Song 264: The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket” (1979)

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Every time I listen to The Clash’s London Calling, I can’t get over how diverse it is. The record is like an index of musical styles: ska, punk, pop, garage, blues, disco. It’s especially jarring to consider the album in the context of the band’s previous work; The Clash’s self-titled debut is a fast, short punk workout, and follow-up Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a more radio-friendly version of the same.

For their third effort, The Clash seemed to have thrown everything at the wall to see what stuck. This creative method doesn’t usually work out, but in the case of London Calling, which I don’t mind calling a masterpiece, this range works wonders. You’re aware of the stylistic shifts, but the album somehow never sounds unfocused or poorly designed. Instead, it’s whip-smart and tightly wound, even when the songs (such as the loping “The Right Profile” or the swinging “Jimmy Jazz”) have some breathing room.

There’s no denying the greatness of so many songs on London Calling, especially its firestorm of a title track, but my favorite has always been “Lost in the Supermarket.” Like many other Clash songs, it’s both witty and politically sharp. Unlike all Clash songs to date, however, it sounded like the Bee Gees. Those hissing hi-hats and leaping basslines wouldn’t sound out of place at Studio 54. The Clash did a lot of ballsy things over the course of their careers, but making a disco song may have been the ballsiest. I can’t imagine the punk purists who had followed The Only Band That Matters were too happy hearing their heroes make music for leisure suits.

Of course, that’s not what The Clash were doing. Though they tackled the genre genuinely and confidently, they used disco as a backdrop for a song about the effect of consumerism on both our everyday lives and innate characters. “Lost in the Supermarket” starts with a description of a banal middle-class upbringing (“I wasn’t born so much as I fell out” may be one of the best opening lines in rock history) and then describes how those middle-class comforts have made us feeling more and more alone. Perhaps most tellingly, Mick Jones mentions his “giant-hit discothéque album” among the possessions that he expects to provide warmth and identity.

Many people still seem to point to The Clash’s first record as their punk statement, and, great as that album is, London Calling seems to me as their true punk record. They sang about Montgomery Clift, played disco, and featured a bluesy sax solo, all on a double record, without caring about what other people thought. Seems pretty punk-rock to me.

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2 Comments on “Song 264: The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket” (1979)”

  1. franky furbo says:

    Lost in the Supermarket has always been my favorite Clash song too, but I do think the notion that Disco and Punk were still at odds in late 1979 is a little misled. Several UK bands were already experimenting with the blend, including PiL, Gang of Four, even Joy Division to an extent. And the No Wave scene in New York was springing up around The Contortions. So by the time London Calling came out very late in 1979 (December actually) I think many forward-thinking artists and punks had already accepted Disco as a viable form to mess around with. And as for the punk purists, well, they probably wouldn’t be able to get past Jimmy Jazz or Spanish Bombs to give Lost in the Supermarket a chance. The punk purists had already been led astray by third-wave, bonehead, uniform street punk like UK Subs, Exploited and Sham 69…the bands that only believed in the media image of punk.

  2. davidcbrusie says:

    Thanks for the comment, that’s really interesting. I don’t know much about PiL and Gang of Four, so I appreciate the context. This record came out almost exactly a week before I was born, and I take an odd amount of pride in that. (Though I wasn’t born so much as I fell out.)


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