I’ve enjoyed a few days off from the world over the 4th of July holiday. It’s a time for bbq and refreshing vodka cocktails by a pool and listening to rock and roll. I could get used to being a man of leisure. Time that I should have spent reading I’ve spent in front of the television watching Wimbledon. I should be watching the World Cup like the rest of the world. Soccer or football as it’s known everywhere else is a beautiful, elegant game to watch but for some reason my attention has been on tennis. I found myself drawn to a tennis player named Vitalia Diatchenko, I can’t put my finger on why…ahem. When not watching Wimbledon, sadly my eyes have turned to what the kids call, “the social media.” It was NPR who tweeted recently that there is a box set in the works chronicling the solo work of Joe Strummer. That caught my attention.
As most people know, Joe Strummer was the leader of one of the greatest bands of all time, The Clash. The Clash – Strummer on vocals/rhythm guitar, Mick Jones lead guitar/vocals, Paul Simonon bass/vocals, and Topper Headon on drums were often referred to as “The Only Band That Matters,” due to their huge influence and political lyrics. They were spawned from the same punk scene as the Sex Pistols but their sound ranged from punk to reggae and ska to rockabilly. They could really do it all. Elvis Costello, when commenting about the Clash once said something to the effect that, “The Clash were only punk on the first album or two, after that it was them playing Joe Strummer’s record collection.” That must have been some record collection, indeed.
Sadly, out here in the wilderness of the American Midwest, you didn’t hear a lot of Clash on the local radio. It wasn’t until MTV started playing the videos for “Rock The Casbah” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” that I became aware of the Clash. That was pretty late in the game. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” famously, for me, was playing on the jukebox in a bar I was sitting in while my first girlfriend broke up with me… I still wince when that song comes on. Despite that, I went out and bought Combat Rock (on cassette, no less) and I still love that music. That sent me crashing through their catalog, all of which I consider essential listening to any rock fan: The Clash (get the UK version), Give Em Enough Rope, London Calling and Sandanista are all iconic rock for me.
As often happens with bands, internal dissension tore them apart. They fired Headon when he succumbed to drugs. He and Terry Chimes would rotate in and out of the band. Mick Jones was fired in the famous “Clash Communique.” The wheels were coming off. Finally, the Clash ended things in 1985 with the substandard album, Cut The Crap. Mick Jones spun up the oft overlooked, but worth checking out Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer, however, took a more low key approach to his solo career. He started off doing soundtracks and a little bit of acting. It wasn’t until 1999 that he formed The Mescaleros with Scott Shields and Martin Slattery and a rotating group of other musicians. Still, there was nothing they did that hit big or with the force of the Clash. Frankly Strummer’s solo career could be categorized as disappointing.
I was up late one night, ruminating and sipping bourbon when the documentary of Strummer’s life came on, The Future Is Unwritten. I highly recommend any fan of the Clash or of Strummer to rent that movie post haste. It was a fascinating thing to see. Everybody from Anthony Kiedis to Bono are interviewed. It was watching that movie that I discovered that the Mescaleros had released an album after Strummer had passed, Streetcore. I bought it the next morning. How was this brilliant album overlooked? It’s the strongest thing Strummer ever did solo. He truly saved the best for last…
The album opens with a great rocking song, “Coma Girl.” It rocks on the verses and goes into a slight reggae back beat during the choruses. This tune should have been a big, big hit. That leads into the monster reggae song, “Get Down Moses.” It’s one of my absolute favorite tracks. The bass is enormous. Those two tracks would be worth the price of admission but this whole album is amazing, start to finish.
There are two songs, I’ll say, influenced by Johnny Cash. Joe was vacationing in California and dropped by Rick Rubin’s studios. Johnny was there doing some recording for the American Recordings sessions. In the liner notes to the fabulous Cash box set, Unearthed, Rubin describes the scene. Strummer would drop by everyday and lay down by the glass wall to the recording booth and just watch Johnny play. After about a week of that, Rubin asked if Joe wanted to do something with Johnny and he was too frightened. Rubin mentioned to Cash that the Clash played a lot of reggae, which surprisingly Johnny loved. The next thing you know, they’re all huddled around the stereo listening to Bob Marley records. Johnny and Joe cut a duet doing “Redemption Songs,” which is just perfect. You can’t make stories like this up… Joe’s version, without Johnny, is here on the album and it’s a beautiful reading. If ever there was a case of the material suiting the artist, it’s this. I would advise anybody to also search out the duet… While watching Johnny, Strummer also wrote, “The Long Shadow,” which is here as an acoustic number. Johnny never recorded it but it would have been perfect for him. “The Long Shadow” is the kind of epic song you’d think only the Man In Black could pull off, but Strummer does too. It evokes traveling across the vast continent and surveying the moral and emotional landscape. It’s quite striking.
This is a posthumous release and according to Wikipedia many of Strummer’s vocals are first takes. I think his vocals have a ferocity and edge to them, maybe it’s that first take thing, but this is a well sung, punchy record. “Arms Aloft” and “All In A Day” are great rocking songs. This album reminds me of a Clash album stylistically because there’s a little of everything. “Burning Streets” is a virtual sequel to “London Is Burning.” “Ramshackle Day Parade” is an epic ballad. It’ll grab you by the collar. There is one song, “Midnight Jam,” which is the Mescaleros playing behind snippets of Strummer’s radio show – he DJ’d a program where he played all sorts of world music. It’s a fitting tribute to Strummer’s fine taste in music.
The album ends on it’s second cover song, the Bobby Charles’ track “Before I Grow Too Old” re-titled and repurposed as “Silver and Gold.” A touching little acoustic number that ends with Strummer saying, “that’s a take.” I know this record might seem a little obscure to most folks, but that’s our job here at B&V, to point out and shine a light on music that you might have overlooked. This is a great album by an incredibly important artist. Worth checking out!