- 31 Mar 21
What do you do when you’ve already done it all? How do you follow The Clash? A new compilation, Assembly, documents what Joe Strummer did next.
Prologue: What Have The Clash Ever Done For Us?
Every so often, you hear some fool grumbling. “What was so great about The Clash?” they mutter. Where do you start when faced with lunacy like this? Never mind the fact that they made some of the finest rock n’ roll singles known to man, woman, or child – ‘Complete Control’, ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’, ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘I Fought The Law’, etc. etc. Never mind the fact that their first album is up there with the greatest debuts of them all. Never mind the fact that London Calling – an album that belongs in at least the top ten of any ‘best ever’ poll – successfully incorporated nearly everything worth talking about in the history of rock n’ roll on to one record. Never mind the fact that The Clash ‘got’ reggae in a way that most other bands never would. Never mind all that and remember that The Clash could make you dance and think about the Spanish Civil War or Frente Sandanista de Liberacíon Nacional at the same time, and look impossibly cool while they were doing it. The only band that matters and perhaps the last one that ever did.
Think on this as well, just five years separates the release of the first Clash single, ‘White Riot’ on March 18, 1977, from that of of the last Clash album, Combat Rock, on May 14th 1982, from the garage to the US top ten. Well, it should have been their last album. Let us sweep the 1985 abomination Cut The Crap – apart from the single ‘This Is England’ – under the carpet where it belongs.
In the early part of 1986, one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands there has ever been, or ever will be, disbanded in chaos, going out with a quivering whimper rather than a pulsating bang, but that story isn’t true either. It really ended when Joe Strummer gave Mick Jones the boot in September of 1983, for whatever reason, be it Jones’ diva tendencies, or manager Bernie Rhodes machinations, or just plain stupidity on Strummer’s part. It was a move he never really forgave himself for. He could point fingers, like everyone else, but he knew the end was his fault as much as anyone else’s, and most likely more so.
Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg
Joe Strummer took a long time to get any kind of solo career going. Maybe he was burnt out, maybe he felt he could never match what he’d already done by the ripe old age of thirty-one, and only tarnish it by trying. It seems distinctly odd then that his first post-Clash musical move was writing songs for Alex Cox’s fairly woeful “punk rock” Sid & Nancy movie, but he apparently liked the rough cut. His contract with CBS, a hangover from The Clash days, stipulated that he could only contribute two songs but that didn’t stop Strummer, who wrote another batch which then had to be assigned to made-up bands when the screen credits rolled. The movie’s theme, ‘Love Kills’, is the earliest cut on Assembly, a new compilation that shines a light on Strummer’s solo years. It might not be the greatest song he ever wrote but the filming of its video took him and director/pal Cox to Spaghetti Western country in Spain, giving them an idea for what they might do next.
Before that, he fell/jumped into something else. Mick Jones had played some guitar on the ‘Love Kills’ session, and Joe and Paul Simonon had both cameoed in the video for ‘Medicine Show’, the third single by Big Audio Dynamite, the hip-hop/reggae/punk mash-up band that Jones put together after getting his Clash marching papers. In the middle of 1986 Strummer ran into Don Letts, the former Roxy DJ and Clash associate, who was on the way to Trident Studios for the on-going recording sessions for B.A.D.’s second album, No. 10 Upping Street. Joe tagged along and ended up co-producing, and co-writing five songs. Seek out ‘V. Thirteen’ and the great ‘Beyond The Pale’ to see what might have been, where The Clash might have gone next, if only they’d had the good sense to do so.
Shoot His Right Profile
Once that record was finished, Joe was back in Spain to work on Cox’s own western movie, Straight To Hell, and it was here that he became close with Pogues man, Jem Finer, and it wasn’t his first encounter with the punk/folk/booze conglomerate either. ‘Haunted’ was included on the Sid & Nancy soundtrack and is a great, somewhat forgotten Pogues song, and Cait O’Riordan’s finest three minutes. The following year, after the trauma of his mother’s passing from cancer, Strummer worked with Cox yet again, on Walker, about the American who briefly took over Nicaragua in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whatever about Joe’s small acting part – he may have hung out with DeNiro in Gaz Mayall’s Rockin’ Blues Club, but that didn’t make him a DeNiro - and the film itself, it is his soundtrack that is best remembered. Here is the first real Strummer solo album, a marvellous and accomplished mix of Latin American music and Joe’s folkier leanings. He even sings a bit, on the bouncing ‘Tennessee River’, and cricket-scored ‘Tropic Of No Return’, which deserves to be much better known.
