By Eleni P. Austin
I was born in 1963, about six months later, President Kennedy was assassinated. Pretty much anyone who is old enough to remember that day can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that horrifying news. I think I might have been in my playpen.
I do remember exactly where I was when it was announced that John Lennon was gunned down in the street by a so-called “fan.” I was a senior in high school, just falling asleep when I heard his name on the TV. To me, and a million other Beatle fans, the news was equally incomprehensible and devastating. Who would want to kill a musician? Especially one who espoused peace and love, who had recently emerged from a self-imposed exile and was happy to be creating new music. I mourned for months.
Fast-forward to a few days before Christmas, 2002. The news broke that Clash front-man Joe Strummer had suddenly dropped dead from a massive heart attack. To paraphrase a Tom Petty lyric, it wrecked me, baby. See, The Clash were my Beatles. As much as I loved the Fab Four, their music was making an impact before I could walk, it was ever-present throughout my childhood, so ubiquitous I could almost take it for granted.
But the Clash, they were wholly mine. My own discovery, along with Elvis Costello, The Jam and The Ramones (and a plethora of other Punk/New Wave stalwarts), their songs were soundtrack to my teen years. The urgency of their music sidelined my obsession with Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Rickie Lee Jones. My friend Mary Apra got me London Calling for my 17th birthday and I never looked back. I realize it was just an advertising slogan, but for me, they really were “The Only Band That Mattered.” I quickly backtracked and bought their self-titled debut as well as their slightly uneven sophomore effort, Give ‘Em Enough Rope and their 10” EP, Black Market Clash. By the time my next birthday rolled around, the Najarian brothers got me the band’s sprawling three-record set, Sandinista, which was equal parts brilliant and self-indulgent.
A year later, their fifth long-player, Combat Rock managed to cross over to mainstream radio with insistent songs like “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Rock The Casbah.” The Clash headlined a 10-show residency at the Hollywood Palladium. My pal Carol got me a ticket for my 19th birthday, and along with Hova, Shelly and Anne the deb, I experienced one of the most seminal concerts of my life. Joe Strummer died 20 years later, and I was heartbroken.
Joe Strummer (a.k.a. John Graham Mellor) was born in Ankara, Turkey in 1952. His Scottish mother was a nurse and his English father worked for the foreign service. It was during his childhood in Turkey that he discovered his affinity for Middle Eastern music. By the time he was nine he and his older brother David were sent to boarding school in England.
A decade later, estranged from his family, his brother David had committed suicide. Although this affected him deeply, Joe compartmentalized his grief and focused on his new obsession, Rock music. He embraced everything from the Beach Boys and Little Richard to Folk progenitor Woody Guthrie. Like any aspiring musician, he attended art school for a while. Affectionately nicknamed Woody, he began busking on the streets.
By the mid ‘70s, he was squatting and had formed his first band, The 101ers, named for the Wallerton Road squat where he lived with his band-mates. Their music was a sunny mix of Pub-Rock, Surf Rock and a brace of R&B covers. About this time, he stopped being Woody Mellor and adopted his forever nom de Rock, Joe Strummer. The surname, Strummer, was a self-deprecating nod to his role as rhythm guitarist and lead singer for the band.
The 101ers eked out a living, playing several gigs at Windsor Castle, as well as a residency at the Elgin. They even recorded a buoyant single, “Keys To Your Heart.” But in early ’76, a then-unknown Sex Pistols opened for the 101ers at Nashville Rooms and Joe saw the writing on the wall. Diving headfirst into the burgeoning Punk scene, he scrapped the 101ers. Soon after, he connected with guitarist Mick Jones and manager Bernie Rhodes, they in turn recruited bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes. The Clash made their live debut less than two months later that July.
By January 1977, Topper Headon had replaced Terry behind the kit and the band signed with CBS Records. In April, their self-titled debut arrived. Their music was as spit-soaked and snarly as contemporaries like the Damned and the Pistols, but their lyrics were politically-charged and socially conscious. Songs like “Career Opportunities,” “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” and “White Riot” weighed in on England’s rampant unemployment, the Americanization of British culture and the violence in the streets. It was immediately embraced by fans and critics alike. Even though it wasn’t officially available in the U.S. until 1979, the import sold briskly to American Punk fans.
For their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their label matched them with producer Sandy Perlman, best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult, but it was an inelegant fit. However, The Clash hit paydirt on their third album, a glorious double-LP entitled London Calling. It arrived at the tail-end of 1979 and the 20-song set incorporated Reggae, Roots, Rockabilly, R&B and Punk into a heady brew. The title-track and the hidden song that closed the album, “Train In Vain,” gained traction on U.S. radio.
