December 22nd, 2012 marked a decade since Joe Strummer (born John Mellor) passed away. My best friend (the one who initially broke the news of his passing to me) sent me a text message that morning. “Still makes me sad, even though it’s been ten years,” she said. It still makes me sad, too, and probably always will.
Though I have written about The Clash and Joe Strummer many times before, I will continue to write about them - because The Clash has been my favorite band since I was 15, because nearly everything Joe has done musically remains important and relevant to my life, because he left behind an amazing body of work and sharing it with others by writing about it is one thing that eases the sadness just a bit.
Though some of my very favorite Clash songs are Mick Jones songs, this is a Joe Strummer-focused column, so I stuck with Clash tunes that Joe sung lead vocals on. There is a notable lack of some of Joe’s musical projects: you will find no songs from Cut the Crap here; I also have not included anything from Joe’s brief time with the Pogues (I love the Pogues, but they weren’t Joe’s band, y’know?), and there is nothing here from the album Earthquake Weather. Which leads me to say...
Tune into Mix Tapes from the Midwest: The Podcast to hear songs from Earthquake Weather, as well as a number of other Clash and Mescaleros songs that didn’t make it into the column.
1. The 101ers - Keys to Your Heart
The 101ers were Joe’s band prior to The Clash. They weren’t so much punk rock as they were pub rock, but they did have a lo-fi rawness and an energy that hinted at what was to come, and Joe already had his raspy, wrecked mumble. This fun little jangly-guitar tune was written as a love song to Strummer’s then-girlfriend: Palmolive, drummer for the Slits.
2. The Clash - Cheat
One day, during the autumn of 2000, I was down on Belmont Ave. in Chicago, at the coffeeshop I wasted most of my days at. I had this Clash mix tape with me, that a pal in England had made for me, and it was pretty much the perfect Clash mix, with many of their best songs on it. That day, when it was my turn to select music for all us coffeeshop rats to listen to, I handed the tape to the barista. Everyone danced and sang along, particularly when “Cheat” came on: I get violent when I’m fucked up / I get silent when I’m drugged up / Want excitement, don’t get none / I go wild. The barista teased me, saying, “I can’t believe The Clash are your favorite band. Everyone likes the Clash, but they aren’t anyone’s favorite band.” “Well, they’re mine,” I replied, “they’re the Only Band That Really Matters.” He rolled his eyes. Despite that, he asked if he could borrow the tape and dub a copy for himself, and the jerk never gave it back to me.
This song has the pure punk fury of the Clash’s early work, but it also has Paul Simonon’s beautiful, dance-able bass work. And it’s still one of my favorite songs, by my all-time favorite band.
3. The Clash - White Riot
This song is definitely problematic by today’s standards - I mean, a bunch of white boys thinking they knew what it was like to be black men? Not to mention the idea that black men were criminals (the black man’s got a lot of problems / but they don’t mind throwin’ a brick) and white people were educated (white people go to school / where they teach you how to be thick). Yeesh. Yes, it has some issues. But The Clash were staunch anti-racists, and they were horrified when neo-Nazis and the National Front co-opted this as a song of white power. Didn’t they get it? The song’s not about rioting against people of color, it’s about joining the riot with them and tearing down systems of power and oppression: all the power in the hands / of the people rich enough to buy it / while we walk the streets / too chicken to even try it. And everybody’s doin’ / just what they’re told to / and nobody wants / to go to jail!
Tell me that doesn’t make you want to start a riot of your own.
4. The Clash - Safe European Home
By the time they made Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Clash already had a bit more of a mature viewpoint on issues of race. This is a truly important song about traveling away from home, away from the place where people who look like you are all around, and to a place where not only are you in the minority, but people who look like you are not so welcome. It is about the feeling of discomfort that comes from that - and how jarring it can be for a white person to feel the threat of violence just because of the color of their skin: went to the place where every white face is an / invitation to robbery / An' sitting here in my safe European home / I don't want to go back there again.
Oh, it’s a sonic masterpiece, too - check out the chorus of harmonizing ‘where’d you go?’s, and the fade out to the song: Rudie come from Jamaica / Rudie can’t fail.
