#1: The Clash, ‘London Calling’ (1980) vs. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

Well here we are at number one, and what a doozy it is. A grunge band vs. a punk band. Bands that were angry. Bands that rebelled. Bands that looked cooler than you ever could.

At the same time, bands that proved you can rant and rave while still being melodic and catchy. Both of these albums are great fun to listen to. Also, check out those iconic covers – bass-smashing Elvis tribute and baby dick chasing money. Bad ass, all the way.

Well chosen, Rolling Stone. Very rock n’ roll.

I confess I didn’t listen to Nevermind much at the time (Soundgarden, Hole and Screaming Trees were my go-to grunge bands), and have never listened to it since, so I was pretty much coming in clean. And, to be honest, I had modest expectations. I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that Nirvana was a little over-rated and their legacy was enshrined in large part because Kurt Cobain made sure the world would never see him grow old.

But Nevermind surprised me. I had forgotten how damn catchy the thing is. Nirvana gave off an aura of a band that didn’t give a shit what you thought or how they sounded – that they were just making noise to serve some inner demon and you could come along for the ride or not. But the sheer craftsmanship of these songs belies that notion. These are meticulously constructed tunes – beautifully delivered by three masterful players.

Turns out I remember this album way better than I thought too. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”, “Come As You Are”, “Breed”, “Lithium”, “Polly” – one classic, unforgettable song after another to transport you back to the days of flannel and angst.

Let’s single out “Territorial Pissings” as the song to highlight – one of the few songs I didn’t remember particularly well coming into this analysis but was thrilled to (re)discover. It opens with Krist Novaselic singing (very badly) the lyrics to the 1967 Youngbloods “Get Together”:

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another

He would explain later: “Maybe some baby boomers will hear that and wonder what happened to those ideals.”

Ouch.

And then the song kicks in – two pounding, driving minutes like a freight train through your brain with the same words shouted over and over: “Gotta find a way/to find a way/when I’m there!!!” The thing comes to an abrupt screeching halt, seemingly because the band was too exhausted and cranky to continue. Awesome.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will always be the iconic representation of grunge (rightfully so, I suppose), but “Territorial Pissings” is its darker and perhaps more interesting cousin.

So, my apologies to Kurt and the boys – I underestimated you. Nevermind is truly great.

But you’re still going to get thumped like Paul Simonon’s bass.

As fantastic as Nevermind is, London Calling is astounding. Where Nevermind has pretty much just one sound (with loud and quiet variations), London Calling delivers a mind-boggling variety of sounds and genres (reggae, rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock). And while Cobain’s lyrics focus almost exclusively on his misery, Clash writers Joe Strummer and Mick Jones blended thoughts of their own insecurities and fears into an album full of political statements about unemployment, racial conflict, social inequality and how it sucks to be an adult. The Clash had an awful lot on their minds.

And every song is a pure gem, no exceptions. Which is a hell of a feat for a double album. They are so consistently solid, in fact, that I suspect if you took 100 fans and told them all to write down their three favourite songs on the album, and then made a master list, every song would be equally represented.

Here are a few of mine:

There’s the gorgeous “The Card Cheat”, about a card player whose time has run out, in which the band recreates Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound by double-tracking everything. Apparently the sound was too complex to replicate on stage so they never played it live.

There’s falsely jaunty “Lost in the Supermarket”, which, lyrically, is perhaps the most like Nevermind, in that it is more personal than political; about the shallow consumerism of life in the suburbs.

And there’s “Death or Glory” of which. Rick Anderson of AllMusic said “this song features the best and most satisfying chord progression and melody the Clash ever came up with”. It’s also a vicious shot at rock stars who sell out, featuring the lovely line: “He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” Amen.

Such quips aside, perhaps the album is too likable considering this was supposed to be a punk band.

In their write-up about the album, Rolling Stone relays a story from Joe Strummer, who heard from a distressed German skinhead, who said, “My grandmother likes ‘Wrong ’em Boyo’. What have you done to me?” Strummer remembers thinking: “Is he right? Maybe we should have offended her more.” Maybe. But “Wrong ’em Boyo” is delicious at any age.

Speaking of Strummer, I love his vocals, changing things up, playing characters.  Sometimes he sounds like he’s just making stuff up on the spot (“Jimmy Jazz”), sometimes he sounds drunk (“The Right Profile”). It’s playful but I think it’s also far more calculated than it comes across. Everything on this album is purposeful.

If you want to boil this battle down to one song, let’s talk about closers. London Calling wraps up with “Train in Vain”, a perfect pop song and one of the catchiest break up songs ever (fun side note – it was added to the album so late it didn’t make it on the cover). Nevermind, on the other hand, ends with hidden track “Endless, Nameless”. I’m all for noise and rage, but that thing is unpleasant to the point of unlistenable. Thank goodness the novelty of hidden tracks didn’t last.

JG

WINNER: The Clash, London Calling (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 25

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 82
90s: 63

So…yep – that’s it for the battles.

And the winner is…THE 80s! Coming into the Top 10, it looked like the 90s had this thing wrapped up, but the 80s DOMINATED the Top 10.

Thanks for tuning in everyone – Happy New Year and may 2021 be a great year!

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