They quickly followed up with the Black Market Clash EP and the epic three-record set, Sandinista. By the time they released Combat Rock in 1982, The Clash were bona fide superstars on both sides of the pond. Maybe it was all too much, soon Mick Jones was ousted from the band. Joe and Paul carried on with three young guns and the band’s last gasp, Cut The Crap was as excretable as the title suggests. The Clash officially called it quits in 1986.
For the remainder of the ‘80s, Joe kept a low profile, writing the scores for films like “Sid & Nancy,” “Walker,” “Permanent Record” and “Straight To Hell.” He actually appeared in that last film, a bastardized Spaghetti Western that also featured Elvis Costello and the Pogues. In 1988, he even subbed on tour for the Pogues’ dentally challenged lead singer, Shane McGowan. His first solo album arrived in 1989 to muted fanfare and mixed reviews.
While Joe had spent part of the ‘80s on the move, living in Los Angeles for a bit and globetrotting in a way that took him back to his Foreign Service kid roots, by the mid ‘90s, he had settled down, married Lucinda Tait and was co-parenting his daughters Lola and Jazz from his previous relationship with Gaby Salter. At the close of the 20th century he was suddenly back as Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros. Their debut, Rock Art And The X-Ray Style, seemed to encompass all of his musical obsessions, Latin, Middle Eastern, Reggae, the pure Folk and Country pioneered by heroes like Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Soon he was back on the road, playing his first North American tour in a decade.
He quickly followed up with 2001’s Global a Go-Go, which actually hit #23 on Billboard’s Top Independent Chart. Having abandoned his wandering ways, Joe was as domesticated as he would ever be, just as he was completing work on his third Mescaleros album, he was struck down at age 50, due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. A few months later, his Clash-mates were on hand (along with Punk contemporaries like Elvis Costello and the Police), for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Streetcore was released posthumously in late 2003. Embraced by fans and critics alike, it was the the most Clash-tastic of his solo work.
In the nearly 20 years since his death, Joe’s absence has been felt. Julien Temple’s brilliant 2007 documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, took away some of the sting, as did a 2018 odds n’ sods collection entitled Joe Strummer 001. Now a little more closure appears in the form of Assembly, a compilation that features album cuts, live tracks and a surprise or two.
The record kicks into gear with the winsome “Coma Girl,” from his final “Streetcore” release. Rough and tumble amplified acoustic guitar connects with Joe’s rugged rasp as he paints a vivid portrait; “T was crawling through a festival way out west, I was thinking about love and the acid test/But first I got real dizzy with a real rocking gang, then I saw Coma Girl and the excitement gang.” As the rest of the band jumps in, they quickly dirty up the pretty, adding scabrous guitars, fractious organ notes, roiling bass and a boomerang backbeat. After name-checking a classic Dylan cut, “Desolation Row,” the song downshifts to an easy skank riddim, before rushing headlong into an explosive conclusion.
The Rock Art… album is nicely represented on four cuts. “Forbidden City” blends bloopy synths, soulful Hammond B3, rat-a-tat-tat percussion, Spaghetti Western-flavored guitars and a kick-turn beat. Cryptic lyrics speak of silk and subterfuge, “Inside the mind of a soul confined.”
“X-Ray Style” is plenty bongo-riffic, mixing lithe Spanish guitars, tensile bass and undulating urdhu. Joe’s wants are simple; “I need to see in an X-Ray style, I need some rock art that don’t come in a phial/Can anybody feel the distance to the mile, I wanna live and I just want to dance awhile.”
“Tony Adams” is Joe at his most ambitious. The track opens with dial-twirling radio frequencies that are quickly supplanted by shimmery guitar licks, spidery bass figures, salty saxophone, weepy pedal steel and a reverberating beat. Lyrics chart a futuristic noir landscape inhabited by “stroboscopic snowflakes, saxophones and beach trombones.”
“Yalla Yalla” is moody and modal, locking into a sly Sub-Saharan groove. Thready guitars weave through an aural tapestry of percolating percussion, meandering melodica and slithery keys. Stream-of-conscious lyrics are cool and contemplative as they casually wave goodbye to freedom and the pursuit of happiness; “Well, so long liberty, let’s forget you didn’t show, not in my time, not in our son’s and daughter’s time, when you get the feeling call, and you got a room.”