5. The Clash - All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)
I think it’s essential to remember something about the early punks - they didn’t speak of selling out in the same way we do today. Nowadays, if a punk rock band gets any measure of mainstream success, we are immediately suspect, and talk of them selling out the scene, selling their souls, ruining their sound to garner mainstream attention. We also seem to think that indie/unknown bands are automatically better (and more punk) than popular/famous bands. We even talk of eradicating the mainstream altogether. It wasn’t always like that. The early punks didn’t want to eradicate the mainstream - they wanted to be the mainstream. They wanted to replace the shite they heard on the radio with something better; they wanted to replace legions of boring rock bands with their own bands.
So here’s a song that is a perfect pop-rock tune yet also punk as hell, from a band that was not a pop punk band. It tells the story of how the Clash became a band. It also warns of what can happen when rock’n’roll itself becomes its own sort of daily grind: Face front you got the future shining / like a piece of gold / But I swear as we get closer / it look more like a lump of coal / But it's better than some factory / Now that's no place to waste your youth / I worked there for a week once / I luckily got the boot. And it also warns (at least in my mind, and maybe I’m reading too much into it) of what can happen if we truly sell out; that is, give up our youthful passions: All the young punks / laugh your life / 'cause there ain't much to cry for / All the young cunts / live it now / 'cause there ain't much to die for.
6. The Clash - Jimmy Jazz
London Calling is, arguably, the best Clash album. Most Clash fans - hell, most music fans - would agree. It’s not my favorite Clash album - you’ll find out why if you read on - but I would say it is their best. For one thing, it is the album where Paul’s bass work really reached its peak. (If this weren’t a Joe Strummer tribute column, I’d definitely be including “Guns of Brixton.”)
“Jimmy Jazz” is a little jazzy, yes, and it also has the strut of early rock’n’roll. Just listen to the horn section, Paul’s climbing bass line, Mick Jones’ guitar (which starts off subdued, then becomes wild), and Joe singing: what a relief! / I feel like a soldier / look like a thief!
7. The Clash - Spanish Bombs
In a way, The Clash politicized me. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve had political views since I was about nine years old. I guess what I mean, is - The Clash cemented my politics. They sang about history, about the history of struggle, and that was an important perspective to have. While other punk bands sang about forgetting the past (though some of that was a posture, to be sure), The Clash sang about the connection to it.
The hillsides ring with "Free the people" / Or can I hear the echo from the days of '39?
8. The Clash - The Magnificent Seven
Say what you will about Sandinista!, but it was certainly an ambitious album. It was released as a triple LP (quite daring, considering that London Calling was a double LP and many people even thought that was too long), and it contains 36 tracks, which span just about every genre you can think of, including reggae, jazz, mock gospel, rockabilly, folk, dub, rhythm and blues, calypso, and rap. But is it punk? Well, as Joe Strummer himself once said: "Whether it’s jazz or punk or anything else, you have to fight against the purists who want to narrow the definition. That’s what kills music because it stifles it to death." Also, all members of The Clash agreed to take a royalty cut for this album in order to release it at a cheaper price, and that's pretty damn punk if you ask me.
This track is a sort of disco-funk rap. I know, punks are supposed to loathe anything having to do with disco, but let's not forget that Blondie also verged into disco territory. And this tune is just great - with the bass beat, the hi-hat drums, the handclaps, it's extremely danceable. Since when is being punk supposed to mean you can't dance? If I can't dance, I don't wanna be part of your genre!
So get back to work and sweat some more / The sun will sink and we'll get out the door / It's no good for man to work in cages / Hits the town, he drinks his wages / You're fretting, you're sweating / But did you notice you ain't getting? / Don't you ever stop long enough to start / to take your car out of that gear?
9. The Clash - Rebel Waltz
I think this may be one of the prettiest songs The Clash ever produced. I love waltz-beat tunes, and so of course I love that The Clash did one. And they did it in inimitable Clash style - it's a dub waltz. This old rebel tune can make me teary, if I'm in the right mood.
A voice began to call, stand till you fall / The tune was an old rebel one.
