It’s been nearly 10 years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of 50. Born John Graham Mellor, he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain’s punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.
In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the departure of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier due to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years, it just wasn’t the same.
For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan’s drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band’s name implies, they were also far more a reflection of Strummer’s interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.
Over the course of three years and three albums the band’s lineup was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent lineup doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer’s creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records’ newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go and Streetcore, you’ll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.
While there are obvious similarities between Srummer’s work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren’t an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with his prior band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London, England, Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn’t help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.
The first Mescaleros disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, “Yalla Yalla” has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you’d never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It’s hard to describe, as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there’s the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it’s the sound of Strummer’s singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. “Well so long liberty/Let’s forget you didn’t show/Not in my time/Not in my son’s/And daughter’s time.”
Even sung to the melodic tune of the song, those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing it’s a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer’s best work, “Yalla Yalla” isn’t just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I’d say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.
Global A Go-Go saw the band’s lineup changed to include Strummer’s old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence, this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer’s music didn’t change, the scope of the band’s means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue, film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc’s title: “Strummer’s world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known … Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns.”
Yet what continued to make Strummer’s music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that’s as funny and cheerful as “Bhindi Bhagee”. Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighborhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. “Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus/…/Welcome stranger, there’s no danger.” Typical of Strummer, the song has a point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun along the way.
Strummer died before the release of the band’s third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died. The remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in, from his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, “Before I Grow Too Old”, retitled here as “Silver and Gold”, to his writing of “Long Shadow” in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash’s repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. “Well I’ll tell you one thing that I know/You don’t face your demons down/You grab them by the collar/And you wrestle them to the ground.”
Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash’s guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that he had made in Rick Rubin’s studio – the man who produced and recorded Cash’s “American” albums – with him on piano, Hormel on guitar, and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on organ. It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, “Coma Girl” and “Get Down Moses” will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.
As lead singer for The Clash, Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there’s no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn’t produce the same volume of material as his most famous band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.