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Classic Tracks: The Clash’s “London Calling”

For the mix of the track "London Calling," Strummer described an image of the London fog swirling off the river Thames...

Every now and again a particular place and time is witness to the birth of a social/cultural/political revolution. In 1976, the place was London, and the new movement, which changed the course of popular music, youth fashion and the lives of hundreds of thousands of disaffected teens and 20-somethings, was punk. Led by a stunning series of singles from the Sex Pistols, the English punk movement quickly spawned a rash of exciting, new bands and many memorable, if not always listenable, records. Parents were horrified; the British Establishment predictably overreacted, banning airplay, clubs and concerts; and both tabloid and “serious” newspapers trumpeted the latest real or imagined misdeeds of the new celebrities. A good time was had by all.

By the time the smoke cleared, the Sex Pistols had disbanded, and The Clash was firmly established as one of England’s most important bands. But despite having been one of the first punk bands to get a record deal and having enjoyed largely positive coverage in the music press, The Clash had not actually sold the number of records that their elevated status might indicate. Epic had refused to release the first album in the U.S. (though it sold an unprecedented 100,000 copies as an import), and the second album, Give ’em Enough Rope, produced by Blue Oyster Cult mastermind Sandy Pearlman in a conscious attempt to capture a more commercial sound, had also failed to set the U.S. market alight. In fact, it was the band’s cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” taken from a 4-track EP titled The Cost of Living, that made a bigger impact, becoming an airplay hit on college radio.

london calling

All that changed with the release of the band’s third album, London Calling. A double album sold at the single album price, it entered the UK album charts at Number 9 in December 1979, and the title cut reached Number 11 in the UK singles chart the following month. By March 1980, the album was on the U.S. charts and a single, “Train in Vain (Stand By Me),” reached Number 23, the band’s highest U.S. chart placing at that point. Today, the album is hailed as a classic and features prominently in every rock critic’s list of significant records.

The Clash recorded London Calling at Wessex Studios, where they had previously recorded The Cost of Living EP with engineer Bill Price (see separate interview feature in this issue and Part One in the October 2000 issue). Located in a former church in the Highbury district of North London, Wessex had already been the site of a slew of hit recordings, including singles and albums by the Sex Pistols, The Pretenders and the Tom Robinson Band. Chief engineer and studio manager Price, who took over at Wessex in about 1975, had developed a repertoire of recording techniques suited to the room and the bands that recorded there.

“Before I moved from AIR to Wessex, I used to work a lot with producer Chris Thomas in AIR’s Studio One,” recalls Price. “That room was so live that you had to put screens around everything just to keep out the ambiance. When I started working with Chris at Wessex, he pushed me to find ways to get every ounce of ambiance out of what was a large, but quite dead, room. Some of those techniques were sort of special to Chris’ sessions, and others were more general, and I did use some of them on The Clash.” One particular technique involved placing a pair of Neumann U87s about 15 feet up and 10 feet in front of the drum kit as ambiance mics and mixing them in with a pair of STC 4038 ribbon mics placed behind the kit at floor level. (STC 4038s are visible in many photos of The Beatles’ sessions at Abbey Road, as Geoff Emerick typically used them as overhead mics. Originally designed by the BBC, the STC 4038 is essentially identical to the current Coles 4038.)

On the song “London Calling,” Price recorded the stereo ambiance mix on tracks 17 and 18 (see track sheet) and recorded the same ambiance mix to tracks 7 and 8, but gated through Kepex gates and triggered by the snare mic. “The original Kepexes didn’t work very well,” says Price. “They had these neon lamps that indicated how much they were gating, and when the lamps switched on and off it put a click on the signal – they were pretty lousy devices. In those days, if I managed to get them working, I used to record it on tape. If I was doing it now, I would apply the gates on the monitor and then reproduce it on the mix, but in those days, if you could get it to work, it was well worth recording it.”

Having a gated ambiance track gave Price complete control over the snare ambiance. “Depending on how loud the snare was, I could balance the snare in the overall ambiance by using the gated ambiance,” he explains. “If the snare was too ambient, I could reverse the phase of the gated ambiance tracks and reduce the amount of snare ambiance, which I’ve done on occasion. It works very well.”

For the close mics on Clash drummer Topper Headon’s kit, Price used both a Shure SM57 and a Neumann KM86 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms and AKG 451s on the cymbals. Headon’s kit had two hi-hats, which were miked with Neumann KM84s, but because he only played one hi-hat on “London Calling,” the one on track 9 was subsequently wiped. On the bass drum, Price used both a dynamic AKG D-12, placed inside the shell, and a Neumann U47 tube condenser placed just outside.