1. The Clash - Know Your Rights
Here's where I tell you that Combat Rock is my favorite Clash album. Maybe it's because it was the first album of theirs I heard all the way through, and therefore, the one I first fell in love with. Maybe it's because I associate it with my best friend - though we lived some 600 miles apart, we often got into the same music around the same time, independently of one another. At age 15, we both got into The Clash, and we both loved Combat Rock. When she came to visit, we bought some button-down shirts from the local thrift shop, and scrawled slogans on them - hers said 'Ghetto Defendant,' mine read 'Combat Rock.' We'd wear our shirts and loiter in downtown alleys, leaning against filthy brick walls and pretending we were cool like Joe and Mick, rather than the dorky teenage girls we actually were. Silly, yes, but as Aaron Cometbus wrote: "What point was there in living if you didn’t at least try to be as cool as your heroes?"
And there are some great tunes on Combat Rock, such as this one, which borrows a bit of the real punk rage of their earlier stuff, and is still as relevant today as it was in 1982. Listen to Joe's ragged shout: Number three / You have the right to free speech / As long as you're not / dumb enough to actually try it!
Have I ever mentioned that I have a Know Your Rights tattoo?
2. The Clash - Straight to Hell
Sometimes, when writing about a song that has a huge emotional impact on me, I have a hard time coming up with the words to explain why. I don't know how to explain why this song hits me so hard. I wasn't old enough when the album was released for any of the things sung about in the song to truly effect me. It's just - the drums in this song are as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. It's just - the lyrics cover such a wide range of injustices, while managing to be poetic and sadly beautiful rather than preachy. It's just - a boy I was once in love with covered this song live, with his band, one night when he knew I was in the audience. And I cried. This song gets me tearier than "Rebel Waltz" does, even.
You want to play mind-crazed banjo / on the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.? / In Parkland International / Hah! Junkiedom, U.S.A. / Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove / And rat poison / The volatile Molotov says...
3. Joe Strummer - Love Kills
Now we move on to Joe’s post-Clash work. During the ‘80s, he did a lot of soundtrack work, which makes sense, as he also did some acting. And it also makes sense that he contributed to the soundtrack for Sid and Nancy, the Alex Cox film about the life (and death) of infamous British punk and Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious.
This tune has a deep personal meaning for me, as well. It’s yet another one that can make me cry, it’s yet another one that I associate with my best friend. And I could explain why, but it’s a little embarrassing, so I’ll say this: we were obsessed with Sid and Nancy, and unless you were also once a self-destructive punk rock teen, you couldn’t possibly understand.
And I don't know what love is / Is there something else giving me the chills? / But if my hands are the color of blood / Then, I can tell ya / Sure I can tell ya / Love kills.
4. Joe Strummer - The Unknown Immortal
This is another piece of Joe's soundtrack work, from another Alex Cox film - Walker. Joe did the entire score, and also played a bit part in the movie. I discovered the album rather recently. In the summer of 2006, I was staying in Philadelphia for a while, and one afternoon I wandered South Street all by my lonesome. I stopped into a record shop, and flipped through CDs, looking for something new to listen to on my trek back to West Philly. I almost always check the Clash and Joe Strummer sections at record stores, which I admit is kinda silly. I mean, do I really think I'm going to find something new by a band that broke up 30 years ago and a man that passed away ten years ago? Well, every once in a while, I do stumble upon something new, or at least new-to-me. That day, for instance - I found the soundtrack for Walker, purchased it, and popped it into my Discman. It became my soundtrack, that day, and for the rest of my stay in Philly. The following summer, it was my soundtrack for wandering around Los Angeles, and the summer after that, it was my soundtrack for walking the streets of Milwaukee.
The Latin cowboy sound of this song is a perfect soundtrack for swaggering down the sleazy summer sidewalks. And Joe, singing: Oh I / was once an immortal... I can relate. Though I was never a soldier in General Walker's army, I have felt deathless, once or twice.
So señorita / for the last time, now / share some love / with the unknown one.
5. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - X-Ray Style
Speaking of walking: listening to Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Joe's first album with The Mescaleros, is sorta like taking a walk with Joe, as he shows you around his town and tells you about everything on his mind - it's sometimes strange, sometimes joyous, sometimes sad. It's a slice of his life, in song form, and it is glorious.
