Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros Play “Willesden to Cricklewood”

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros Rock Art and the X-Ray StyleListen to this track by returning punk rock champion turned world-folk-meets-pop practicioner Joe Strummer. It’s “Willesden To Cricklewood”  as taken from the 1999 album Rock Art and The X-Ray Style. 

It was his first record with a new band, and a new record in general; his first since his 1989 solo album Earthquake Weather.  That’s a ten-year gap, although Strummer kept himself busy with continuing soundtrack work, and work as an actor, too.

All the while of course, talks of a Clash reunion persisted. This was because the Clash had been so influential, of course. But, it was also that the demise of the band was extremely dissatisfying to most. After trying to redefine the group with new members after primary guitarist, singer, and songrwriter Mick Jones was fired, it was a question of not with a bang, but a whimper.

Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite, and put the possibility of a Clash reunion behind him. Strummer meanwhile, after the new Clash line-up imploded, found himself in a period of extended transition. In Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, he admitted to needing to get his bearings. Traveling, working on movies (Walker, Straight To Hell), cameos on stage with the Pogues, and a not-very-well-received solo record, he became something of a wanderer, just as he had been before he became a musician.

But, when at The Glastonbury Festival in the 1990s, he met musician Anthony Genn who asked him: “When are you recording again? We need you!”

“OK, then. You can help me.” And the Mescaleros was born.

And what is it that makes this song so indicative of how ready Joe Strummer was for a comeback?

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The Clash Play “Safe European Home”

The Clash Give Em Enough RopeListen to this track by one-time Only Band That Mattered, the one and only The Clash. It’s “Safe European Home” as taken from the band’s second record Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released in November of 1978.  The song recounts the return of an English tourist from “the land of Bluebeat“, that being Jamaica, and the change in perspective that the trip has created.

The whole thing is delivered by what is now known as the classic Clash line-up; Joe Strummer singing and playing rhythm guitar, Mick Jones singing and playing lead guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and joining them for the first time, Topper Headon on drums. This is also the classic punk rock sound on which they built their reputation, although it’s filtered through the growing expectations of CBS, and their producer Sandy Pearlman. The sessions were strained, by some accounts. Yet, The Clash had a voice like no other band at the time, which shows through gloriously here.

They would expand their sound greatly in short order beyond this bedrock set of musical aesthetics established here. But, the core sound of the Clash is solidified here in any case; call and response oriented vocal dynamics, bluntly effective guitarwork, and an impressive, almost R&B feel between bassist Simonon and drummer Headon.

This song also touches on a classic Clash theme, specifically that of authenticity, although in a way that works against many of their other songs that deal with that same theme.

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Joe Strummer & the Mescalaros perform “Johnny Appleseed”

Global_a_Go-Go_coverHere’s a clip of ex-Clash man and punk rock hero Joe Strummer performing with his latter-day compadrés the Mescalaros. The song: “Johnny Appleseed” taken from 2001’s Global a Go-Go.

To me, “Johnny Appleseed” is as epic as anything he’d ever done with the Clash. Strummer’s voice is still beautifully ragged around the edges, which is his trademark. And it showed that he’d got on the writing train again, just before his sudden and surprising death the following year at the tender age of 50. The posthumously released Streetcore, more the rock record than Global a Go Go, showed that he was just hitting his stride with the Mescalaros as a band, which is a bittersweet truth in an age where musical heroes are not just wanted, they’re needed.

Never prolific, Joe Strummer made up for a relatively sparse body of work by making it eclectic. The reviews of this 2001 record with the Mescalaros removed the need to have a “don’t expect the Clash” label on every copy sold. Even so, I think this record was hurt by those kinds of expectations. Still, the single “Johnny Appleseed” was certainly one that got my attention, being as it was imprinted the voice of a man who’s music I’d grown up hearing, although in a different (yet welcome) musical idiom which is a sort of folky-internationalist fusion. I love the acoustic feel that seems to be almost country-sounding yet still retaining the energy of rock.

It’s not as if Strummer hadn’t dabbled in cross-pollinating musical genres before. Strummer had given up strictly defined punk rock for years. I’d argue that even London Calling isn’t a punk record. For one thing, it betrays a love for the folk musics of the world too, although perhaps its reggae flourishes were camouflaged due to it being in the middle of 1979 when a lot of bands were embracing reggae and ska. So, I don’t think Strummer’s efforts here are much further afield.

On my long list of movies to see is the recent The Future is Unwritten, a documentary about Joe Strummer by one time Sex Pistols collaborator Julian Temple. Besides being in the Clash, Strummer himself was an interesting figure of contradictions apart from his role as co-frontman – he was a middle-class former hippie and son of a diplomat named John Mellors who transformed himself into punk rock year-zero flag-waver Joe Strummer, proceeding to play the part as if no one was looking. He would go onto inspire other bands of course and have a varied career as a solo artist, record producer, film score composer, and sometime actor.

I was lucky enough to see Joe Strummer play the Glastonbury Festival in 1999 with the then-newly assembled Mescalaros. I remember feeling that everything was right in the world, watching him as he was, virtually unchanged by the passage of time, cranking out the same fiery balls of musical fire as I’d heard sitting around a cheapo cassette player with friends in the eighth grade, listening to the magically alien sounds of the Clash. Strummer was a rock star in the best sense. He made you realize that it was possible to see to your own transformation, that worlds could be crossed by strumming a tune.