Using a tube condenser to mike a kick drum was, at one time, unheard of and would definitely have been frowned on at Decca Studios, where Price first began his engineering career. “The older guys at Decca, the people that I learned from, used to laugh at me for putting a mic on the bass drum at all,” recalls Price. “They used to say to me, `the object of the bass drum is to keep the band in time – it’s not meant to be heard.’ They did teach me a lot, but that was one of the things they told me that I didn’t believe.”

In 1979, Wessex was equipped with 3M M79, 24-track recorders and the house standard was Ampex 406 tape with Dolby A, but Price recorded the drum tracks for “London Calling” without Dolby. “When I was working at Wessex within just the one studio or even going between the two rooms at Wessex, I never had any problems with Dolbys,” he recalls. “But as soon as I started being more independent, doing backing tracks in one studio and then going to another studio and doing overdubs, things were just horrendous – things just sounded wrong, particularly transient things like the drums. Sometimes I’d get the technical department in, and they would say `plus four,’ and I would say `minus six,’ and they would say `are you talking dBv or dBu,’ and I would find these people didn’t speak the same language as me. So I never really got to the bottom of whether it was to do with alignment or whether there was something more subtle going on. The only reason I used to use Dolby on bands like The Clash is that I used to do a lot of composites. If I did a vocal on three or four tracks and mixed it down to another track, obviously the tape hiss got much worse, so it was a good idea to Dolby it. But I wasn’t going to do that with the drums, because they would be recorded on however many tracks and would stay there until the final mix. So I used to switch the Dolby off on the drums.”

For Paul Simonon’s bass, Price mixed an instrument DI with a Neumann U87 on the cabinet, recording the chosen blend on track 1 and the components on tracks 23 and 24 for safety. The scribbles on the track sheet around tracks 19 to 22 indicate that Simonon made a further two passes on the bass, which Price then composited with the original bass tracks from 23 and 24 onto track 1. The electric guitars of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer were both miked with an Electro-Voice RE20 mixed with a Neumann U87 and recorded to tracks 11 and 12. “Mick’s live guitar on track 11, a mixture of lead and rhythm, was kept for reference,” explains Price. “But he then did two passes of lead on 23 and 24, which were composited back over 11. The tape was then turned over, and Mick did some backwards guitar that ended up on 23 and 24.” Jones also overdubbed his rhythm part, with a double, on 21 and 22.

“Mick is an amazingly accomplished guitar player,” says Price. “Whenever I worked with him, he was always coming up with melodic lines and neat rhythmic accents. And he’s always been very into discovering what he could get out of his guitar. He’s always gone out and bought the latest effects and experimented with them – on `London Calling’ he was using a Roland Space Echo.”

Strummer’s original guitar track on track 12, which he played while singing a guide vocal, was not replaced. “Joe’s more of an intuitive guitar player,” says Price. “He used to bash the living daylights out of his guitar when the song demanded it. He also had a sort of unconscious way of damping the chord with his right hand, which used to produce this incredibly urgent, clanging and clashing sound, which I’ve never heard any other guitarist ever produce. Joe always played a Fender, unless it was broken, and then he’d play anything. Joe’s strumming was so intrinsic to him that we used to do his vocals with him strumming an unplugged Fender, because it was the only way he could get into it. And if he didn’t have a guitar there for some reason, Joe would beat his chest with his right fist.”

For lead vocals, Price would normally have used a tube Neumann U47 but decided not to in this case. “Joe has a very bassy voice and at that time was also undergoing a lot of dental work,” explains Price. “This meant if I used the 47, I had to put so much high-frequency EQ on that Joe’s sibilance turned almost into a distorted lisp. The answer was an SM58, which gave punch and clarity without needing too much EQ.”

Another important factor in Strummer’s vocal delivery was the often physical intervention of producer Guy Stevens. “Guy was a very unusual record producer,” recalls Price. “He believed that the record producer’s job was to maximize the emotion and feeling that an artist revealed on mic in the studio when doing the song. And Guy did this by what I call `direct injection’ – he would challenge the artist verbally and physically, tackle him and bring him to the ground and punch him and stuff, in order to get more emotion out of him when he performed. Funnily enough, this worked better on some people than others. It worked very well with Joe, actually.”

According to Price’s handwritten notes on the original lyric sheet, the lead vocal was made up from three passes recorded on tracks 15, 16 and 20, which were then composited to 13. The switchover points are marked on the lyric sheet, and the cryptic line at the end of the lyric – “less LC out got not” – refers to specific words on a particular pass. Strummer, Jones and Simonon each did backing vocals separately, all of which were doubled.