Strummer didn’t get much time to sit around once the promo work for Walker died down. Pogues manager and Irish rock n’ roll super hero Frank Murray got in touch as Philip Chevron’s ulcer had flared up, meaning he couldn’t play their 1987 US tour. Joe was drafted in as a temporary rhythm guitar replacement. The brilliantly named Ulcer Says No tour went across American and then back to Europe. I didn’t get to see it but I well remember an episode of RTÉ’s excellent The Session TV show where The Pogues co-headlined with The Dubliners. Strummer came on for ‘I Fought The Law’, which didn’t quite achieve lift-off, but that didn’t matter because the tin whistle, banjo and accordion version of ‘London Calling’ showed what they were at. I might add here that I did, as far as I know, see The Pogues in the late eighties, down in Shinrone but the hypnotist has never lived who could draw a memory of the night out of that stout-soaked part of my brain.
Strummer contributed another great lost tune, ‘Trash City’, along with a few others, to the 1988 film Permanent Record, calling the band he put together for the project Latino Rockabilly War, and there were even a few live dates, playing Clash songs alongside his solo soundtrack work. He continued with the acting game in Jim Jarmusch’s great Mystery Train in 1989 and, in the same year, finally delivered his first non-soundtrack solo LP. Earthquake Weather met with little praise from either critics or punters. It’s no forgotten masterpiece – the production’s a bit muddy, the guitarists and the bassist are a bit too busy – but songs like ‘Gangsterville’, ‘King Of The Bayou’, the cover of ‘Ride Your Donkey’ and the lovely ‘Island Hopping’ deserve remembering. Assembly finds room for ‘Sleepwalk’ only, a song that Strummer apparently tried to place with Nelson Riddle in the hope that Sinatra might record it, which always seemed highly unlikely.
Earthquake Weather couldn’t even match the sales of the Walker soundtrack album, which didn’t exactly buy many sports cars either, but before Strummer had time to feel sorry for himself, Frank Murray came to the rescue again, hiring Joe to produce The Pogues' 1990 album, Hell’s Ditch. I might be on my own here, but it’s my favourite Pogues record, incorporating as it does more outside influences, not least the sounds Shane MacGowan heard on a recent trip to Thailand, and a distinct Latin flavour, including references to beloved Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whose grave Strummer went looking for when he fled south after The Clash imploded. Garcia’s remains – it’s likely Nationalists killed him during the Civil War – have never been found, but that kind of thing never troubled the likes of Strummer.
MacGowan was in a bad way at this stage, and the producer had to work hard to get anything decent out of him, often recording the vocals syllable by syllable. The other Pogues eventually, after years of patience-testing antics, had enough and parted ways with the singer, but there was still a tour. There was only ever one man they were going to call. Strummer went off on the road again, filling in this time for MacGowan instead of Chevron.
The set was a mix of Pogues and Clash songs, and went down like free drink wherever they went. You can get some idea of it by digging out the excellent Pogues box set Just Look The In The Eye And Say… Poguemahone!! which has ‘Turkish Song Of The Damned’, ‘London Calling’, and ‘I Fought The Law’ all recorded at London’s Forum in December ’91. The box also has another soundtrack cut, ‘Afro-Cuban Be-Bop’, credited to Joe Strummer and the Astro-Physicians, which was recorded during the Hell’s Ditch sessions. The song’s title indicates the direction in which Strummer’s ears were pointed.
The Second Coming: You Can Be A Hero In An Age Of None
The nineties might have seemed like wilderness years – as Strummer himself referred to them more than once – but he was working towards something. He got married and received tickets to Glastonbury as a wedding present, falling in love with the place and starting his own campfire tradition. He took ecstasy and finally copped on to what Mick Jones heard in dance music. The first song that would form part of his next move, ‘Digging The New’, speaks to this experience.
While there were other stops – he wrote a song for Horace Andy, he showed up on South Park singing ‘It’s A Rockin’ World’, and he finally appeared on Top Of The Pops – The Clash were far too real for any of that class of messing - thanks to his part in Black Grape’s football-toasting single ‘England’s Irie’ – it was more soundtrack work that made the difference. He first worked with percussionist Pablo Cook and electronic musician Richard Norris on the music for two films, Tunnel Of Love and Question Of Honour. Cook had worked with Pulp where he met guitarist Antony Genn, who Strummer had first seen streaking on-stage with Elastica at Glastonbury. Genn was another person who told Joe he should be doing his own record.
In 1997 Strummer finally got out of his record contract with CBS/Epic. He would have to return to them should The Clash ever decide to reform, but as a solo artist he was free, having successfully waited them out. The way was finally clear to assemble a band out of his recent recruits. He christened them The Mescaleros – “something I just stole from a cowboy film” - after deciding Hand Of God was probably a bit much, and they released their first album, Rock, Art & The X-Ray Style in October 1999. The reviews were spectacular and rightly so, for here was the best set of songs with the name Strummer on them since Combat Rock, and maybe since before that too. There would be another two Mescaleros albums – 2001’s Global a Go-Go and the posthumous Streetcore in 2003 – and it is these vital records – Strummer had the good fortune to be in not one but two great bands in his lifetime – that Assembly focuses on.
