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A-Ron Presents: The Story Behind The Clash’s “London Calling” Album Cover

The Clash who has received the nickname “The Only Band That Matters” released their third studio album “London Calling”, originally titled “The New Testament. “London Calling” is as a 19 track, double album, released in the United Kingdom on December 14th 1979 by CBS Records, and in the United States in January 1980 by Epic Records. “London Calling” is an album that incorporates a range of styles, including punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock.

The album’s subject matter included social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict, drug use, and the responsibilities of adulthood. It is described by many (rightfully so!) as the greatest album of all time and a true milestone in the history of punk rock. But not only is the album a masterpiece, so is the albums iconic cover. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the photograph. This is the history behind the “London Calling” album cover. 

The iconic photograph happened on the night of September 21st, 1979 at the Palladium in New York. Two people would be responsible for the striking black and white image. The first was the band’s bass player, Paul Simonon, who is shown in the picture driving his Fender Precision bass guitar into the stage. 

That night, the precocious punk rock band led by Joe Strummer had expected to turn the concert hall into a pandemonium. At the time New York City was famous for being the hotspot of punk in America. It had given birth to two of the most electrifying bands, namely The Ramones and The New York Dolls. However, that night the audience wasn’t as energetic as The Clash had hoped.

Punk rock shows were supposed to be a space for people to go to those type of events so they could blow off some steam and dance wildly in the mosh pit, while breaking all things in sight. But that evening, the crowd was docile. This didn’t just disappoint the boys…. it pissed them off.

The one who became the most furious with the situation was Paul Simonon. Despite their efforts to cheer up the crowd, The Clash didn’t get a response from the crowd. Their response was apathetic and dull. Overwhelmed in frustration, he grabbed his instrument from the fretboard and trashed it furiously against the stage. Simonon said “The Palladium had fixed seating, so the audience was frozen in place, we weren’t getting any response from them, no matter what we did … So onstage that night I just got so frustrated with that crowd and when it got to the breaking point I started to chop the stage up with the guitar”. However little did they know that the photographer Pennie Smith, would snap a picture of him in the exact moment when he decided to chop the stage with his Precision bass. Smith was actually getting ready to pack up her camera until she saw Simonon looking, as she said: “Really, really fed up. I just got the one shot and that was it. End of roll, end of film”.

Simonon has also said to other outlets about the incident: “The show had gone quite well, but for me, inside it just wasn’t working well, so I suppose I took it out on the bass. If I was smart, I would have got the spare bass and used that one, because it wasn’t as good as the one as I smashed up. When I look at it now, I wish I’d lifted my face up a bit more”. 

Pennie Smith was accompanying The Clash on their US tour and despite the accolades that have since been handed to her photograph, Smith initially didn’t want it to be used for the album. She said: “Due to it being slightly out of focus because i was backing away to avoid being hit by Simonon”. Pennie had always felt lukewarm about her best-known photograph.

“It’s very pleasant to be praised, but I can’t see that picture now,” Smith said in 2003. “It’s been used in various forms so many times that it’s a bit like wallpaper. Of all the Clash photos I took, there are others that perhaps I prefer, for all sorts of reasons. Yes, I like that picture, but it’s so long ago now. I’ve seen it too many times to get the gut reaction I had at the time”. Smith went on to say “There are other, more snapshot-type things that still take me back to that gut feeling I had then; perhaps an odd backstage one, or maybe one that’s never been seen before?”. She stayed with them throughout their US tour in 1979, and a book of all her Clash photographs, “The Clash Before and After”, was published in 1980 by Eel Pie Publishing. 

Joe Strummer fell for the picture as soon as he had saw it and decided to use it for the cover of “London Calling”, which was due for the end of the year. Pennie who was still unsure about the value of her work, tried to convince Strummer not to use the picture. From that moment on, the blurry picture would become an iconic image not only of punk rock, but of rock and roll itself.

The London Calling title on the cover was designed to be a clear tribute to Presley’s debut album from 1956. They even went to the lengths to chose the exact same colors and typography for the albums title.  “When that Elvis record came out, rock and roll was pretty dangerous. And I suppose when we brought out our record, it was pretty dangerous stuff too” said Simonon. 

Just imagine this photo almost never happened as Pennie Smith, almost very nearly didn’t attend this particular concert. In the end she chose to turn down the offer to go out with friends and ended up stage right at The Palladium. The rest is simply history. Simonon’s broken bass made it all the way to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, where it’s on display. It has been named by Rolling Stone as the 5th greatest album cover of all time and is the 8th album on their 500 best albums of all time list. It really is the greatest album and album cover of all time and to think it was all because a fit of rage.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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