Finally, Mick Jones reinforced the bass theme that starts the song (“Mick DT bass”) on track 14, either on guitar or possibly on bass. The overdubbed tom-tom on track 10 crops up in the same part of the song.

“London Calling” was recorded and mixed on one of the two Cadac consoles that Price had originally ordered in 1975 to replace Wessex’s aging and under-specified Neves. “The Cadac, to my ear, is still probably the best audio signal chain I’ve ever heard,” says Price. “It had tiny little switches and was hard to operate, but it had a frequency response of one Hertz to a hundred kiloHertz, plus or minus 0.1 dB. And that was throughout the entire console, from a line input to the monitor output.”

For the mix of the track “London Calling,” Strummer described an image of the London fog swirling off the river Thames, with seagulls circling overhead. “Joe wanted the track to `sound like London,'” says Price. “This suggested the echoes for the mix, particularly the slow repeats in the instrumental.” To capture the “foggy London Town” atmosphere, Price set up a slow, multiple repeat on Strummer’s seagull imitations in the instrumental break. “As this was before good delay lines, we used a Studer A80 on varispeed,” he explains. “In order to adjust it to be in time, I started off putting the drums into the delay and got it accurate before switching over to the vocal. This obviously sounded good to me, because there is a little of the effect on the toms, as well as on Joe’s `seagulls,’ in the final mix.” Additional reverb was provided by an EMT 140 plate, set at a decay time of a little under two seconds, and the track was mixed to 11/44-inch, non-Dolby at 15 ips.

Relations between the band and their record company had never been smooth – in fact, an early Clash single, “Complete Control,” had been inspired by CBS’s decision to release the “wrong” single from the band’s first album. So when Maurice Oberstein, the top man at CBS UK, arrived at Wessex in a limousine, apparently in an attempt to hurry things along and get the new album into the mastering room, a scene was almost inevitable.

“This was when Maurice learned that London Calling was going to be a double LP,” recalls Price. “A bit of a brawl ensued that ended up with a rather tired and emotional Guy Stevens lying in the driveway in front of Maurice’s limo so that he couldn’t leave – for quite a long period of time. I remember that, at the time, this did not appear to me to achieve much at all, but thinking about it a little bit more over the years, I think it was probably quite a contribution in influencing CBS to allow The Clash to do what they wanted – to in fact give ’em enough rope. It’s another example of Guy Stevens’ ‘direct injection’ method, and I think it made a big difference. There had been endless arguments, people had been shouting, talking about musicality, talking about profit, talking about how much the sleeve cost, talking about the songs of their lives, and there had been absolutely no meeting point. But the fact that Guy Stevens lay down in front of the limo and had to be carried back into the studio by myself and Jeremy Green – when he finally stopped fighting us – I think made a big impression on Maurice.”

Though the album sessions were originally booked on a sensible Monday to Friday schedule, the band ran out of time toward the end. “After about five or six weeks of recording, the band was booked to play gigs in New York, which might have been the start of a short American tour,” recalls Price. “Needless to say, we were still recording 18 hours a day, seven days a week, up to about two hours before they had to get on a plane to New York. So what actually happened was once the band got to New York, I had a few phone calls with Joe and the rest of the band about how they wanted it mixed – I remember asking if it was okay for `Jimmy Jazz’ to sound like a live recording from a smoky old jazz club. So basically I mixed it totally on my own, apart from some very able help from my assistant at the time, Jeremy Green. And I finished the album and flew to New York with it. I was very nervous at the time, I must admit. I met up with the band, who were about to do a gig, and we played the mixes backstage at The Palladium, and basically they were happy with them.

“I think there were a couple of little changes,” continues Price. “‘Armagideon Time’ was definitely part of the album when we were recording it, but it ended up as a B-side. And ‘Train in Vain’ was the last song that we finished after the artwork went to the printers. If you look on a couple of the Web sites, it describes it as a hidden track, but it wasn’t intended to be hidden. The sleeve was already printed before we tacked it on the end of the master tape.”

The completed album was mastered by Tim Young at CBS Studios in Whitfield Street. “He reckoned it was the loudest vinyl he ever cut,” says Price approvingly. Though not their biggest seller (1982’s Combat Rock sold over a million copies in the U.S.), London Calling provided the platform for worldwide success, and, for better or worse, gave the band enough leverage with CBS/Epic to insist that 1980s Sandinista! be released as a budget-priced triple album. By 1986, The Clash had disbanded, but “London Calling” made the UK charts again in 1988 when it was re-released as a single from the first of several retrospectives, The Story of The Clash, Volume 1. And in 1989, London Calling placed first in Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Albums of the ’80s.”