#46, "The Card Cheat," The Clash (1979)

I did another switcheroo today for a song I’d forgotten about. Today’s was supposed to be “Alone Again, Or” by the Damned, but I didn’t feel like diving deep on that one. It’s a cover, there is not a lot to say. I did NOT forget “The Card Cheat” (how could I?), but shuffled things around a bit to accommodate a grave error closer to the top. 


Is it a meme to have multiple copies of London Calling or is that just in my house? We have three CD copies and somehow four on vinyl. I don’t know where the vinyl came from and the CDs are the result of my husband’s policy to never get rid of any tangible copies of beloved recordings. Even though neither of us would cite it as our favorite, it’s generally regarded as Everyone’s Favorite Clash album. It’s also the most iconic. I feel like it’s the perennial album cover to show up in music snobs’ record collections in movies like Singles and High Fidelity. All of those copies of records have to end up somewhere. I guess they landed in my record collection. 


It was at one time my favorite Clash album, but I hated how predictable that sounded coming out of my mouth. And in terms of quality, it’s so close to the self-titled and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, that I just went with the latter because I love it too, and it sounds so much more thoughtful. When I discovered the Clash, ska was still my main thing, which kind of explains why London Calling appealed so much. All Clash albums have reggae influence to varying degrees. Eliminating the (still truly great but) lawless chaos that is Sandinista!, London Calling is the most unabashedly reggae-influenced of the Clash’s great albums. Though that also oversimplifies some of the crazy, genre-colliding experimentation done on this record, exemplified well on “The Card Cheat.” 


In doing my pre-post reading, I’ve realized that there’s no guitar in this song. Son of a bitch! I never noticed in 25-odd years of listening to London Calling. Or maybe I just never conceptualized it. I guess I can be excused. There was slight-of-hand in the production. They were going for a big, loud, wall-of-sound effect and recorded the track twice. Pete does this. He tells me it’s ok because Kurt Cobain thought it was ok, reasoning that John Lennon thought it was ok. And now “The Card Cheat.” Why doesn’t everyone do this all the time? It’s so effective! Particularly on “The Card Cheat.” Big bass, big piano, big horns. It’s rich and it’s wonderful. Guitar would just dilute it. 


Other notable factoids I’m putting here because there’s nowhere else to put them: this song has no chorus and it has never been played live.


As it is, this song is so majestic. It sounds like it could be a national anthem for some obscure European monarchy. I think that’s the intended effect. The lyrics take you through the story of a sad/lonely gambler cheating at cards (as the title would suggest). The dealer catches and shoots him. I’ve read a handful of armchair analyses of this song and it’s clear to me we all agree there’s subtext. Others seem to think it’s about mortality? Like, an everything-ends kind of thing, whether it’s life or love. I mean, maybe. But I took a lot from the SIXTH VERSE: 


From the Hundred Year War to the Crimea

With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear

To all of the men who have stood with no fear

In the service of the King 


That would suggest that all of this is a metaphor for the crumbling British empire, no? Gambling is in place for colonial occupation/control? Every empire’s rise has a fall? It’s not just me, I discussed this with someone else who cited “The Card Cheat” as their favorite Clash song. I was like “Colonialism!” and he was like “YES THANK YOU!” On longform analyses of the human mortality interpretation, I’ve seen responses echoing my own thoughts: “yeah but what about the British empire’s fall?” 


I was surprised by how little beard-stroking about this song I was able to find. It seems like it would invite 1,000 pontificators to write pages and pages on it. I’ve also read it referred to as a throwaway-track? I don’t think there *is* a throwaway track on London Calling. If there were, they could have cut them and not released a double album! Natalie recently shared an anniversary retrospective on London Calling which effectively referred to “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” as unlovable, which is incorrect, but I’d also go to the mat for any of these songs besides maybe “Koka Kola.” How much do you want to bet, though, that there’s someone out there that would get into a fist fight with the Independent about “Koka Kola?” That’s probably why London Calling is so enduring. It’s uniquely personal to a lot of people.