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Strummer Train

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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.

The Clash

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.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    Somehow, I find it incredibly funny that Joe Strummer is now a target of train spotters.

    I remember seeing The Clash in 1978 in a soft-seater theatre (with The Undertones opening), and afterwards, going down front of the stage, and picking up badges, got a really nice one for The Fall. I still have the tour tshirt somewhere, but, it’s ah, shrunk, yah, shrunk.

  • Eric Olsen

    Yeah, not sure how that tribute came about. You also have to wonder how he feels about trundling the proles from here to there; but hey, it’s a nice gesture.

    I’ve got some pretty cool swag laying around although my kids have glommed some of the better stuff

  • Eric Olsen

    has anyone ridden the Strummer yet? Is it the only train that matters?

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    A good punk site I recently found is The Punk Vault

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    The locomotive owned by a spot-hire company rather than one of the franchised train operators, and is likely to be used on excursions and special workings as well as summer saturday trains to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft (home of The Darkness!).

    John Lennon once had a first class Pullman carraige named after him, used on the Liverpool to London line.

    I don’t recall any other rock star so honoured, although there was a locomotive saddled with the name “Top of the Pops”.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    I rarely comment on music reviews, being a word-man myself. Butthen I read: 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.

    Wonderful words. Thanks for evoking the music with them, Eric.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Aaman, I actually know some people there, it turns out

    very cool info Tim, thanks! So it it really was something of a special honor

    thanks Pat, that is very kind of you and much appreciated

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    At this point, I also feel obliged to mention the punk/folk band Blyth Power, who named themselves after a locomotive.

    There has also been both a locomotive and thrash metal band called “Onslaught”, although this may just be coincidence.

  • Eric Olsen

    that last line cracked me up, Tim

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    Onslaught (which I have ridden behind!) takes it’s name from a Royal Navy warship. Now been a museum piece for more than 30 years, well over double the length of time it was in regular service. I have no idea if the band are still playing pubs somewhere out in the sticks.

    I can come up with enormous numbers of trivia questions comparing album and song titles with locomotive names – for instance, which three Uriah Heep albums are also locomotive names?

  • Eric Olsen

    Salisbury?

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    That’s one. Two more to guess!

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    How long until the first break-down, and there is a headline “Train in Vain”?

    What is more of a tribute to Joe Strummer, is the Plant a Tree for Joe fund.

    After all, he did once say he smoked so much herb, he almost turned into a bush.

  • Eric Olsen

    I can’t remember ANY other Uriah Heep titles other than Demons and Wizards, which would suprise me no end were it a train name, unless it was in Harry Potter.

  • Eric Olsen

    oh, there was something about a mirror

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    The locomotive used in the Harry Potter movie goes by the name of “Olten Hall”. Not a Uriah Heep album name. There’s a photo of it here :)

    There’s another locomotive sharing the name with rock artist on the same page. In this case, the locomotive beat him to the name by well over a hundred years.

  • Eric Olsen

    you are quite the expert, my friend!

  • http://www.kalyr.com Tim Hall

    Jim; the locomotive is something like 40 years old, and used to be owned by Virgin Trains. They were always breaking down; it may even be the one that broke down on me just outside Wolverhampton (home of Slade and Judas Priest) three years ago.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com alienboy

    Nice piece Eric, thanks.

    I met The Clash when they played at Eric’s in Liverpool and spent quite a few hours with Joe Strummer, along with half of Liverpool.

    Happy days.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks alienboy! That must have been quite an exceptional evening and a great memory. I met them in passing at the US Festival but it was just a hi/bye

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Fabulous, moving tribute, Eric. I “discovered” The Clash in the early 90s and therefore had a unique experience digging through treasure troves of amazing material.

    I wholeheartedly agree that The Clash are the essential punk band. They proved what could be done with the form, how it could evolve and mix with a host of musical styles. They provided a real message and real emotion to go along with the music, not just a nihilistic screed that was sure to burn bright and subsequently burn out. They helped to spur on a generation in which it could be cool to take an intelligent stand during a rock song.

    It’s thus that The Clash is really such a large influence on so much of modern music: from Green Day to Rancid to Rage Against the Machine (and so many others). I think they are that kind of rare breed — along with the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, and a finite number of others — that are both popular and massively influential on younger generations of musicians and music appreciators alike.

    On the Strummer: Really strange that I made a rather bad, not very well understood “Train in Vain” joke yesterday without having read this post. Strange.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Eric, much appreciated

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Eric,

    I put this up as a little news item up and over to Advance.net, which includes these places.

    Potentially read by hundreds of thousands of visitors.

    Thank you for the post. Natch – Temple Stark

  • lobotomatic

    Just wanted to say that its nice to find enlightened individuals discussing some of the finer aspects and more esoteric trivia on the best band ever. The Clash were revolution music, pure and simple. They spoke for the soul of the little guy, the underdog, the quotidian proletariat masses. There wasn’t a punk band with more class, style, talent, or relevance. I remember being a little shit kid and being mesmerized when my dad would play London Calling. I only wish I could have seen The Clash live. Here’s an old st pattys day tip o’ the glass to the memory of Joe Strummer!!

  • Eric Olsen

    Very nice thoughts Lobotomatic, thanks. I saw them a few times and they were a sight to behold!

  • Pat

    Lets say this is certainly not a Train in Vain.