Encore: Topper Headon on the Clash’s London Calling
by Jon Wurster
Though their first two albums certainly made an impact in their native England and among some converts in the States, global domination seemed quite elusive for the Clash in 1979, especially considering their being widely hailed as “the only band that matters.” To add insult to injury, the band was heavily in debt and had just split with their long-time manager, who had in turn taken the keys to their rehearsal space/headquarters with him.
Never ones to throw in the towel when the going got tough, the Clash responded by hunkering down in the upper room of a London auto shop and hammering out the songs that would comprise the bulk of album number three. When the band moved to Wessex studios and began recording with legendary eccentric producer Guy Stevens, they knew their very future was on the line. They emerged with London Calling—a blistering nineteen-song musical manifesto that stands as a serious contender for “greatest rock ’n’ roll album of all time” honors.
Three things immediately impress upon first listen to London Calling—the crisp, timelessness of its sound (thanks in large part to engineer Bill Price); the incredible variety of musical styles it shows the Clash tackling; and the extraordinary confidence the band displays throughout. Much of the credit for the Clash’s evolution from three-chord punk purveyors to world-class rock band rests squarely on the shoulders of drummer Nicholas “Topper” Headon. Although Clash founders Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon had often expressed a profound love for reggae, ska, rockabilly, and Motown, it took the arrival of Headon (just after the release of their self-titled debut album) to carry them to the level where they could actually execute such disparate styles. Headon’s performances on such tracks as the barnstorming rocker “Clampdown,” the R&B-flavored “Train in Vain,” and the ska-infused “Revolution Rock” show why he must be considered not only one of the foremost drummers to emerge from the punk/new wave scene, but one of the best and most versatile rock drummers of all time.
Sadly, Headon would find himself dismissed from The Clash in mid-’82, but not before writing and recording—almost single-handedly—the band’s biggest single, “Rock the Casbah.”