The performers I’ve always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I’m concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.
A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer’s 60th birthday (August 21, 2012) it’s only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. Not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go Go, and Streetcore), it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of B-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones, and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer’s musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can’t focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, “Rudi, A Message To You”. He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact, he doesn’t really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.
“Rudi” is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”. The three were originally released as the B-side for the single of the Mescaleros’ song “Coma Girl”. Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There’s the social political statement of “The Harder They Come”, followed by the still political but lighthearted fun of “Rudi”, and finally the raw anarchy/power of “Blitzkrieg Bop”. From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat, it’s almost his career in a nutshell.
I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” or to his 17 plus minute “Minstrel Boy” and you’ll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if it’s a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music, “So won’t you help to sing/These songs of freedom/Cause all I ever had/These songs of freedom/Cause all I ever had/Redemption songs/These songs of freedom/These songs of freedom”. He sings it so simply and honestly, it’s hard not to think it’s his way of telling people what he’s been trying to do all for all he years of his career.
On the other hand “Minstrel Boy” is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere, and instrumentation, but there’s also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn’t happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, “Minstrel Boy” doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular. There’s no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, it’s just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It’s like Stummer wants to remind everybody there’s nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like “Rudi, A Message To You” and the Clash’s “Junko Partner” and breathing new life into them. Still, it’s hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash 20 years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, “Bank Robber”, “White Riot”, and “London’s Burning” is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren’t just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.
The concert at Acton Town Hall in London, from which these live tracks were taken, was on November 15, 2002 and turned out to be the second-to-last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22, 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22, 2002. Strummer was 50 years old when he died and there’s no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation, it was classic Strummer, with a mix of the hard-driving and political (“Get Down Moses” and “Coma Girl”) and the introspective (“Redemption Song” and folk music). Also included is “Long Shadow”, written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash’s guitarist Smokey Hormel.
Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost 15 years after they disbanded. The new digital-only collection Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post-Clash career, it’s a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It’s probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hardcore Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.