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Great covers: The Clash – London Calling (1979)

January 26th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I cannot claim to be highly original when I big up the cover of The Clash’s 1979 London Calling double-album. It appears to features in every list of best cover art in rock. Still, the series is about my favourite covers, the kind of LP sleeves I’d display on my wall. If my taste coincides with received wisdom, who am I to rebel against universal acclaim. Unlike the previous covers I discussed, the musical content of this one leaves me mostly cold. Oh, I do realise the significance and applaud the righteousness and all that. But I”m not a great Clash fan, and the album– hmmm…well, I don’t hate it.

The photo of Paul Simonon getting carried away with his bass guitar was taken by the influential photographer Pennie Smith at the group’s gig at the New York Palladium in September 21, 1979. Smith specialised in rock photography, first as a freelancer (first commission: Led Zeppelin), then at the New Musical Express, with a special penchant for black and white. The Simonon shot is her most iconic pic, having won Q magazine’s “Greatest Rock & Roll Photograph of All-Time” award in 2002 (Q likes to engage in the banal hyperbole of “best ever”s). She recalled later: “I remember thinking something was wrong, realising Paul was going to crack — and waited. The shot is out of focus because I ducked; he was closer than it looks.”

It is just that happy coincidence of proximity to the mad bassist and the resulting blurriness that complements the pure Rock & Roll moment. The bass player losing it in sharp focus would have detracted from the mayhem of the moment.

Smith was initially worried about using an out-of-focus photo for the album cover. Happily, graphic designer Ray Lowry (who died in October 2008 at 44) persuaded her otherwise. Lowry’s art design gives a whiplash-threatening nod to another hugely iconic Rock & Roll cover: Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut album. The typography of the album title is very similar to that on the Elvis cover, the colours and positioning almost identical. The back cover uses a different typeface for the title, and recalls the back covers of early Beatles records.

Paul Simonon’s rage seems to have been spontaneous: he used his regular bass guitar, a Fender Precision Bass, not a cheap stand-by, as other violators of musical instruments have tended to do. Apparently he kept all the pieces. One day he might auction them off. Chances are that, thanks to Smith’s photo, he’ll get good money for them.


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  1. Jack Johnson
    January 26th, 2009 at 16:39 | #1

    The bass is in the Rock Hall of Fame–I’m not sure if it’s on loan or permanent, but it’s there.

  2. January 27th, 2009 at 19:45 | #2

    Definitely one of the most iconic album covers I can think of.

  3. Plastik44
    January 27th, 2009 at 21:23 | #3

    Good to see that you’re still around. Like the new design here.
    One that you should have in your original vs cover version slot is `A Change Is Gonna Come´. Seal has done a version of this and bloody WDR2 – greetings from Germany – keeps playing it all day, instead of giving Sam Cooke a chance and their listeners the opportunity to learn what a song could sound like if not performed by a wannabe. I even took the effort to complain on the telephone hotline just to find myself being cut off by the woman at the other end of the line telling me that this was `just your opinion´. What the f… have they got these hotlines for if they don’t bother…

    Best regards,

  4. February 13th, 2009 at 15:19 | #4

    Jack beat me to it. I saw the busted bass last year when I was at the Hall so I suspect it is a permanent fixture. So many awesome items to see, definitely worth the trip to Cleveland.

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