Glance through any ranking of the greatest rock album covers of all time and one image you’re sure to come across is the cover of the Clash’s seminal 1979 release, London Calling.
The jaunty pink and green lettering spelling out the album’s title is a cheeky nod to Elvis’s 1956 self-titled release. But it’s the gritty, crackling, black-and-white image of bassist Paul Simonon, captured in mid-chop, his favored '70s Precision Bass overhead and moments from crashing into the stage that makes London Calling’s cover so iconic.
The image, captured by photographer Pennie Smith, has been called the greatest rock and roll photo of all time, but why did Simonon, who wasn’t known for smashing instruments, decide to give his bass the Townshend treatment that night? And what happened to that beautiful bass?
Simonon had been with the Clash from the beginning after being asked by singer/guitarist Mick Jones to join his new band in early 1976; he would eventually give the band its name. The Clash rehearsed relentlessly and within six months of first picking up a bass Simonon was onstage performing.
The Clash were signed to CBS records. CBS was Fender's parent company at the time and, as a result, Simonon was used to getting lots of lighter, newer model basses. But the London Calling bass wasn’t one of those. It was older and heavier, probably from the early ‘70s and was Simonon’s preferred instrument.
He was drawn to the P Bass early on and liked it because of its weight and its fuller, rounder bottom end; a sound that recalled the basslines on the reggae albums he plucked along to while learning how to play.
Originally a visual artist, Simonon quickly decided he preferred the adrenaline rush of playing “White Riot” to a thrashing, packed crowd at the 100 Club to toiling alone in a studio. His flair for the visual found an outlet in the paint-splattered, artfully torn shirts stamped with stenciled political messages that became key to the band’s image
He also put his art school influence to work on his basses and the London Calling P Bass was no exception. Originally a white bass with a black pickguard and a maple neck, Simonon added a skull and crossbones sticker on the body, splattered yellow and red paint onto the pick guard and etched the word “PRESSURE” into the upper horn.
By the time the Clash got to the Palladium on September 21, 1979, the band had moved on from its early raw punk sound to experiment with funk, soul, rockabilly and reggae. Simonon had become one of the best bass guitarists associated with the punk movement. His weapon of choice was the white “PRESSURE” P Bass, not just because of its weight and tone, but also because of its versatility, which made it ideal for floating between genres.
So what prompted him to smash his beloved Fender that night in New York?
The Palladium was an all-seat venue and the Clash were used to a more raucous crowd. As the band tried to rally their fans to their feet, the bouncers pressured them back to their seats.
“That frustrated me to the point that I destroyed this bass guitar,” explained Simonon in a 2011 interview with Fender. “Unfortunately you always sort of tend to destroy the things you love."
The bass was destroyed utterly. But even on the night, the band seemed to be somehow aware of the significance of the act.
“(Joe)Strummer took one of (the pieces)and was about to walk off with it,” recalled Simonon. “I just grabbed it back and said ‘I think that belongs to me.’”
Having briefly loaned it the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Simonon still has the remains of London Calling bass today.
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