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Music Review: Joe Strummer – The Future Is Unwritten

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Truth to tell, I only recently realized how a brief encounter with Joe Strummer over 25 years ago completely reshaped my approach to writing. It was 1981, and the Clash were lined up to be the cover story for the inaugural issue of my magazine, Pulse: Tomorrow’s Trends Today. Their concert at the now defunct, but still lamented Bronco Bowl was nothing short of phenomenal, my photographer had gotten some great shots, and all that was left to do was the backstage interview with Joe Strummer.

I wasn’t a stranger to rock journalism, and I’d certainly done more than a few interviews at this point. But Strummer, for whatever reason, was utterly uncooperative. Maybe he was tired, perhaps he was taking his fresh Mohawk too seriously, or it could have been he knew punk was over and he wanted to ride it out on one last wave of bravado. It doesn’t matter.

But the interview was going nowhere. No matter what I asked him, he’d just say, “You tell me.” Finally, after several minutes of that, he looked at me and snarled, “You yanks don’t know anything about rock and roll.” I was flabbergasted and enraged. “Excuse me,” I blurted, “We invented rock and roll. You Brits are just borrowing it.”

There was a moment of tension as backstage jaws dropped, waiting for the next volley. Strummer just grinned, took a swig of beer, shook my hand and walked away. To make a long story short, I still got my story, the Clash were still my cover feature and l learned a valuable lesson about journalism, especially rock journalism. And that was never, ever be intimidated by your subject. Had it not been for Joe Strummer, I might have gone through life blissfully unaware of the importance of stripping away masks in the course of an interview. With Strummer, that was easier said than done.

Joe Strummer wore a lot of masks, and it’s only now, nearly five years after his untimely death, that we’re beginning to understand the real man behind them. The Future is Unwritten, the soundtrack from Julian Temple’s Strummer biopic of the same name, offers a bit of insight into the man. From 1999-2002, he hosted his own radio program on the BBC World Service, where he had free reign over the music he played. This album takes that radio format, couples it with interview snippets and rare tracks, and ultimately offers a snapshot of the dying days of the 20th century.

“Joe, we’re going to have your name on the screen,” a disembodied voice asks as the album opens. “Is there anything you’d like us to write under it—Mescalaro, Clash, anything. .?”

“I’d like you to write ‘punk rock warlord,” he replies, “with ‘warlord’ being one word.” And from there, he launches into an a cappella rendition of “White Riot.” It’s a worthy nod to the meaning of punk, stripped of everything but rage. It’s only fitting that “White Riot” is followed by Rashid Taha’s Arabic update of “Rock the Casbah.” Not one of the Clash’s best songs, it nonetheless illustrates how keenly aware the band was of global politics. It was a work of satire, made all the more poignant when sung in Arabic and presented as a mixtape.

The Future Is Unwritten isn’t about rehashing the Clash, though. It’s more of a musical memoir that details Strummer’s influences and loves, and the impact they had on the evolution of the Clash and his later projects. Some of those influences are obvious. MC5’s 1968 recording of “Kick out the Jams” is a seminal proto punk piece that laid the groundwork for the entire punk movement. But the Clash, particularly Strummer. were never content to merely ride the punk wave. Early on, they strayed from the constraints of punk, and redefined it as a genre. As their frontman, Strummer led the band into areas that, at the time, prompted some hardcore punks to accuse the band of selling out.

Nothing, in fact, could have been further from the truth. By embracing unlikely idioms and incorporating them into the Clash sound, Strummer exemplified the punk dictum of “the first rule is there are no rules.” Strummer’s work with his pre-Clash band the 101ers had already shown his predisposition to roots rock, as illustrated here with their 1976 recording of “Keys to Your Heart.” Strummer acknowledges a debt to Elvis Presley as he introduces the Kings “Crawfish,” and exhibits a profound understanding of American message music as he spins Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy.”

What makes The Future Is Unwritten a beautiful album is the way in which it segues from one genre to another, intertwining the Clash, Strummer’s later music ventures and the influences that permeated his music and shaped his path. Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, U-Roy and Bob Dylan all resided in Strummer’s thoughts. The 25 tracks on this album, punctuated by comments from Strummer, offer a glimpse into the way the man’s mind worked.

Joe Strummer was a complex man, and he could often be infuriating. I think he rather enjoyed being perceived as an enigma. But upon listening to this album, it’s apparent that Strummer was a sum much greater than the parts he shared with us. This album shines a much needed sliver of light on his unforgettable legacy.

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About Ray Ellis

  • Great review Ray. I especially enjoyed your recounting of your frustrating interview experience with Strummer. I’ve had a few of those myself — an interview I did with David Johanssen (which was never published) in particular stands out in my memory. So I was definitely feeling your pain as I read of your experience.


  • Thanks, Glen. For years, I wore that encounter as a badge of honor– you know, a “nobody intimidates me” kinda thing. And I still think it made me a tougher journalist. Still, when I heard of Strummer’s death, I couldn’t help but a tiny piece of me died, too. And, man, nobody rocked like the Clash!

  • Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • Mark Leier

    What I remember most about the Clash is the response their first album had on listeners at various parties I’d take the disc to. It was a bootleg copy – stamped not for sale – and was the UK version minus the additional cuts later added for the US pressing.
    In a land of Journey and Ted Nugent, the moment Janie Jones or Career Opportunities was heard, the line was immediately drawn between those who got it, and those who did not. I must have played their first album for months . . nearly once a day, back in early 78 after first purchasing it.
    A a music journalist presently looking for work ( my publisher dissolved her commitment to print for a stab at politics: can you believe that? ) I find the Clash to be among the top five percent of rock bands that actually matter.
    Mark Leier