Joe Strummer drops a ringer
By Matt Ashare
NOVEMBER 22, 1999: When you've been cast as "the only band that matters," there's really no going back. A slogan like that lingers long after why it mattered matters anymore. It may be a blessing to have been there -- at the center of a London burning with boredom in '77, rallying the last gang in town, hosting a riot of your own. But soldiering on under the psychic weight of such a legacy has got to be something of a curse. I mean, what kind of reasonable career opportunities are left after you've been in the only band that matters? It's not as if you could just go back to garageland and pretend nothing had ever happened.
And so, the Clash collapsed under the weight of their own rhetoric, unable to conquer the world and live up to the utopian ideals of the populist punk they'd come to represent. It was a classic Catch-22: to be a true populist band they'd have to be popular, but being popular meant buying into a star system that commodifies art and creates a wall between the band and their fans.
For Mick Jones, the pop-savvy guitarist who was generally thought of as the Paul McCartney to Joe Strummer's more serious John Lennon in the creative partnership that fueled the Clash, the solution was simple: feint left and then shoot straight down the middle of the road, dropping punk's political baggage in favor of techno-funky dance grooves. Strummer helped Jones along by firing him in the wake of the commercial breakthrough of 1982's Combat Rock, but with apolitically pop Clash tunes like "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go" to his credit, Jones had already charted his course. Which left Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon free to go off and demonstrate the futility of preaching socialism from a capitalist platform to an audience that just wanted to rock. They released one abysmal album as the Clash minus Jones -- 1984's Cut the Crap -- and shortly thereafter took their own advice and cut the crap.
It's now been 10 years since Strummer's last real album, 1989's disappointing Earthquake Weather (short on hooks, way too long on noodling guitar flash, and criminally thin-sounding in its production, if memory serves) -- 10 years that saw punk rock make one of the more unlikely and surprising comebacks since, I dunno, DC mayor Marion Barry got re-elected following his drug bust. Maybe it was a different kind of punk than the one Strummer and his Clashmates helped to invent back in '77. But it was, nonetheless, punk rock, more pragmatic perhaps, and with a new kind of indie idealism intact. And if the sound of one of the decade's more prominent punk acts, Rancid, was even the least bit representative, it was a punk rock that openly embraced Strummer's Clash as a formative influence.
Where was Joe during all of this? Well, while a bidding war was heating up over Rancid's nostalgic piece of the Clash City Rock, Strummer was mostly at home in England, watching his three daughters grow up, quietly tackling odd jobs like the film score for the John Cusak comedy Grosse Pointe Blank and the occasional acting or producing gig. He waited out the most financially rewarding period punk has ever had in the US, biding his time while the words "platinum" and "punk" developed a close relationship. All of which could very easily have benefitted him if he'd opted to stage a comeback. But it wasn't until earlier this year that he finally returned to the studio with a full band and banged out a new album, just as major labels were beginning to jettison some of the alterna-punks they'd paid big money for at the height of the Green Day/Offspring/Rancid craze. Let's just say it's a good thing Strummer never opted for a career in comedy -- his timing's a little off.
Credited to Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style came out last Tuesday on Rancid singer Tim Armstrong's Epitaph imprint Hellcat. If nothing else, it has arrived in the midst of the most catalogue activity in the Clash camp since 1991, when Epic put out the box set Clash on Broadway. Just a couple of weeks ago, From Here to Eternity (Epic), the long-promised live Clash album, at last saw the light of day. The next few months will see the reissue of eight digitally remastered Clash titles on Epic, including all six of the band's proper full-length albums (from '77's The Clash to '82's Combat Rock), the expanded 21-track of Black Market Clash, retitled Super Black Market Clash upon its reconfiguration in '93, and the 18-track The Singles. (Cut the Crap mercifully remains a deleted title.) And earlier this year, Clash video director Don Letts oversaw the completion of Westway to the World, a Clash documentary. An hour-long version of it aired last month in England on the BBC, and plans are underway to bring a 90-minute director's cut to select theaters in the US. And two Clash classics, "Jenny Jones" and "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A.," are featured in the Martin Scorsese film Bringing Out the Dead and on the Columbia soundtrack.
According to Strummer, whom I reach by phone in Minneapolis in the midst of a Mescaleros tour that will come to the Roxy this Monday, none of this had any bearing on his decision to revive his solo career. "Matt, Matt, I swear to you that it didn't. You know the Clash, we did everything backwards. It was a shambles. And this is another perfect example of that. Because that live album has been on the back burner for at least four years. And the fact that it was kicked into action this year is a complete coincidence. Mick and Paul and Paul's wife, Tricia, who's the one who struck the deal with the label on the live album, they didn't really know what I was doing. So they didn't realize that I'd gotten a new band together and started work on an album."
