their punk boots for cleats to give their greatest album some extra kick
In 1979 the Clash wrote and recorded London Calling, the double album that was their finest artistic statement. Not released in the U.S. until January 1980, it would be hailed 10 years later by Rolling Stone as “the album of the decade.”
When they started work on their masterpiece, the Clash were at a low point. Having dismissed their original manager, Bernie Rhodes, and his temporary successor, the group had no one to fall back on but themselves. And it was football, as much as their supremely able songwriting abilities, that pulled them into the mental form necessary for writing and recording the album.
Getting themselves in shape to write the London Calling songs, the Clash played long football games each afternoon on the recreation ground in front of Vanilla, their rehearsal studio in Pimlico in Central London. “I just think we really found ourselves at that time, and it was a lot to do with the football,” said Clash founder and guitarist Mick Jones. “Because it made us play together as one.”
“We’d play loads of football until we couldn’t manage another single kick,” Joe Strummer told me the next year. “And then we’d start playing and writing music. It was our way of warming up.”
Each day at around 4 p.m., local kids home from school would knock on Vanilla’s front door: “Can you come out to play?”
“They were typical London working-class kids, aged about 9 to 13, from the local council estate,” said Andrew Leslie, who managed Vanilla. “They’d seen the Clash playing against each other and joined in, and it became a regular thing. I think they were vaguely aware they were in a group—and they could boast about it at school. It was a good time for the group to take a break: They would have started working at about 1 p.m. They’d play against each other with the kids, two on one team, two on another.”
“Topper particularly liked a good kick-around, probably the best player,” Leslie said of the group’s diminutive drummer, Topper Headon, who was perpetually fit from emulating the karate prowess of his idol Bruce Lee. Jones was flashy, remembered the group’s tour manager, Johnny Green, but his skills didn’t quite match his ambition; Strummer was ceaselessly determined but lacking in true ability; and bass player Paul Simonon was also endlessly keen.
Before he discovered rock ’n’ roll, Jones had immersed himself in football culture. At a similar age as the kids who came knocking on the Vanilla door, he would join other pre-adolescent fans every Saturday morning outside the rows of hotels around London’s Russell Square; out-of-town teams would stay there before an away match.
Players’ autographs secured, Jones would then travel across town to a match, either at Chelsea or Queens Park Rangers. “You could climb in over the fence from the railway line at Chelsea. Once, I got stuck, snagging my leg on the barbed wire, and nearly got caught. First I was a footballers’ autograph hunter. Then you cross that age line and rock ’n’ roll was before me—I became a big music fan and wanted to be in a band,” he said.
“But collecting footballers’ autographs stood me in good stead. Because some of the footballers were really high and mighty—I don’t want to mention any names, but I could. How they treated you was a good lesson as to how not to treat others when you found yourself in the high-and-mighty position.”
In fact, the Clash’s magnanimous treatment of their fans became part of their legend. And Jones’s abiding love of both football and music—shared by other Clash members, especially Strummer—personifies how football and rock ’n’ roll were the traditional escape for young men from the drab ennui of everyday U.K. life in that age.
During the London Calling era Strummer lived with his girlfriend, Gaby Salter, and her mother in a housing estate not far from Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground; the property was just back from the Thames: the lyrics of the British “London Calling” song state, “I live by the river.” When the Blues were playing at home, he would go to their matches on Saturday afternoons.
Accompanying him would be 12-year-old Josie Ohendjan, who later became the nanny for Strummer’s two daughters; Gaby’s 16-year-old brother, Nicky; Nicky’s school friend Black John; and Crispin Chetwynd, a family friend. Meeting at Gaby’s mother’s home, they would smoke a spliff, and—buying a bag of chips en route—head off on the 10-minute walk to the ground. There, having paid a couple of pounds, they would stand in the Shed.
Strummer was a Chelsea fan: He read all he could about the team. Yet these were dark days for the west London side, stuck down in the Second Division. According to Ohendjan, however, Strummer “loved the tribalism of it, the movement of it, coming together under the colors. Joe lived nearby and was a fan, and really liked that aspect of being a supporter.”
What Strummer didn’t care for was “the aggression and racism.” This was a couple of seasons before Paul Canoville became Chelsea’s first black player, often greeted by his own fans with bananas thrown onto the pitch and chants of “We don’t want the nigger.” Hardcore Chelsea fans were notorious for containing elements of the National Front, the extreme right-wing faction: Black players with visiting teams received similar treatment at the Bridge.
The visual identity of the man who wrote “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” didn’t cause Strummer any problems at the games, however. “At Stamford Bridge, Joe would be recognized,” said Ohendjan. “We were punks and stood out among the skinheads, but he wasn’t hassled.” Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook was also a regular at Stamford Bridge, as were Suggs McPherson and Chas Smash from the band Madness—all three of whom still go to matches at the Chelsea ground.
But after a game against West Ham in September 1980, Strummer and his crew were chased by Hammers fans, who brandished Stanley knives and switchblades. “We had to run as far as the fish-and-chip shop opposite where Joe was living,” Ohendjan recalled. “It was frightening. All of us, including Joe, decided to stop going for a while after that.”
Another London team, however, would prove an inspiration on London Calling. The material written at Vanilla for the album was recorded at Wessex Studios in Highbury, North London, in August and September 1979. Highbury was the home of Arsenal, and the record’s producer, Guy Stevens, a legendarily eccentric maverick in the British music business, was an obsessive fan of the club.
Discovering that some Arsenal ground staff were Clash lovers and conspiring with them, Stevens established a daily ritual that he felt could only add to the magic he was trying to inject into the new record. The minicab summoned to take him each morning to Wessex would make a slight detour, stopping at the Arsenal ground. There, Stevens would briefly exit the vehicle and enter the Highbury center circle, where he would kneel and pay homage to his mental image of the team’s attacking midfielder Liam Brady. Then he would continue on his way to Wessex.
After London Calling at last had hit the shops, Strummer returned to the Chelsea ground to watch a match. Leaving Stamford Bridge that Saturday afternoon, he glanced in a local branch of the Our Price Records chain, where he discovered something even more troubling than West Ham’s knife- wielding skinhead fans. To his horror he saw that a copy of the just released London Calling was on sale for £7.99—the Clash had decreed it should sell for no more than £5, the cost of a single album.
Furious, Strummer berated the shop’s manager until the price was reduced to the ordained amount. Then he rejoined the massed ranks of fans leaving the Chelsea ground.