Certain Songs #222: The Clash – “Death or Glory”

The-Clash-London-Calling-30th-Anniversary-Edition Album: London Calling.
Year: 1979.

And then there’s the cover of London Calling. That iconic Pennie Smith shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass in New York City. I’d heard of guitars being smashed — I mean my other favorite band at the time was The Who — but whoever heard of a bass being smashed? Was it even possible? Those things are heavy!

In any event, that cover was instantly arresting and is endlessly fascinating. I bought Pennie Smith’s book of photos of The Clash for it, and I would stare at the album cover wondering what the circumstances were that led to that moment. What was going on that would cause Paul to smash his bass?

Also: who was that blurry figure behind Paul? He’s obviously running somewhere, but where? And why? It’s an image of unplanned chaos, a brief moment in time that was somehow captured for all time. An image that — to me — defines rock ‘n’ roll, defines The Clash, and defines “Death or Glory.”

Just another story? Hardly.

‘n every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n roll,
Grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold,
But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research,
He who fucks nuns will later join the church.

That might be the greatest thing that Joe Strummer ever wrote. Hell, it might be the greatest lyric anybody’s ever written: just to live in the world means that you have to compromise some of your principles. No matter who you are, or what those principles might be. Including Joe Strummer.

And of course, compromising your principles goes down easier if you have a Mick Jones to write an instantly anthemic riff that goes along with your instantly anthemic lyrics.

For what it’s worth, “Death or Glory” is my favorite song on London Calling, and of course London Calling is my favorite Clash album, but “Death or Glory” isn’t my favorite Clash song. Pretty damn close, though.

Fan-made video for “Death or Glory”

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