The Clash Play “Guns Of Brixton”

theclashlondoncallingalbumcoverListen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.

By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character  actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.

Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more

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.


Vince Taylor sings “Brand New Cadillac” later covered by the Clash

Here’s a clip featuring British rockabilly outfit Vince Taylor & The Playboys’ 1958 hit “Brand New Cadillac” famously covered by the Clash on their 1979 double album London Calling. One thing that this song proved was that by ’79, the Clash had left behind all of the pretensions of the punk year-zero ethic, and discovered their inner teddy boy.

Vince Taylor was an original teddy boy (or “ted”), born in Isleworth England in 1939. Taylor’s own career would be tarnished and celebrated in equal measure as a minor figure in European pop music who would be remembered for more than his music. Taylor had made a name for himself touring France in the early ’60s, associating himself with the same scene French rock n’ roll star, Johnny Hallyday. Taylor was known for his erratic behaviour both on stage and off, which culminated in an episode on stage in which he was caught up in a drug-fuelled religious outpouring, declaring himself a prophet, and effectively ending any hope of a wider career – a bona fide rock n’ roll suicide. Taylor spent the rest of his life living in Switzerland, dying in 1991 at the age of 52.

Apart from the Clash connection, Taylor also inspired another major figure in rock – David Bowie, who allegedly based his Ziggy Stardust persona and song character on Taylor, the “leper Messiah” swallowed up by the excesses and pressures of pursuing the life of a would-be rock star.