The good people at Dark Horse Records – yes, the label George Harrison started back in 1974 – have set themselves an impossible task here. The easier move would have been to just box up the three albums and push that. Better still, the United Nations should have got involved and pledged to present these records to every school child in the world as a design for life. There are songs here that are, not to put too fine a point on it, as good as much of what we celebrate from The Clash.
‘Coma Girl’ – completed after Joe’s death – is a breathless opener. Strummer and his guitar are “crawling through a festival way out west.” The reggae-tinged beat kicks in. The chorus rocks steady for the excitement gang. ‘Johnny Appleseed’ bemoans, “how the door closes when the chimes of freedom ring” and warns against “killing all the bees” “after getting the honey.” The folk-rock sound is filled out by the addition of Tymon Dogg’s fiddle, an associate who stretched all the way back to the squat days of The 101ers. “We think there is a soul, that soul is hard to find.” Strummer never gave up the search. ‘Tony Adams’ documents a solar flare tearing down the city of madness over the same guitar stroke that drove ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ while we all wait for the rays of the morning sun.
There’s a song on the second Mescaleros album, Global A Go-Go, called ‘Bhindi Bhagee’. It didn’t make the Assembly cut but it’s worth mentioning as it finds Strummer trying to sum up his musical philosophy. A man he meets in the street asks him “what’s you music like?” Strummer hesitates, cogitates, ruminates and then the floodgates are opened. “Ragga, bhangra, two step tanga. Mini-cab radio, music on the go. Surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat. There's a bunch of players and they're really letting go. We got, Brit pop, hip-hop, rockabilly, lindy hop. Gaelic heavy metal fans, fighting in the road. Sunday boozers, for chewing gum users. They got a crazy DJ and she's really letting go.” That nearly sums it up. If you need another roadmap for the soul, dial up the great London Calling shows Strummer presented for the BBC World Service. They should be studying such like in universities.
Perhaps the best song here – and one of the greatest songs that Strummer ever put his name to – is ‘Yalla Yalla’. Over burbling electronics and a metronomic drumbeat, Strummer hollers out a philosophy, in that voice which changed lives. “Groovin’, let’s cut out of the scene, go groovin’. Drive, drive, distance no object, Rasta fer-I.”
And then there is this:
“Well, so long, liberty,
Let’s forget you didn’t show, not in my time,
But in our sons’ and daughters’ time, when you get the feeling
Call and you got a room.”
That should be carved at the foot of a statue, somewhere near The Westway.
Into Action Everybody Sprang: A Few Stray Notes
I saw Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros live on three separate occasions. There was a night in London when they supported The Who. This looks better on paper than it turned out to be in reality. Wembley Arena was a soulless barn back then – it might be still, I don’t know – and we had lousy tickets, but it was still Joe Strummer and The Who. The other two shows were in Dublin’s Olympia. I remember Joe changing the lyrics of ‘A Message To You, Rudi’ to reference Grafton Street and I remember floating down the street aglow after shaking his hand by the stage door, but what I remember most is this: Joe Strummer shouting at the men around him, who he had decades on, to keep up as he launched into ‘White Riot’ before they were ready. They just couldn’t match the punk rock warlord.
The last Mescaleros gig took place on 22 November 2002, one month before Strummer died from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, but a week before that they played a benefit for striking fire fighters in Acton Town Hall, a building I used to walk by on my way to work in a different lifetime. The gig was recorded – the bootleg is over there on the shelf – but it’s not included here. In its place are three arse-kicking selections from a night in the Brixton Academy a year before, a show that hopeless obsessives like myself will already know of from the extras included on ‘Coma Girl’ CD singles. Anyway, that’s not the important thing. Mick Jones was in the crowd that night in Acton and whatever possessed him, he decided, for the first time since the early eighties, to join Strummer on stage, for ‘Bankrobber’, ‘White Riot’ “in the key of A!” and, appropriately, ‘London’s Burning’. There’s footage of this included in Julien Temple’s The Future Is Unwritten: Joe Strummer film, which, when viewed in the right frame of mind, with adequate refreshment, can make grown men cry. I know this because I’m one of them.
Strummer was only fifty years old when he died, which seems younger and younger the older and older I get, but he survived long enough to prove his worth a second time. Assembly shows that this giant, this titan of rock n’ roll, went out strutting, and swinging.
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher.”
- ‘Constructive Summer’, The Hold Steady (2008)
“People can change anything they want to. It’s time to take humanity back into the centre of the ring. Without people, you’re nothing. The Future Is Unwritten.”
- Joe Strummer (1952-2002)