This is London Calling Benefit concert ft. Debbie Harry, Jesse Malin, Fred Armisen, Eugene Hutz and others, to celebrate the Clash
NEW YORK, NY- “This is London Calling” — these words were the BBC World Service‘s opening for broadcasts to occupied countries during World War II. For those living abroad, the radio tagline must have felt like a beacon of light, providing a connection to home and serving as a counterweight to false propaganda being blasted out over the airwaves.
Speaking truth in troubled times is not just the purview of journalists, though — it’s a collective duty. And in the world of punk rock, perhaps no one knew this better than Joe Strummer. It’s altogether fitting, then, that the Clash borrowed the station identification as the title for their seminal album.
London Calling, which turns 40 this month, was released during a tumultuous period. There was the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Iran hostage crisis. Thatcher had just secured a Tory majority, and would soon, along with Reagan, start crushing labor unions, delivering tax cuts for the rich, reducing government regulation, and privatizing social services. The free-market ideology with all its valorization of individualism really just meant factories were free to pollute our rivers, companies were free to profit off prisons, and the less fortunate were free to go bankrupt from medical bills.
It was all fuel for the fiery Clash album that builds off the dialectic of revolution–there’s anger and urgency, but also an insistence that the people can prevail. Songs like “The Clampdown” and “Koka Kola” rail against the dark side of capitalism, but tracks like “I’m Not Down” communicate a glorious defiance, with Mick Jones promising to swing everything back my way, like skyscrapers rising up, floor by floor, I’m not giving up.
Whether you’re a casual listener or a Strummer devotee, London Calling gave us songs — and Pennie Smith’s iconic photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass — that have worked their way into our collective consciousness. The Clash’s influences were as progressive as their politics, drawing from everything that moved them — punk, reggae, rockabilly, and R&B. But the band’s legacy is more than just this catalog. They also gave us an ethos of civic engagement. They were woke before being woke was a thing.
I wish these iconic songs weren’t so pertinent and powerful today. But if Joe Strummer were still with us, I think he’d approve of us turning to punk rock to replace social media noise with politically-charged anthems, and to remind us of a fundamental truth — that without each other, we’re nothing.
That sentiment was a driving force behind the recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of London Calling at the Bowery Ballroom. A remarkable roster of talent performed the album in full (and then some), all backed by the indefatigable Jesse Malin and his band. It seems like a sudoku puzzle to sort out who sings what, but Jesse & co. pull it off every time (last year’s coverage is here) — and this year was no exception.
True to Strummer’s spirit, the event embraced both established stars like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and up-and-comers, and it raised money for the Joe Strummer Foundation and Music & Memory. Fans traveled from all over — London, Houston, Boston, Burlington — and that was just a handful of folks I met — to get rowdy and remember the legacy of the Clash.
San Diego’s The Schizophonics launched the night with a high-powered set that had the capacity crowd riveted. Conjure up a tear in the space-time continuum with James Brown covering MC5, and you’ll have a sense of the atomic feel and sound of this band. (Check out their performance at the San Diego Music Awards in 2017.) They don’t shy away from their influences, embracing scuzzy rock with a core of 60s soul. Founding members Pat Beers (vocals/guitars) and Lety Beers (drums) teamed up with Paul Ryu on bass for the evening.
By the way Pat burned up the stage during soundcheck, I knew to break out the wide-angle lens, but even that wasn’t quite equal to the task of capturing his leaps and splits and 720-degree spins throughout the set. (Someone get the guy a shoe sponsorship–those soles must take a beating.) His style pays homage to Jimi Hendrix, using the fuzz pedal to full effect, doing hammer-ons and pull-offs with his left hand, freeing him to grab the mic with his right hand like some whirling dervish of rock ‘n soul. The Schizophonics’ first full-length album, Land of the Living, was an effort to “find simple joy in our crazy divided country.” And People in the Sky, released earlier this year, finds the band honing their already red-hot sound, with the primal howl that starts off “Long Way to Go,” the guitar solo dropping out mid-way to let Pat’s gritty vocals and Lety’s hard-hitting take center stage–it may take a lifetime baby, we got a long way to go. I suspect it won’t take a lifetime for listeners to take note, though. With the likes of Cage the Elephant bringing the Schizophonics along on the road, I think we’ll be seeing much more of their kinetic-sonic double attack.
The Schizophonics ended their set with Pat leaping down from the stage to sing to the enthralled audience. Then it was time for changeover. I had just enough time to grab my spare battery and lens wipes in anticipation of beer-spilling, sweaty, pushy dancing in the near future.