Is it punk? That's something I wondered about, after he passed away. Some punker-than-thou dude I vaguely knew online gave me a hard time for being so broken up about Joe's death, and told me that every piece of music Joe produced post-Clash was rubbish and very much Not Punk. (I think he even said that the only two punk albums The Clash produced were the self-titled and Give 'Em Enough Rope, but that's another argument for another time.) So he said these things, and I contemplated them. I thought about what Joe had said, about how too narrow a definition of any genre stifles it to death. And I thought about how Joe had spent a lot of time before and during his years with the Mescaleros seeking out sounds from all over the world (continuing what he'd done while with the Clash) and playing them on his radio show; The Mescaleros just gave him a chance to fully incorporate those new sounds and styles into his own music. So he was doing what he was passionate about, which is very punk. Then I thought, well, who the hell cares if it's Punk or not? It's great music!
This tune features more lovely Latin guitar sounds. And I can't help but listen to the lyrics with the knowledge I have now - that Joe would pass away only three short years after the album was released. It gets me right in the heart, to hear him sing: And I need to see in an x-ray style / I need some rock art that don't come in a vial / Can anybody feel the distance to the Nile / I wanna live and I wanna dance awhile.
6. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Willesden to Cricklewood
Oh, goodness, but this one is sad and beautiful, too. It is a continuation of the walking theme, even more literally than "X-Ray Style" is. Joe sings about everything he sees while walking through his neighborhood, and how he: would love to speak / to everybody on the street. This song gets to me more, now, than it did when I first heard it. I can relate to it a bit more, now that I'm older and have a child of my own.
Thought about my babies grown / Thought about going home / Thought about what's done is done / We're alive and that's the one.
7. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Johnny Appleseed
I bought the 7" when this song came out as a single, summer of '01. I bought it in a record shop in Philly, though not the same one I purchased the Walker soundtrack in five years later. My best friend was with me, and she bought the 7", too. It landed on the official mix tape of our summer, that terrible and wonderful final summer of being teenagers.
This song is a bunch of joyous noise. In parts, it is almost has a gospel sound; in others, it has a hint of rockabilly. It is about heroes. It is about heroes of the US, like Johnny Appleseed and Martin Luther King. The way Joe sang about these people and topics, and the way he used American musical styles...I often feel that he understood America better than a lot of US-ians do.
Lord, there goes a Buick forty-nine / Black sheep of the angels riding / riding down the line / We think there is a soul / we don't know / That soul is hard to find.
8. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Bhindi Bhagee
Part of me thinks I should hate this track from Global a Go-Go, if only for the flute that Martin Slattery plays in it - because something about that flute sound reminds me of Rusted Root and bands of that sort. But - and here's where I lose about 100 punk points - I have been known to listen to Rusted Root on the rare occasion. And I don't hate the flute in "Bhindi Bhagee," because it fits so well with what the song is. Which is a super fun mishmash of all sorts of musical styles. What do I mean by that?
"It's um, um, well, it's kinda like / You know, it's got a bit of, um, you know." / Ragga, Bhangra, two-step Tanga / Mini-cab radio, music on the go / Um, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat / There's a bunch of players and they're really letting go / We got, Brit pop, hip hop, rockabilly, Lindy hop / Gaelic heavy metal fans fighting in the road / Ah, Sunday boozers for chewing gum users / They got a crazy D.J. and she's really letting go.
9. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Silver and Gold
I'm closing this column with a track from Streetcore, the final Mescaleros album, which was released a year after Joe's death. This song breaks my heart. I know, I know, they all do, a little, but this one... It’s a cover of the Bobby Charles tune “Before I Grow Too Old.” It’s a great tune to begin with, and I’ve heard many musicians and bands cover it, and I’ve loved every version. None are more poignant than this version, however. It was recorded not too long before Joe died, and it’s so stripped bare and raw - just a guitar, a harmonica, a fiddle, and Joe’s worn voice. Yes, it makes me sad, but it also gives me hope. It does for me what all of Joe’s music, what his life and legacy do for me - it urges me to create my own art, to live my own life with spirit and joy, and to do it now, because now is all I have. So -
I'm gonna go out dancin' every night / I'm gonna see all your city lights / I'm gonna do everything silver and gold / And I got to hurry up before I grow too old.
I’ll never be too old, though. No one is ever too old to live the life they want.