Joe Strummer: Before and After the Clash
There will, sadly, be no more new music from Joe Strummer. We know that. But this summer sees two albums re-released – and on CD for the first time – that bracket his epochal work with The Clash. Appropriately, they could hardly be more different.
Elgin Avenue Breakdown, a compilation of Strummer’s mid-seventies pub rock band The 101ers, was initially released in 1981, when The Clash were at the height of their fame. Long out of print in vinyl form, it’s finally been repackaged, with 20 songs where once there were 12, as Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited. Like last year’s London Calling Clash demos, what it lacks in audio clarity it more than makes up for in historical interest.
The 101ers lone single ‘Keys To Your Heart’ comes in two versions, that which was released on Chiswick in 1976, and a faster rendition recorded at the BBC. Written for girlfriend Palmolive (later of the Slits) it was, according to 101ers drummer Richard Dudanksi in the sleeve notes, Strummer’s first ever composition. This could be typical (Clash) revisionism as, from perfectly thematic lyrics (presented here in Strummer’s own typing) through simple R&B guitar riff to singalong chorus, it seems an impossibly well-formed song. Then again, ‘I Can’t Explain’ is meant to have been only Pete Townshend’s third composition, so who knows?
Hardcore Clash fans, meanwhile, will gravitate to the chorus “bang bang go the jail guitar doors” from ‘Lonely Mothers Son,’ which Mick Jones adapted once Strummer joined The Clash, changing the verses to celebrate his outlaw guitar heroes Peter Green, Wayne Kramer and Keith Richards. ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ showed up on the B-side of ‘Clash City Rockers’ in late 1977 – just 18 months after Strummer was still singing on stage for The 101ers, yet by which time The Clash had helped rewrite the entire history of rock’n’roll. Time moves quickly when revolutions are under foot.
A cover of ‘Junco Partner’ will be of note to those who recall the version on Sandanista!, but the Clash connections don’t stop with the specific material. Though it was disputed in 1977, given that their set was mostly R&B covers and otherwise staunchly conventional self-compositions, The 101ers were an honest precursor of punk. There’s an urgency, a simplicity and a power to these performances (especially the live-from-cassette mixes by future Clash producer Micky Foote) that was starkly at odds with the progressive rock of the era, yet perfectly in step with R&B heroes like Doctor Feelgood and Eddie & The Hot Rods. Those who never witnessed the pub rock ‘revival’ of the mid-Seventies will nonetheless sense that era’s back-to-basics joie de vivre in such derivative Strummer compositions as ‘Letsgetabitofrockin” and ‘Motor Boys Motor.’ There’s also a welcome Latin tinge on the excellent ballad ‘Sweet Revenge,’ and bassist Dan Kelleher takes a fine lead vocal on the equally lovely ‘Surf City’ (not the Jan and Dean song of same name). Given that guitar playing was never Strummer’s forte, credit for the raw lead parts is due Clive Timperley, who later found his own brief fame with The Passions.
Unique among their pub rock contemporaries, The 101ers were staunchly political: they formed at a squat, debuted at a Chile Solidarity Campaign benefit, routinely battled the police at live gigs (the uniformed kind, not Sting and his crew), and are featured here covering The Stones’ ‘Out Of Time’ from a gig at Wandsworth Prison. In the process, Strummer gained a reputation round London for walking it like he talked it, and when he saw The Sex Pistols open for The 101ers in April 1976, at The Nashville, he listened to his heart, walked right on out of his increasingly successful pub rock band, and allowed himself to be talked into the waiting arms of Mick Jones, Paul Simonon – and their manager Bernie Rhodes. The Clash were up and gigging within weeks.
Those who would accuse Strummer of jumping bandwagons need only hear his introduction to the live cover version of ‘Gloria’ that closes this CD (as it did the original vinyl album) to understand that his musical mission with The 101ers was similar to that he then propagated with The Clash. “I dedicate this to all of you people who are trying to get some groups together, and that’s like, Fuck the discos. (Sporadic cheers.) If any of you lot ever throw a party and you want to get a disco in ‘cos it’s cheaper, I mean you might as well not bother throwing a party, right?”
Not exactly, but as always with Strummer, the music more than makes up for any vocal confusion.
It’s hard to believe that barely a decade separates Elgin Avenue Breakdown‘s recording from that of Walker. In the intervening years, Strummer had become perhaps the first punk rock superstar, only to sack Mick Jones at the height of The Clash’s fame and turn that group into a laughing stock with the historically-excised album Cut The Crap. Strummer quietly emerged from his post-Clash doldrums by recording the theme to Alex Cox‘s punk movie Sid & Nancy, then jumped at the invite to act in Cox’s biopic about William Walker, a mercenary who led a private army into Nicaragua at the behest of American business interests and ended up becoming the country’s dictator. (How could he have refused? Sandinista!, after all, had been named for the 1970s Nicaraguan revolutionaries who freed their country from a subsequent 125 years of almost relentless dictatorship and American control.) When asked to compose the soundtrack too, he jumped into the project with typically total dedication, sleeping and eating in his costume while recording acoustic demos on set, the better to capture the movie’s mood in music
But Strummer was no cultural tourist: the Latin influence is noted in The 101ers review above and was regularly apparent in The Clash’s music, not least due to the influence of his long-term Spanish girlfriend Palmolive. There is nothing inauthentic about any of Walker’s Latin lilts, which were subsequently re-recorded in a San Francisco studio, where Circle Jerks’ Xander Schloss, equally unwilling to be typecast, added Spanish guitar with a majestic flourish that lifted tracks like ‘Machete’ and ‘Nica Libre’ far beyond the usual soundtrack fare. Indeed, for those of us who receive instrumental acoustic soundtrack albums by the likes of John Williams and Mark Knopfler with the regularity of tax bills, Walker is an unusually distinctive delight.
CBS Records, with whom Strummer had battled for a decade already, permitted their former Clash ‘star’ to sing on just three tracks for this rival label side-project. Strummer, yet to fully regain his confidence, seems almost relieved by that restriction, burying his lead vocals in a mass uncredited chorus on the campfire singalongs ‘The Unknown Immortal,’ ‘Tennessee Rain’ and ‘Tropic Of No Return.’ Unfortunately for that confidence, the late-eighties British marketplace had yet to come to terms with soundtracks as a viable form of artistic expression and Walker was as big a disaster on vinyl as it was at the box office upon release in 1987; the album quickly went out of print. (Strummer’s “official” debut LP, Earthquake Weather fared only a little better in 1989. It was not until he formed The Mescaleros and went back to an independent label in the mid-1990s that Strummer rediscovered his sense of musical purpose.) Completists who nonetheless bought and hoarded the original LP will note the addition of ‘Straight Shooter’ (originally a B-side), and two re-mixes, ‘Brooding Six’ and the ‘Freestyle Mix’ of ‘Filibustero,’ relatively authentic Latino adaptations that do little to harm the tracks’ original intention.
History has never fully determined from lack of credits just how much guitar and piano Joe played on Walker and how much he merely directed. But any which way, Strummer fans should take great delight from Walker which proves, as does Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited in its own, entirely different way, that here was a man whose love of music knew no boundaries, geographically, culturally or otherwise. As such, they are each vital artifacts in the Joe Strummer canon.