March 28, 1979: At 4 a.m., Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 nuclear reactor shuts down as the result of a mechanical or electrical failure in its turbine. At 7:24 a.m., a general emergency is declared.
April 1: President Jimmy Carter dons yellow booties (no fooling) and tours the plant, inspiring a classic “Saturday Night Live” skit.
April 4: Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh announces that the “threat of any immediate catastrophe is over.”
Who knows when Joe Strummer of the English rock band The Clash took note of what remains America’s worst nuclear accident. What is clear is that Three Mile Island’s near-meltdown figures prominently in two songs on the band’s “London Calling,” arguably the greatest rock album ever recorded.
The double record debuted in England in December 1979 and in the United States on Jan. 10, 1980 – 35 years ago Saturday.
Rolling Stone ranked “London Calling” eighth on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time:
“Recorded in 1979 in London, which was then wrenched by surging unemployment and drug addiction, and released in America in January 1980, the dawn of an uncertain decade, London Calling is 19 songs of apocalypse, fueled by an unbending faith in rock & roll to beat back the darkness.”
The title song features the lyrics “meltdown expected” and “nuclear error” while the song “Clampdown” includes the line, “Yeah I’m working hard in Harrisburg … waiting to be melted down … .”
Indie88, an alternative radio station in Toronto, declared “London Calling” the greatest double album ever, the last great record of the 1970s and the first great record of the 1980s.
It’s an interesting coincidence that the album came out in December, because I’ve long associated that month with The Clash. I remember buying my first Walkman tape player just before Christmas in the early 1980s, my sister Julie having driven me to an electronics store. I christened it with “London Calling.” Strummer died on Dec. 29, 2002.
I found this from the book, “The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town,” by Marcus Gray, about the song “London Calling”:
“The song began life as a moan about the mobs of tourists wandering around Soho, until Mick [bandmate Mick Jones] … insisted that Joe rewrite the verses about something more meaningful. Explaining the final version to Melody Maker in 1988, Joe said, ‘I read about 10 news reports in one day calling down all variety of plagues on us.’ “
While much of the record has to do with England’s decline (“London is barely alive,” Strummer sings on “London Calling”), the sentiments applied in the United States at the time.
After all, Carter in November 1980 lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan, in the face of rising energy prices, high unemployment and high interest rates, a 444-day Iranian hostage crisis. Carter’s most memorable oration described an American “crisis of confidence,” his so-called “malaise speech.”
The Three Mile Island accident was just more nuclear fuel for the fire.
And yet “London Calling” never felt to me in any way depressing or hopeless. Maybe I was too young to appreciate the lyrics, or maybe it was because I was young, but even today I find it liberating and uplifting.
This past Thanksgiving, I ran in a 5K race with my wife and son. I donned hat and gloves and iPod Shuffle.
Among the songs on my playlist were three from “London Calling.”