Five of the Best: Joe Strummer

After the release of the career-spanning 32-song compilation Joe Strummer 001, this article looks at Strummer’s finest tracks, from his self-coined ‘Wilderness Years’ to his genre-bending work within The Mescaleros. Many of Strummer’s works have largely gone unnoticed up to this new compilation, with much of his work centring around independent movie soundtracks and album production, including Mick Jones’ second album with Big Audio Dynamite, No. 10 Upping St.

Strummer shares the throne with Mark E. Smith at the top of my musical Royal Family – his poetic prowess is virtually unparalleled, remaining untouched throughout his career, while his experimentation with rap, dub – every genre under the sun to be frank – opened fascinating unknown musical avenues to me, from The Clash’s seminal cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ to his fantastic acoustic rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ with Johnny Cash.

Featuring my favourite five songs recorded after the fall of the classic Clash line up after Topper Headon’s firing in 1982, this article is my own tribute to a lifelong icon and hero who has held a mythical and legendary place in my life, and probably will for the rest of it too.

­­­­­­­     1. Czechoslovak Song/Where is England? – 1985

A demo version of The Clash’s final single ‘This is England’, this is, for me, The Clash in their essence. A classic Simonon bassline teamed with a rough and raw dub drum groove, backed by Strummer’s melancholic, merciful vocals – a never-fail recipe. The sparsity of the recording gives the song an extra edge, a lack of refinement that defined much of The Clash’s earlier sound that had been lost as the band became more of a commercial force after 1979’s London Calling.

Admittedly, Strummer’s vocals are somewhat laboured, the high notes in the chorus often seeming too high a peak to reach, though I feel that only the most nit-picking pedant could whole-heartedly criticise this effort. Though a somewhat simplistic song, CS/WIS offers a rhythm of subtle power, dragging dub grooves into the punk rock arena, resulting in a beautifully blue song of mourning for a nation in political turmoil and social decay, wondering if it will ever recover.

  1. Leopardskin Limousines – 1989

A good friend will explain to anyone how much I utterly adore this song – it is Strummer at his purest and most honest. By 1989, The Clash’s comeback album Cut The Crap was critically panned (leading to The Clash’s demise), both Strummer’s parents had passed away, and he was now relying on film soundtracks for musical output. Unfortunately, his solo effort Earthquake Weather was a failed attempt at redemption, reinvention and a re-release into the rock ‘n’ roll world.

Lifelong friend and biographer Chris Salewicz (Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer) believed at this stage of his life Strummer was increasingly sinking into a depressive state, noting after a fan told Strummer that Tower Records, a major record store in New York, didn’t stock Earthquake Weather during his US tour, Joe remarked,

“I just realised that if I couldn’t get my record into Tower Records (…) the very night the tour hit New York (…) I thought ‘Well, you better retire yourself boy!’”

Salewicz commented,

‘You can feel in those words the withdrawal from emotion, the setting in or freeze of the soul. When you live in a habitual state of depression, fighting to keep above it, (…) the smallest thing can send you slithering all the way down the snake.

‘It had been such a struggle to get even to this seemingly pointless point. Now again it seemed hopeless. Everything did.’

The commercial disaster of Earthquake Weather meant gems like Leopardskin Limousines were totally overlooked. It is a song of absolute agony, of endeavour, complete beauty. Joe mumbles a sombre semi-stream-of-consciousness littered with lines of lyrical bliss and tragedy, ultimately summing up his circumstances with the crushing line ‘Those firecrackers going down the hill/Signify the end of our dreams’. I’ll go as far as recommending that all first-time listeners should read the lyrics while they listen – many stunning lines are easily missed.

Even at his most despondent and desperate, he could still produce moments of magic – Earthquake Weather held many a diamond-in-the-rough, though this will forever shine the brightest.

  1. Burning Lights – 1990

Another song of total class and sorrow. Released after the critical indifference and commercial failure of Earthquake Weather, the lyrics document Strummer lost in a world where he is no longer wanted and no longer relevant, trying to find his purpose.

The single was written and recorded to feature in the Aki Kaurismaki art-house film I Hired A Contract Killer, with Strummer featuring in a classic scene playing the song in a run-down, half-empty bar – one of my favourite film scenes of all time.

There aren’t may more gut-wrenching lyrics to start a song than ‘Some dreams are made for children/But most grow old with us’ – a harrowing introduction to a tune that is contrarily so powerful and proud in musicality.

It glides between verse and chorus effortlessly, concluding with Strummer conceding ‘Sometimes I, I pull over/When I realise I’ve left no trace’. It doesn’t get much sadder than this, does it? Salewicz wrote that Joe took his commercial rejection personally, failing to accept he was the wrong man at the wrong time when releasing Earthquake Weather, and it shows.

  1. Rose of Erin – 1993

Finally, some happiness! Written for the film When Pigs Fly, this folk ballad flourishes gorgeously into an eruption of optimism with sheer textural beauty and sophistication.

The guitar lines are infectious, soaring freely across the musical skyline, while Joe’s voice sounds more matured and practiced, though somewhat buried under the backing. However, I expect with the recorder, flute and violin lines (to name a few) this was intended to be much more of a surreal instrumental with vocal support than anything else.

In its totality, it’s a work of utter divinity and complexity, reaffirming Strummer’s status as a brilliant producer and musical architect.

  1. Coma Girl – 2003

What else could I have ended this with? The Mescaleros had some brilliant songs over their four years together; X-Ray Style, Johnny Appleseed and Get Down Moses have always been favourites of mine, though this tops the lot.

At a Strummerville benefit show at Dingwalls earlier this year, I was totally taken when Coma Girl emphatically opened the set. I screamed every lyric, haphazardly threw myself across the mosh pit densely populated by sweaty 50-something year olds (my Dad resigned himself to the bar; probably a wise move) and completely drained all emotional energy by the time the song was over. It was the first Strummer song I’d ever seen properly performed live, and I was utterly hooked.

It’s a classic Strummer tune, a timeless rock frenzy exuding raw energy and emotion that grows in stature and power with every listen. He’s in his element, proudly reclaiming his once-ruled territory in the rock ‘n’ roll savannah, every vocal a lion-roar reminder to all where he stands.

Coma Girl was released as a single posthumously, preceding the brilliant Streetcore album which received acclaim from critics and commentators – a truly fitting send off for one of the most intricate, intelligent and influential rockers modern times has ever witnessed.

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