Strummer, however, has remained well aware of what's been going on with American punk in the '90s. "I know they called it grunge or whatever, but it's punk rock. Well, it's just the white guys with the guitars, really. And we've got to make a good noise because we've got heavy competition from hip-hop, where they're really doing the business. I'm into a lot of the new punk: I like Rancid, Offspring, Green Day, you name it, any of those guys on the Coast there, Hepcat and the ska thing, Pietasters, who we have on tour with us. All of those groups, because they're young, keen, and they're on the scene. They're making good music."
All the same, he denies hearing any sonic similarities between Rancid and his old band. "When I heard Rancid, I didn't hear Clash, I heard our common legacy. Because this has got to be traced back to the Ramones. The Ramones' first album really is the blueprint for punk rock. In my estimation, everything about it almost defines punk. So any other group from the release of that album onward is really copping to the Ramones. So I never got into thinking that Rancid sound like the Clash. I mean, the legendary Son House, the blues guitarist, said, 'There ain't nothing new under the sun.' And he wasn't talking about coach motors or new kinds of hairdryers that turn into lighters. He was talking about riffs."
Strummer traces the genesis of the Mescaleros back to 1995, when he ran into guitarist Antony Genn at the Glastonbury festival, where Genn infamously danced naked on stage with Elastica. When the two reconnected last year, Strummer was ready to play again. And he felt he'd found his new foil in Genn, a guitarist/songwriting partner who also had the studio know-how to produce the Rock Art and the X-Ray Style sessions.
"I was sort of a smoldering patch of propane or gasoline or something. And Antony lit the match. I had tried to form an acid-punk group with [acid-house pioneer] Richard Norris, and some of the tracks from that are on the new album. But there was something about Antony that just clicked. Otherwise, I was really beginning to wonder. This is what my life was like: you watch your children grow up, you do little projects here and there, but after five, six, seven years go by, your mates start saying to you, 'You know what, dude? You should be bloody on stage.' Imagine them prodding you in the chest, and it gets more and more intense as more time goes by. I was beginning to wonder if maybe I was going to have to go hide in the forest for the rest of my life."
Only four of the 10 tracks on the new album -- including the reggae-rockin' "Tony Adams" (named for the famous Arsenal fullback), the heavily programmed "Willesden to Cricklewood," and a celebration of England's renegade rave scene titled "Techno D-day" that, ironically, sports the album's heaviest electric guitars -- came directly out of his collaboration with Genn. Three are holdovers from the Richard Norris acid-punk project: a guitar-driven ode to keeping an open mind about music as one gets older titled "Diggin' the New," and two techno-tinged tracks ("Sandpaper Blues" and "Yalla Yalla") laced with African- and Middle Eastern-sounding rhythms and melodies where Strummer essentially puts into practice what he's preaching in "Diggin' the New." The remaining three are drawn from various points over the past decade, including one, the hard-luck anthem "The Road to Rock 'n' Roll," that was submitted and rejected for Johnny Cash's American Recordings (American) comeback in 1994, and another, the Spanish-flavored "Forbidden City," that was written almost 10 years ago in response to the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing.
It's an album that's all over the map. And so were the Clash at their best, particularly on latter albums like Sandinista, with its mix of funk, punk, dub, and pop, and tunes that traveled from "Hitsville U.K." to "Kingston Advice" to "Washington Bullets." More than anything, the disc's mix of techno, rock, and reggae brings to mind Combat Rock, perhaps the most vilified of all the Clash's proper albums (it was labeled a sellout by critics and fans alike), yet the one Clash album that sounds the least dated as time goes by. But Rock Art and the X-Ray Style goes much further than Combat Rock in downplaying the role of punk's usual calling cards -- distorted electric guitar; thrashing backbeats; angry, confrontational lyrics -- in favor of the strummed acoustic guitars and the kind of haunting atmospheres and beaten poetry that pervaded a song like "Straight to Hell." Two decades after leading the only band that mattered on a mission to conquer the world, Strummer seems to have come to terms with picking his fights more carefully and mattering in smaller doses. You can almost sense defeat in his ragged voice when, at the beginning of "Yalla Yalla," he sings, "Well, so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/Not in my time/But in our sons' and daughters' time/When you get the feeling/Call, and you got a room." It's as if he were admitting that his generation's punk failed -- liberty never showed -- but arguing there's still hope that the next generation will succeed.
"Forget punk rock," he corrects me. "The song is about techno music. You see, in England it's illegal to dance to techno music. So the song's really about wanting to have the freedom to dance to whatever kind of music I want. And I want the freedom to have a spliff instead of a gin and tonic if I feel like it. And that's about it for me. Oh, and a third thing: I wouldn't mind if the bars would stay open later than 11 p.m. in England."
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