[14 May 2007]
Were the legacy of John Graham Mellor (or Joe Strummer as he was known to millions) relegated only to his experiences as a member of The Clash, his place in rock and roll history would be certain and significant. As the charismatic, catalytic frontman of the group one record executive is fabled to have called “the only band that matters”, Strummer contributed significantly to both the canon and direction of punk rock and influenced countless youth, whether musically inclined or not, to give ear to the cries of social inequity and prejudice being sounded in their midst.
Fortunately for those who appreciate the whole of Strummer’s body of work, his output of expression did not end in 1985 with the dissolution of The Clash. Up until his death in 2002, Strummer remained active, devoting time and creative energy to a dynamic range of ventures including fronting several bands (The Latino Rockabilly War, The Mescaleros), contributing to film soundtracks and DJing the “London Calling” radio program on BBC World Service. These outlets may have been provided through the past accomplishments of The Clash, but they allowed Strummer to embrace a liberty and diversity which enriched his stature as a unique spirit among rock idols.
The Future is Unwritten is a musical chronicle of the various phases of Strummer’s life and career; the album is a work accompanying the soon-to-be released documentary film of the same name. If director Julien Temple’s (whose credits include the movies Earth Girls Are Easy, Bullet and Vigo as well as music videos for David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Janet Jackson and a host of others) film does even half the job of its soundtrack in telling the Strummer story, it can be considered a remarkable biographical achievement. Featuring tracks by Strummer’s various musical vehicles and incarnations (the aforementioned bands plus The 101ers, a precursor to The Clash) as well as works by those who influenced and inspired the artist, the album accomplishes its purpose as a soundtrack to Temple’s film, but also gives the impression that it deserves consideration as a soundtrack to Strummer’s life.
The qualities which separate The Future is Unwritten from works of a similar nature and make the album such a singular accomplishment are two-fold. The track-listing not only gives a varied look at Strummer’s work, but brings together textures and sounds present in the work of other artists which Strummer recognized as worthy of being embraced and incorporated into his art. The pioneering spirit of early rock and roll (Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochrane), the threads of acoustic folk (Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin), the vibrant marriage of social conscience and electric guitars (MC 5), the rich cultural roots observed in varying forms of world music (Andres Landeros, U-Roy, Ernest Ranglin, Rachid Taha) and the transcendent abilities of a simple pop song (Nina Simone’s exquisite cover of The Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody”) all had a place of prominence, all coexisted in the head and heart of Joe Strummer.
The inclusion of these examples of divergent musical traditions united in Strummer’s work is owed to the second and by far, most compelling characteristic of this particular album. Many of these cuts originate from the expansive bank of sounds Strummer drew upon to fill the airwaves of his BBC program. Between songs, the album weaves actual spoken introductions from “London Calling” as well as sound bites from various interviews with Strummer, so it is as if the late artist has actually culled the music and curated the compilation himself. This simple device gives the album a personal touch, the effect of which is remarkably powerful.
Thus, The Future is Unwritten evokes the experience of sitting across a table from an old friend discussing music, art and those events which served to sculpt your lives and personalities. In this case, Strummer is almost guaranteed to have been wiser, more ridiculously hip, politically aware and iconic than any other “old friend” imaginable, but the familial vibe still rings true, and that feeling is what makes this such a special project.
The record not only affords diehard Strummer disciples and newly gained followers the gift of his insight and presence, but also grants the privilege of access to previously unreleased material by The Clash. In fact, three of four offerings by the group included on the album are just experiencing the light of day: demos of “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” appear as does a live rendition of “(In the) Pouring Rain”, recorded in 1984. These tracks aptly capture the band’s now legendary musical energy; this is The Clash is all their raw and gritty glory and the sincere, spirited aesthetic they embodied comes through just as loudly and clearly decades later.
Expansive yet intimate, The Future is Unwritten soundtrack realizes the goal which many works of biographical art attempt but few accomplish: to depict a complex historical figure in terms sufficient for summary while using a slight enough approach to grant a glimpse into that person’s nature. Yes, much more can and has been said about Joe Strummer yet the essence of what one might wish to know is present here.