An oral history of the London Calling cover

As The Clash’s seminal punk rock album nears its 40th anniversary, we look back at how the iconic cover artwork came to be and its lasting legacy as a symbol of “universal angst”

In December 1979, The Clash released their third studio album, London Calling – a medley of genres that freely subverted expectations from one track to the next. It went on to become one of the definitive records of the 20th century, and cemented Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon as “the only band that matters”.

Music photographer Pennie Smith regularly shot The Clash, but one image in particular taken on tour earlier that year would be seared in the public’s collective consciousness for the decades to follow. Smith happened to catch the moment Simonon smashed his bass in a momentary fit of anger while on stage at the Palladium in New York. While Smith was (and still is) somewhat matter-of-fact about it all, that image embodied the tyrannical spirit of the punk rock generation – just like the album it covered.

Splashed in an L-shape across the cover was the name of the album, inscribed in green and pink in the style of Elvis Presley’s debut studio album from 1956. The idea came from Ray Lowry – whom Strummer dubbed the band’s ‘war artist’, who passed away in 2008.

To offer some insight on the cover design, we spoke with Robert Gordon McHarg III, a friend and collaborator of the band, and curator of the newly opened London Calling exhibition at the Museum of London. Meanwhile Smith recounts what it was like on the road with one of British music’s most memorable bands, and how that pivotal photograph came to be.

L-R: Joe Strummer, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones. All photographs © Pennie Smith