The liminal space between soundcheck and doors is something that feels sacred. The venue is cold and dimly-lit, footsteps echo like in an old church. I try to be quiet and unobtrusive while these artists go about their pre-show rituals. It feels like I’m observing racehorses before the gates are flung open, a jittery toss of the head hinting at the power and energy in repose.
Pat secures his guitar strap, then finds a balcony alcove where he can warm up away from prying eyes. Derek Cruz and his wife, singer Amanda Cross, exchange soft smiles while heading up to the green room. Danny Ray paces next to the stairwell, getting his fingers and embouchure warmed up. Upstairs, Catherine Popper goofs off with Indofunk Satish — the latter’s gaze is fixed on some unseen point, in a zen state, until Catherine tiptoes over and dangles a sweaty sock in his face. I stifle a laugh and raise up the camera; Satish accommodates my picture-taking with a comic grimace, leaning away from the offending garment.
These moments remind me of that delicate balance between the often solitary nature of creation and the necessarily communal act of performance. And they remind me that no matter how small we may feel in a city that swallows dreams and regurgitates nightmares, there’s something that happens when we create things together. Whatever is going on out there in the fractured world, in here, we are whole, sharing in the same stories — the stories contained in these songs.
In the days leading up to this show, I’d been thinking about how the lyrics to “London Calling,” penned by Strummer and Jones in 1979, find so many parallels in today’s headlines: police brutality (we ain’t got no swing, ‘cept for the ring of that truncheon thing); Russian interference in U.S. elections (I hear the ice age is coming as a Cold War reference); and climate change (London is drowning and I live by the river). The song ends with the line “I never felt so much alike…” repeated over Morse code bleeps (Jones wanted “to give it that BBC sound on the fade-out” so he turned off one of the guitar pickups and used the remaining pickup to tap out the signal).
Here we are at the close of 2019, a narcissistic huckster at the helm, Boris and Brexit, children locked up at the border — if we’re sending the distress signal, who’s coming to the rescue? Maybe the evening would serve as a seance of sorts, to bring back the spirit of Joe Strummer. Surely he has advice on the path forward.
Joseph Arthur was more than equal to the formidable task of taking on the opening track. He calls Strummer an “ethereal punk rock angel” (I love that phrase — what an apt juxtaposition of seeming opposites):
He always did the unexpected thing. Turned the strange corner. Went down the wrong road in the right way. Right on time. But that’s not what was most magical about him. What was most magical about him is he wanted that for you. He wanted you to find what made you great and lean into it, against the odds and against all the others going down static avenues in static ways. When it came time to jam he’d hand you his guitar and play a tambourine the way Mozart would an orchestra yelling in your ear the whole time to “make it huge!”
Drew Stone delivered a rendition of “Brand New Cadillac,” adding just the right amount of grit to the cover of an obscure (at least before The Clash covered it) English rockabilly song. Jeff Slate took the mic for “Jimmy Jazz,” with Danny Ray and Indofunk Satish on horns.
Jesse Malin, fresh off an album release tour for Sunset Kids (co-produced by Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby), was high-octane as always. He and his band–Derek Cruz (guitars), Catherine Popper (bass), Randy Schrager (drums), Rob Clores (keys)–are a cornerstone of the New York music scene. Given all that Jesse does to preserve and nurture the music scene of Alphabet City, it seems appropriate that his first song of the evening, “Hateful,” was written about London’s punk community, changeable yet immutable (What man? The man who keeps me from the lonely).
Regulars at Malin’s shows have heard him cover “Rudie Can’t Fail” before, and Saturday night kicked it up an extra notch for the reggae-influenced song that celebrates more than it indicts the young ne’er-do-well (the “Rudie” is a rude boy — the term for the Jamaican subculture which found its way to the UK in the 60s). Forget the jobs in the papers — don’t sell your soul to the market, the song seems to say.
Living Colour’s Corey Glover (I first saw him as part of a Bowie celebration) took us through “Spanish Bombs” (which Strummer thought up on his way home from Wessex studios, listening to a radio report of Basque separatist bombing in Costa Brava).
Next up was Jeremy Lublin (of Jeremy & The Harlequins) with “The Right Profile.” After the show, he shared some thoughts about the song choice:
Mott the Hoople is one of my all-time favorite bands and this song has always reminded me a bit of an Ian Hunter / Mott the Hoople song, because of how Joe Strummer sang the chorus. Plus, I’ve always liked the horns. Sax in rock ‘n roll is good 99 times out of 100.
Also, I’ve never seen a Montgomery Clift film, but I like the lyrical biography. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue here. Who was Montgomery Clift? Tell me, Joe.
