Shortly after a defeated, Mick Jones-less Clash sputtered out with 1986’s Cut the Crap, Joe Strummer looked to begin again. He had struck up a relationship with filmmaker Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy), appearing in Cox’s supposedly comic spaghetti Western Straight to Hell as well as contributing some songs to the film’s soundtrack. Cox’s next film would tell the true story of William Walker, a solider of fortune in the 1800s who, after aiding rebels in overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, would appoint himself the country’s dictator, only to be defeated by his own thirst for power. Even in 1987 the story was relevant; its plot would draw not-so-subtle parallels to the Reagan administration’s support of anti-Sandinista Contras. Strummer was a simpatico artist and activist, having attended pro-Sandinista rallies and named the Clash’s sprawling triple-album Sandinista!
Besides their political bond, Cox and Strummer were undeterred, renegade artists who seemed determined to avoid the best laid plans. And so it was that Strummer made the soundtrack to Walker his first post-Clash assignment. Neither the film nor the soundtrack did very well, and, like many other curious artifacts that fail to find a discerning niche, Strummer’s Walker went quietly out of print. The opportunity for Strummer to tackle not only an entire soundtrack, but a new musical geography, was undoubtedly a boost to his own creative spirits. There’s a lot of joy in the music he composed for Walker, in the bright, resilient horns, the pirouetting guitars, the slap-happy congas and bongos and timbales. Due to contract restrictions, Strummer’s vocals appear on only three tracks, so his primary responsibility was as the soundtrack’s composer and arranger. The anonymity of the largely instrumental project granted him the freedom to really lose himself in something that was far removed from the Clash’s method and legend. He fully exploited the Westernisms that the film required, using a large group of acoustic musicians to evoke gunslingers, wanderers, and the dust-choked frontiers that harbored both lawlessness and opportunity. In “Tennessee Rain”, for example, the Strummer known to the record-buying public was hidden behind banjo and harmonica, another ordinary face around the prairie campfire song-in-the-round.
As much as Strummer reached back into the previous century for inspiration, Walker remains very much a product of its time. The ‘80s weren’t exactly cruel to the record, but they did manage to leave an imprint on its sound. There are several blights on the otherwise “natural” production style: a sitcom theme saxophone wanders aimlessly into the scenario in “Latin Romance”; and some tracks, like the sidling “Nica Libre”, sound like cocktail lounge approximations of authentic Spanish music. Other times, like the mirage-inducing “Viperland”, the songs idle in their own expository feel—they set the scene (or, more accurately, the mood for the film’s corresponding scene) and turn revolutions around it. None of these weaknesses are exceedingly detrimental to the soundtrack’s overall success, for ultimately it is one of Strummer’s lesser works and probably of interest only to hardcore fans. Astralwerks has finally brought this, Strummer’s journey into a new frontier, back into print, along with his pre-Clash recordings with the 101ers. The latter documents where he came from, and the former charts some of the territory he’d explore once he was out on his own, trying to make sense of where to go next.
// Notes from the Road
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