Six Degrees of London Calling
It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it's not. It's the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we've deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
"Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust!" Joe Strummer famously sneers just minutes into the volcanic title track on the Clash's defining work. It's not just music he's talking about: London Calling was the sound of punk rock finding its picket signs and forcing its audience to answer the question "How you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?" The Sex Pistols had tossed the... first molotovs about two years earlier, but where Rotten & Co. were all spittle and brute force, The Clash match their revolutionary sentiment to a similar musical restlessness. London Calling is voracious: there's rockabilly snideness in "Brand New Cadillac" and "Jimmy Jazz," reggae's relaxed groove in "Rudie Can't Fail" and a bright pop sheen on "Lost in the Supermarket." In fact, what's often ignored about London Calling is what a great pop record it is, one that synthesizes its myriad influences into a gaggle of indelible hooks. The Clash weren't just rebelling against established political authority, they were questioning a narrow DIY culture that equated musical variation with compromise. In doing so they set the template for every politically-minded rock band that had the courage to look beyond a few blunt chords and a distortion pedal for inspiration.more »
The Clash's love for reggae is no great secret, and there is perhaps no more appropriate sister record to London Calling than this mammoth masterpiece by Culture. It even name-checks the group in its title. Released two full years before London Calling, Two Sevens Clash is a similar contemplation of apocalypse this one spiritual instead of political. Like Max Romeo's equally astonishing War Inna Babylon, Two Sevens Clash is a rallying cry... for right-living Rastafarians to prepare themselves for liberation from Babylon's oppression and to, as the album puts it, "Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion." The music is alarmingly bright, given the album's weighty themes, the easy rocksteady of songs like "See Them a Come" functioning more like love songs to the Almighty than fire-and-brimstone prophecies. A bit of trivia worth noting: the record's title comes from a prophecy by Marcus Garvey that chaos would ensue in the year that the "two sevens clash." That 1977 also turned out to be the year punk broke is surely more than mere coincidence.more »
Rage get a bad rap for inadvertently inspiring the blunt, mookish, sexist posturing of the dreaded rap-rock scene of the late '90s/early '00s. But to think they had any truck whatsoever with the likes of Fred Durst is to woefully misunderstand the group's raison d'etre. This is revolution music, fired by the hacksaw guitars of Tom Morello and ragged-throat street-preaching of Zach De La Rocha. The debut and Evil Empire are sentimental... favorites, but it's The Battle of Los Angeles that most mirrors the Clash's drive for musical diversity. The album opens with a howl, with De La Rocha doing his best Chuck D impersonation over Morello's mind-warping scuzz-funk riffs. It's the musicianship that's mind-bending: Morello has no time for individual notes; he's more interested in making sounds, stretching weird bands of static out for measures at a time. "Sleep Now in the Fire" is nothing less than a top-shelf re-write of "Kick Out the Jams," with De La Rocha inhabiting the body of a power-mad Jesus freak, sneering "The world is my expense/ The cost of my desire." Heard a decade plus later and stripped of the surrounding context, The Battle of Los Angeles sounds downright prophetic.more »
Easily one of the most subversive artists of the last decade, MIA's revolutionary message isn't just in her lyrics, it's in the way she presents it. A whip-smart politico with a deft knack for collage, MIA's shows routinely feature televised images of neon-colored bombs, cartoon tanks and bright-burning tigers running endlessly on loop. Is it war-as-comic, or an excoriation of those who treat it as such? It's all about fiddling with context,... and MIA manages to be a provocateur without being ham-handed or obnoxious about it. It takes a few listens to Arular, her magnificent debut, before its opening gambit "Pull up the people, pull up the poor" fully computes. Her music, too, is globally minded: it's a giddy mix-up of hip-hop, bhangra, techno and afropop, its head-on stylistic collision reinforcing MIA's main themes: it's a small, small world, and it's up to us to save it.more »
Though it arrived five years before London Calling, it was Lou Reed's confrontational posturing an inimitable kind of Queer Macho and deft ability to blend subversive subject matter with sing-able melodies that helped inspire the titans of punk rock. Much of Transformer is familiar, but that doesn't make it less vital or incendiary. Reed's revolution is against "normal" within the first two songs he's making coy jokes about shaving "bears," and breakthrough... hit "Walk on the Wild Side" managed to turn oral sex and transgenderism into a radio hit. And though it's more textured and direct than his groundbreaking work with the Velvet Underground, it's obstinate and tough-to-take in its own right. The drag queen oom-pah "Make Up," for example, still has no clear stylistic equal. Reed aims to bring about the cultural revolution not through violence, but by trickery and masquerade.more »
Forget the politicking, the cultural revolution, the stylistic dabbling: Jay Reatard is all about blunt, brute force. Blood Visions was his breakthrough, a masterpiece in miniature, short speedy songs that don't skimp on either hooks or energy. This is the Clash writ in lowercase, all the anger and energy dagger-sharp and ready to slice. Songs like "It's So Easy" and "My Family" make their mark in under two minutes, Reatard's weird mock... accent making them sound like lost punk 45s, the fuzz on the guitars just dust on the needle.more »