Three songs from Joe and the Mescaleros’ second effort, “Global A Go-Go,” make the cut The 2001 album managed to double down on the World music influences while occasionally summoning the ghost of a young Woody Mellor. “Johnny Appleseed” is anchored by jittery acoustic guitars, fluttery electric riffs, tensile bass and stompy keys, the arrangement leans close to his Scottish ancestry. Lyrics touch on both political and environmental concerns; “Lord there goes Martin Luther King, notice how the doors close when the chimes of freedom ring? I hear what you’re saying, I hear what you’re saying… If you’re after getting the honey, then don’t go killing all the bees.” Salted in the mix is swoopy violin, burnished mandolin notes and buzzy Wurlitzer. By the bridge, it hits that Celtic sweet spot (without ever going full “Riverdance”), before roaring to an explosive close.
Conversely, “At The Border, Guy” is sweetly shambolic. A wash of fuzzy organ colors, breezy guitars, stately piano, pulsating synths and rippling timbales. Lyrics like “We built the buildings of the new city out of broken-down peoples, and we built the new languages out of courtesy and velocity,” artfully decry the practice of nation-building at the expense of indigenous civilizations.
Meanwhile, “Mondo Bongo” is lush and tropical. accordion and flute intertwine with glass harmonica atop Cuban drum, courtly violin and suave Spanish guitar. Jabberwocky lyrics like “I was patrolling a pachinko nude noodle model parlour in the nefarious zone/Hanging out with insects, under ducting, the C.I.A. was always on the phone…such is life!” cast a hypnotic spell.
This collection dips back to the ‘80s, for a couple of true unicorns, “Love Kills” and “Sleepwalk.” The former ran over the credits of Alex Cox’s scabrous biopic on Punk’s original fun couple, “Sid & Nancy,” and it’s about as blunt and brutal as the film.
The latter is from Joe’s first proper solo album, Earthquake Weather. Louche and languid, this South of the boarder charmer is accented by strummy acoustic guitars, wily bass lines and a rock steady beat. Soporific vocals seem an inch away from siesta time, until a sprightly Spanish guitar solo jumpstarts the instrumental ennui.
A couple of live cuts spotlight the Clash through the Mescaleros’ prism. First up is a raucous version of “I Fought The Law.” First performed by Buddy Holly’s Crickets, it was a bigger hit for The Bobby Fuller Four in 1965. But the Clash claimed ownership of the song on their eponymous debut. This live take employs that same hard-charging arrangement. Stacked guitars ride roughshod over barbed-wire bass and a hell-for-leather galloping gait. Joe’s phlegmatic rasp rises above the fray, striking a balance between Punk Rock anarchy and primitive cool.
“Rudie Can’t Fail” retains its rambunctious Rock Steady charm. Punchy, call-and-response vocals are braced by twangy, shang-a-lang guitars, feral bass lines and a sticky tick-tock rhythm.
The album’s biggest bandwidth is reserved for Streetcore, the record Joe was working on at the time of his death. The blistering “Get Down Moses” was a highlight when it was first released, and the song hasn’t lost any of its power. Prickly guitar riffs are wed to angular bass lines, brittle keys and and a leapfrogging rhythm. Ska and Bluebeat offer a jumping-off point for the splintery arrangement, which is augmented by a propulsive horn section. Dylanesque lyrics share this brutal truth; “No matter what the question, the gun will never answer it.” In light of the last few weeks’ spike in gun violence, it feels wildly perspicacious.
“Long Shadow,” loping, reflective and largely acoustic, finds him embracing old touchstones like Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Finally, there’s a stripped-down and achingly poignant take of Bob Marley’s epochal “Redemption Song.” Originally recorded as a duet with the Man In Black himself, a solo rendition wound up on Streetcore, while the duet found its way onto a posthumous Johnny Cash compilation entitled Unearthed.
This collection closes with another song the Clash quickly took possession of, “Junco Partner.” Originally a traditional Blues song that appeared in the early ‘50s. The track has gone through myriad permutations and been reconfigured and covered by everyone from Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry and Dr. John. The Clash’s ramshackle, Reggae-flavored rendition was included on their unwieldy “Sandinista” album. Joe’s version is spare and bare-bones, a demo that features his growly vocals and acoustic guitar. It’s a tender coda to a sweeping 16-song set.
Executive-produced by Joe’s widow, Lucinda Tait, the package includes trenchant liner notes from aficionado Jakob Dylan, who became a Clash fanatic in his early teens. It is released via Dark Horse Records, an imprint begun by quiet Beatle George Harrison, and maintained by his musician son, Dhani.
Yes, Joe is gone, and it still cuts like a knife (but not in an oily, Bryan Adams way) and cuts to the quick. It’s tempting to picture him approaching 70, as a Punk Rock elder-statesman and to wonder what might have been. Still, Assembly reminds us once again of his protean music and his sui generis style.