Graded on a Curve:
Joe Strummer,
Joe Strummer 001

Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter John Graham Mellor, better known by his recording and performance handle Joe Strummer, was a co-founder of one of the most important, and in the view of some, the very finest band in UK punk rock’s original wave. That would be The Clash, but the man’s activities preceded and extended far beyond that group, and on September 28 the Ignition label spotlights the results with Joe Strummer 001 in a variety of formats: a 4LP set in slipcase, a 2CD in slipcase, a deluxe 2CD with book, and a deluxe box set containing LPs, a vinyl single, a cassette, the book, and a handful of additional goodies. Totaling 35 tracks, including a dozen unreleased, it’s a stone-cinch pickup for Strummer fans.

It can feel (and will surely be read as) contrarian to say it, but I’ve never been greatly enthusiastic over The Clash. Sure, the first two albums, ’77’s The Clash and the following year’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, are essential, and the third, ’79’s London Calling arguably so, but when they took a nosedive in quality after that they did so with gusto, following up a double album with triple album Sandinista!, a display of excess that no matter how well-intentioned sent them into a tailspin from which they never recovered, though folks who discovered them through the rather tepid pop move Combat Rock might disagree.

The bigger problem, at least for me, was how the band came to represent what I’ll call the Springsteenization of punk rock. That is, the Clash were often, and well into the 1980s after their breakup, championed as the exception to the rule that punk rock sucked. By extension, certain folks frequently openly professed Clash-fandom as a way to prove they weren’t complete moldy figs.

Now, most of my punk-loving friends adored the Clash, and I could surely listen to them (the good stuff, anyway) without trouble; merely appreciating the group wasn’t a problem. It’s just that loving their output while deriding the Damned and Buzzcocks and the Lurkers and yes indeed the Sex Pistols (to limit myself to a short list of UK outfits) was and remains downright suspect.

There are additional reasons for my general indifference (like CBS’ bullshit hype campaign “the only band that matters.” Puh-leeze.), but I’ll stop, as this isn’t a rumination on the worthiness of the Clash. I bring it up mainly to provide background into my lack of deep expertise into and admiration of Strummer’s solo material, though I’m quite familiar with the man’s pre-Clash pub-rock unit the 101ers.

To praise the 101ers as a better band than the Clash—now that would be truly contrarian. I’m not going to do that. However, I will admit that the wonderfully catchy “Keys to Your Heart,” the 101ers only single amid an album’s worth of retroactively issued demo stuff (Elgin Avenue Breakdown), brings me joy in a way that no Clash song ever has, and as this piece concerns the man who wrote it, such an admission isn’t contrarian at all.

“Keys to Your Heart” is here in its superior second version, following the 101ers’ cool neo-rockabilly-ish “Letsagetabitarockin,” the pair delivering a nice combo-punch opener to the set. “Love Kills,” which Strummer cooked up for the soundtrack to Sid & Nancy, comes next, and the segue into its big ‘80s beat is a little jarring (even as it’s a song I remember well, as late ‘80s suburban punk-friendly teens viewing Alex Cox’s film multiple times was essentially inevitable).

It’s a major jump from the modestly scaled 101ers, but it’s to the assemblers of this collection’s credit that they eschew a chronological approach; if dated (in a way that “Keys to Your Heart” isn’t), “Love Kills” showcases some fine guitar ripping. As stated up top, Joe Strummer 001 offers 35 tracks (in its box set edition), which means a full inspection of its entirety here is out of the question. For fans of the guy, this is probably to the good, as they’ll be spared my viewpoint that a few of the selections flirt with the status of turkeys.

But really, only a couple cuts fall down that far, which for an expansive career-spanning comp is no small achievement. Hell, “Love Kills” isn’t even the best soundtrack number from the set’s first LP; that honor goes to “Trash City” (from Marisa Silver’s ’88 film Permanent Record) by his band Latino Rockabilly War (there are also flick tunes from Cox’s film maudit Walker and Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer).

Strummer’s second-best-known band is likely the Mescaleros. Their work dominates the second LP here and to largely productive effect, “X-Ray Style” particularly, though on the down side, “Minstrel Boy” (another soundtrack number, this one from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down) sounds a lot like The Pogues, except dangerously close to turgid. Sandwiched into this Mescaleros action are tracks with Johnny Cash (a likeable duet cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” from Johnny Cash: Unearthed) and Jimmy Cliff (an okay “Over the Border” from Cliff’s guest-star-loaded Plastic Fantastic People).

Cliff naturally brings reggae to mind, which is fitting, as it’s a genre that had a major impact on Strummer both in and outside of the Clash. Unsurprisingly it’s well-represented here, and early on with “Ride Your Donkey.” This is tricky territory, but Strummer navigates it well, with his interest in a variety of styles including African, Latino, and country & western striking the ear as genuine rather than opportunistic.

With the third LP’s preponderance of unreleased material, things take a turn for both the interesting and the previously unreleased. There’s a stripped-down demo of the 101ers’ “Letsagetabitarockin,” a cut featuring his Clash bandmate Paul Simonon that maps out an early version of “This is England,” and two reuniting him with Mick Jones, the dive in bluesy rock “Crying on 23rd” and “2 Bullets,” which offers vocals by Pearl Harbour (of the San Fran new wave-era act Peral Harbour & the Explosions).

The work with Jones extends to a 12-inch remix of “U.S. North” spawned into being for the Robert Frank/ Rudy Wurlitzer film Candy Mountain (Joe Strummer 001 really solidifies the man’s relationship to film beyond his occasional turns as an actor), though it was never used and remained unheard by the public at large until now. It’s surely a major find, but it’s a long one, and I definitely prefer the demo version (sans Jones) that’s on the cassette only available in the set’s deluxe boxed edition.

Of the unreleased material here, my favorites (both with Simonon) are an ’84 demo version of “This is England” and “Before We Go Forward” from the same session, both only obtainable on the 7-inch in the deluxe box. Given my ambivalence toward the Clash and my casual engagement with Strummer’s solo work, it feels fitting that the stuff which tickles my ear the best will take the largest investment to procure. But after time spent, the whole of Joe Strummer 001 drives home that doing so would reap more dividends than I would’ve ever expected going in. And that’s a nice turn of events.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • Anna Gradese

    Declaring that “[with Sandinista!] they took a nosedive in quality” is just as stupid as saying that the White Album would have been better as a single LP.

    These sort of things are usually uttered by people who never listened and / or understood the music in the firt place.

  • withanastrogirl

    Well, I don’t know if they “sucked”… but Damned, Buzzcocks, Lurkers and Sex Pistols couldn’t really play, ever… and had very poor songwriting (possible exception: a couple of thing from the Pistols).

    Whereas the Clash had some very good musicians (Jones, Headon) and an amazing songwriting partnership in Strummer/Jones.

    COME ON it’s no accident if, forty years on, nobody knows (let alone plays) Buzzcocks, Damned, Lurkers (etc) anymore, while the Clash are still an influential band, still selling records in spades.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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