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Joe Strummer

From out of the embers of Brit-punk’s premier pioneers The CLASH, frontman/guitarist JOE STRUMMER was the quintessential rock’n’roll star, his cosmopolitan upbringing helping him and his band to ferment their brand of rebellious punk into reggae and dub. As a solo artist (and actor!) from the mid-80s onwards, life was almost horizontal (in comparison), Joe only surfacing when necessary to regain some profile and save music-biz oblivion.
Born John Graham Mellor, 21st August 1952 in Ankara, Turkey (his father was a overseas diplomat), London-raised teenager STRUMMER went from boarding school to busker as he set out his stall to superstardom. Upgraded by summer 1974 to pub-rock/R&B act, The 101’ERS (alongside future PiL drummer Richard Dudanski, guitarist Clive Timperley and bassist Dan Kelleher), the band survived on the toilet circuit for two years, delivering one lonesome but classic proto-punk 45, `Keys To Your Heart’.
Almost immediately (June ’76), Joe could not resist joining full-fledged punks London SS, who’d duly become The CLASH. For just under a decade (over half a dozen albums), Strummer, fellow guitarist/writer Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and either Topper Headon or Terry Chimes on drums took London, the rest of Britain and America by storm.
Already celluloid semi-hero after respective CLASH performances and cameos in Rude Boy (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1983), STRUMMER submitted two songs (his solo, minor hit debut single `Love Kills’ b/w `Dum Dum Girls’) to Alex Cox’s movie of the “Sid & Nancy” story. Striking up a friendship with the filmmaker, their was further acting work for Joe via Straight To Hell (1987) and WALKER (1988) {*6}; the latter “Spaghetti Western”-inspired debacle was the frontman’s first (and only) full-blown foray into scoring. Largely a blend of Cuban, Mexican and Nuyorican styles, relentlessly tasteful and often verging on Latin jazz: example both lead track `Filibustero’ and the feline `Nica Libre’. `Machete’, meanwhile, sounds like an Antonio Forcione instrumental, while `Latin Romance’ borders on elevator territory – the effect is more spaghetti slim-line range than a plate of mama’s full-fat bolognese. That’s not to say this isn’t a skilfully crafted score, inspired in places, but for those that care about such things, it sounds nothing like JOE STRUMMER as most of us know and love him; even the Latinate tracks on The CLASH’s “Sandinista!” are only tendentiously related to most of the material here. In fact, save for the blinking, recurring portent that is `The Brooding Side Of Madness’ (the most effective cue in the film), the cumulative slickness of the arrangements and 80s production is such that it’s something of a relief when he starts singing on standout track, `The Unknown Immortal’.
As Mario in Candy Mountain (’87), scoring five tracks for the `Permanent Record’ OST in ’88, and bit parts in both Mystery Train (’89) and Jim Jarmusch’s I Hired A Contract Killer (’90), kept the wolf from the door, but it was Joe’s music that his fans wanted to hear. EARTHQUAKE WEATHER (1989) {*6} wasn’t quite the return of the gritty gringo, but it had its moments through `Gangsterville’, the mango-reggae of `Island Hopping’ and `Sleepwalk’. Dropped by Epic Records almost immediately, Joe took up with Shane MacGowan-less POGUES on a 1991 tour (search out live collaborative versions of `I Fought The Law’, `Turkish Song Of The Damned’ and `London’s Calling’), although the man was content to steer clear of the limelight for a while; bar a stint in 1994 with Czech-American combo Dirty Pictures. Although there were talks of a CLASH reunion (the ‘Pistols had succumb to deed in ’96), Joe was content to perform a sidekick guest role for the LEVELLERS (on their Top 20 entry, `Just The One’) and with BLACK GRAPE (on 1996’s Top 10 smash, `England’s Irie’).
Come the late 90s, STRUMMER was back fronting his own band, The Mescaleros, seasoned sessioners comprising Antony Genn (guitar), Martin Slattery (keyboards and guitar), Scott Shields (bass) and Steve Barnard (drums); Pablo Cook performed percussion.
Debut set, ROCK ART AND THE X-RAY STYLE (1999) {*5} ran a gamut of genres without really asserting the frontman’s personality on any of them, `Tony Adams’ (named after the Arsenal and England centre-back), `Road To Rock’n’Roll’ (penned for JOHNNY CASH) and `Yalla Yalla’ included.
GLOBAL A GO-GO (2001) {*6} was significantly more focused and cohesive, the former CLASH man casting his witty, worldly-wise perspective over a series of ventures into off-kilter world-beat. Featuring long-time friend ROGER DALTREY on backing vocals (mainly on the title track), the set is identified by the epic curtain call in trad track, `Minstrel Boy’ (all 17 minutes of it!).
Tragically, Joe was to die of heart failure at his home in Somerset on the 22nd of December, 2002. A man ahead of his time in some respects, STREETCORE (2003) {*7} was the singer’s final musical will and testament, reverting back to his roots with a searing vengeance, resurrecting the dub-rock perfected by The CLASH. Railing against the world’s downward spiral with all the outrage and wisdom of a seasoned campaigner, the likes of `Coma Girl’ (a surprise Top 40 entry) and `Get Down Moses’ burned with the kind of righteous fury only the likes of STRUMMER could ignite. Among the record’s few mellower moments, `Long Shadow’ courted a country-roots vibe while an emotional rendition of BOB MARLEY’s `Redemption Song’ and a re-worked version of Bobby Charles’ `Before I Grow Too Old’ (re-titled `Silver And Gold’) offered solace in the face of so much corruption and chaos. Its greatest tragedy was also its driving force, STRUMMER, who still had so much left to say, and the sharp, focused artistic faculties to say it.
A few years down the line, the flawed genius of JOE STRUMMER was explored in varied sonic terms on this expansive 18-song collection, “The Future Is Unwritten” (2007), a various artists soundtrack tracing the roots of his own music from the stomping, pub rock of The 101ERS, through the glory of The CLASH, to the global righteousness of his Mescaleros. The fact that many of these tracks – in particular The CLASH ones – were rare, previously unreleased versions gave even the fanatics another brief twist on the legend; especially the embryonic demo of `I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.’, which bristled with the vitriol and energy that the band became so loved for. The thing that made this soundtrack album a more rounded experience was the inclusion of songs that STRUMMER was a fan of and inspired by; from the lyrical spark of TIM HARDIN’s `Black Sheep Boy’ to the firebrand radicalism of MC5’s `Kick Out The Jams’. Similarly, U-ROY’s roots rocker `Natty Rebel’ was suggestively followed here by The CLASH’s own `Armagideon Time’. Further proof, if it were ever needed, that punk’s influences went far beyond NEW YORK DOLLS. Snippets of Joe’s words of wisdom, culled from interviews, on-stage diatribes and radio broadcasts now seem obligatory on any contemporary soundtrack album, but some, here, out of context, make him seem more than a little preachy. But considering that the aim of the film was to show the man warts ’n’ all, it was maybe fitting that he came off both sanctimonious and inspirational. In 2018, the long-missed genius actually dented the Top 30 with a double-CD retrospective, “Joe Strummer 001”.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-BG/MR-LCS // rev-up MCS May2012-Apr2019

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