“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.