The bass guitar went up. The bass guitar came down. In the two-second interval before it splintered, photographer Pennie Smith captured the dramatic shot of Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his instrument on stage at New York City’s Palladium, Sept. 21, 1979. Smith recalls that mere moments before, she had been ready to pack up her camera gear. But when she saw Simonon looking ”really, really fed up” and ready to blow a gasket, she decided to keep her camera at the ready. ”I just got the one shot and that was it,” she laughs. ”End of roll of film.”
That luck-induced, immortal image – framed by pink and green lettering (echoing the cover of Elvis Presley’s first LP, courtesy of designer Ray Lowry) – would go on to grace the cover of the Clash’s breakthrough album, London Calling, which they released just three months later. Although the band had mostly finished recording it shortly before embarking on a Yank-bashing, monthlong U.S. tour in the fall of ‘79 (in true punk style, they opened every set with ”I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”), it didn’t improve their moods: Paul Simonon chalks up his bout of bassicide to a general ”frustration,” and in retrospect, it’s easy to guess why the angry young men of the Clash may have been feeling more cantankerous than usual.
”Airplay and sales for the Clash was pretty limited then,” recalls Harvey Leeds, then head of Album Rock Promotion for the band’s U.S. label, Epic Records. Indeed, by the end of the ’70s, while poppier American punk and new-wave acts like Blondie and Talking Heads were scoring radio hits, the English punks, like the Damned and the Sex Pistols, had yet to make an impact. And for all their antiestablishment rhetoric, the Clash desperately wanted to ”break out and break America and be kind of global,” as late frontman Joe Strummer (who died in 2002 of heart failure) once said.
It’s true that the U.K. version of their first LP, 1977’s ripsnorting The Clash, had become the biggest-selling import album up to that time, moving 100,000 copies. But a skittish Epic didn’t release a version of it here until 1979. The band’s second full-length album, 1979’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope (actually their first U.S. release), had divided hardcore fans, many of whom felt the label-tapped producer, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult), had given the Clash’s snap-and-bite punk an anomalous metallic sheen. Twenty-five years later, the platinum hopeful has yet to even go gold.
Needless to say, there was a lot riding on the Clash’s third record. A quarter century down the line, history has shown that London Calling was the band’s watershed, both a critical and commercial success that turned this quartet of scruffy yobbos into bona fide rock stars. From the apocalyptically chilling title track to the giddy closing choogle of ”Train in Vain,” the album was a wild, genre-jumping joyride. Whether denouncing drug addiction (”Hateful”), paying homage to ill-fated actor Montgomery Clift (”The Right Profile”), or delivering a pummeling antifascist broadside (”Clampdown”), the Clash was clearly a band at the top of its game.