The late Joe Strummer – singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Clash – had a train named after him at a ceremony Feb. 12 at Bristol Temple Meads railroad station in southwest England. The locomotive is a Class 47 diesel, originally designed in 1962. After being named, the train will see active service in East Anglia. The Strummer train follows a 200-year-old tradition of British trains being named after famous folk.
The sting of Strummer’s death has not faded much for me in the two years since his passing. It still hurts somewhere deep and jagged. I wrote this tribute when Strummer died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in December of ’02:
I’m very sorry to see Joe Strummer go – 50 seems ridiculously young to me now. I was an enormous Clash fan. While the Sex Pistols may have been more “punk,” the Clash were a real band, a rock ‘n’ roll band that transcended the strictures of punk to incorporate funk, reggae, dub, roots rock, even folk. I enjoyed a fair amount of the post-Clash work of Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite and Strummer solo, especially this year’s world music manifesto, Global a Go-Go, but like so many magical combinations, the Clash was greater than the sum of its parts and Strummer/Jones were always better together than apart. It’s that synergy thing.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame better be careful or it will come to be associated with a curse, at least concerning punks: Joey, Dee Dee Ramone, now Joe, but at least Joe knew he had been voted in. This year’s induction ceremony will be a downer instead of the riot it would have been with a Clash reunion – Joe will be an impossible hole to fill.
One of the reasons it took me so long to switch from vinyl to CDs was the “side” factor: records have sides that neatly divide an album into 20-24 minute halves. After 25 years of listening to records (by 1991), my body clock was attuned to this time frame and sitting through an entire CD without a break made me feel like I was buried alive. Perhaps I exaggerate, but it did bug me.
Clash On Broadway, the career collection, was the first CD I was willing to sit through all the way, and it’s a 3-CD set. That’s how good it is. Basically it’s all here: “White Riot,” “I Fought the Law” (live), “Safe Europen Home,” “London Calling,” “Clampdown,” “Train In Vain,” “Police On My Back” (written by Eddie Grant), “Magnificent Seven,” “This Is Radio Clash,” “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” My only complaints are the lack of “Charlie Don’t Surf” and “Lose This Skin” (with vocal and violin work from Tymon Dogg) from Sandanista!, the band’s most underrated record.
The Clash are THE essential punk group because they survived the original punk explosion and evolved into other contemporary forms, all the while maintaining and elaborating upon their original ideas. Singer/guitarist Joe Strummer was a diplomat’s son with an upper-middle class education playing in pub-rock bands with the likes of Graham Parker and Elvis Costello when he heard the Sex Pistols for the first time in early 1976. “It’s a whole new thing, man,” he confided in reverent tones to Parker, “a whole new thing.”
Immediatley thereafter, Strummer quit his pub-rock band and formed the Clash with guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and various drummers, including Topper Headon. The Clash’s first album – released in England in 1977, but not in the US until 1979 – was an incendiary classic that was at once more melodic and assaultive than the Sex Pistols album.
Several songs from the first Clash album (The Clash) are on this collection, the greatest of which is the Clash’s remake of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.” Bobby Fuller’s 1965 original was a Buddy Hollyesque classic rife with ambivalence and sweet regret. It is more apologetic than antisocial:
“I miss my baby and I feel so bad,
I guess my race is run,
She is the best girl I ever had,
I fought the law and the law won,
I fought the law and the law won.”
The Clash tilt the rhythm forward, shift the guitar riff from rockabilly-melodic to punk-propulsive and howl their way through the song with monomaniacal outrage and defiance. When Strummer sings,
“A-breakin’ rocks in the hot sun,
I fought the law and the law won,
I fought the law and the law won,”
the rocks are beaten into dust and the law is put on notice that its victory is only temporary.
The Clash set the tone for the band’s subsequent career. While the Clash moved musically through a variety of styles on subsequent albums: Give Them Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Black Market Clash EP (1980), Sandanista! (1980), Combat Rock (1982), which include reggae (“Pressure Drop’” “The Guns of Brixton,” “Bankrobber”), funk (“The Magnificent 7,” “This Is Radio Clash,” “Rock the Casbah”), and various rock permutations, the Clash’s focus always remained on one thing: confrontation. The Clash is among the most aptly named groups in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Clash view “the clash” as an almost platonic ideal. When Strummer heard the Sex Pistols, he intuitively grasped that the system that had been built to smooth his privileged way in life was also a barrier that shielded him from something vital. Strummer grasped that the clash is the only real intersection between us. The clash can be positive or negative, but it must be honest because it is the very essence of life. Real feelings and desires and beliefs must be worn on every sleeve and spoken on every lip or else we are all living in our own sterile cages where no real living can take place.
Life is process, not result. Living consists of embracing that process. Even time has a clash-zone — the present — where the past conflicts with the future. Therefore reality itself is a clash and only those who realize this can live life to the fullest and be nourished by the sparks. Clash On Broadway offers the among the purest sparks that music has to offer.