Jeremy’s query highlights one of the things that London Calling did so well — weaving in not just political and historical references, but also these seedy characters, which the songs treat with a mixture of scorn and sympathy. Montgomery Clift may be a junkie and a has-been, but the lyrical twist at the end connects us with his humanity. Then there’s Stagger Lee in “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” and the aforementioned Jimmy Jazz, staying just one step ahead of the cops. There’s something about these songs that invite us to embrace the messiness of the human condition, to include rather than exclude. We may not exactly relate to the characters, but they’re still one of us.
Fred Armisen — yes, he’s a musician as well as an actor/comedian — stepped up to the mic to deliver some lines about the hordes of SantaCon bros who’d taken over the city (his take on Karl Lagerfeld’s take, French accent and all: “I love all the red trousers”), before pairing up with Johnny Pi for “Lost in the Supermarket.”
Titus Andronicus‘s Patrick Stickles was appropriately fierce for “Clampdown,” as was Boots (Jordan Asher Cruz) for “Guns of Brixton.” Don DiLego and James Cruz brightened the mood with the reggae-inflected “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” before Jesse returned for “Death or Glory.”
Matty Hoboken delivered an appropriately sardonic “Koka Kola” (I wonder if Strummer would have liked Mad Men); and Paul Bearer, a forceful “Card Cheat.” Paul said after the show:
I’ve always had a thing for “The Card Cheat.” The sound had an almost Phil Spector thing going on. It wasn’t ’til years after first hearing it that I found out that’s what they were going for, by doubling up the recording of each instrument. And the way Mick Jones’ voice cracks in certain parts just gets me right where it should. Always been a sucker for a cracking voice. And–not to put down the socio-political lyrics that Joe would be regaled for–I like that “The Card Cheat” is more of a story than a lesson. Well, I guess it is kind of a lesson: Watch who you’re trying to pull one over on. The cemetery is full of cheats. Laying right next to the traitors, cowards, and tough guys — what would you achieve?
That’s a damn good question.
Next up was Diane Gentile for “Lovers Rock,” Miles (of Outernational) for “Four Horsemen,” Fiona Silver on “I’m Not Down,” and Corey Glover returning, along with Vernon Reid, for “Revolution Rock.” And to close out the album, Adam Weiner — the firecracker at the center of Philly-based rock band Low Cut Connie (one of my favorite live acts) — had us singing along the refrain for “Train in Vain.”
Then we were treated to some bonus Clash songs — Ralphie G for “White Riot,” and stripped-down renditions of “Bank Robber” by Kris Gruen and “Stay Free” by Jesse. The band returned for a spirited “The Equaliser” with the glorious Felice Rosser — I love the memories she shared with me last year of dancing to a reggae song with Paul and listening to Topper do tom fills. Then Jesse took the mic for “Johnny Appleseed,” Robert Gordon for “I Fought the Law,” and Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz for an apocalyptic dance party in the form of “Armagideon Time.”
The evening held one more surprise. I heard the audience holler and clap before I spotted Debbie Harry‘s platinum bob. The Blondie lead singer exuded grace, smiling in thanks to the clamoring of the crowd and joining with Jesse for an unforgettable rendition of The Pogues classic “Fairytale of New York” — a story of two down-on-their-luck characters whose imperfection makes for a perfect Christmas song (watch a video of Jesse and Debbie’s duet here).
As the band played out the song, Jesse danced with Debbie and then threw some paper “snow” into the air. The white bits rained down, obscuring our view, but I could see Debbie smile and lift up her hands, like a kid catching snowflakes. It was a magical tableau.
It’s moments like that, when time feels suspended and the differences between everyone jam-packed into the Lower East Side venue–young and old, blue-collar and white-collar, resident and immigrant–fade into the background, that I’m reminded of why the heck we do this — make music, listen to live music, document music. It comes back to what Joe Strummer said–“without people, you’re nothing.” In gathering for a concert, we turn the solitary acts of creation–whether in the form of writing a song, processing photos, or myriad other undertakings–into a communal experience.
And maybe that’s the response to the S.O.S. of London Calling, the path forward in the midst of our political crisis. It’s about the people, just like Joe Strummer taught us. Social change comes from ordinary folks who choose action over apathy–it’s only in retrospect that they seem like mythical saviors. So today, social transformation has to come from you and me. This is London Calling, and it’s time for us to answer.
Go ahead and put London Calling on repeat — we gotta get riled up for a new year of revolution. You can also learn more about the work of the Joe Strummer Foundation and Music & Memory (please consider donating, if you’re able to and feeling the holiday spirit). And last but not least — are you registered to vote?