Joe Strummer's Greatest Hits? '001' Compiles the Should-have-been-smashes with Rarities
Pre and post Clash recordings, rarities and a surprise or two on a long overdue anthology of the enduring artist that is Joe Strummer.
28 September 2018
Well it's about time.
Joe Strummer will always be inexorably linked with the Clash and with good reason. He helmed that band through calm waters and tsunamis and managed to keep his integrity intact. That much we know. But whatever happened to the mild-mannered diplomat's son, once he'd left the Last Gang in Town? Lots. Lots happened.
001 bookends Strummer's time with the Clash. We start with the pub rock stylings of the 101ers as they race through "Letsagetabitarockin" and "Keys to Your Heart" and finish with "US North" – a song which saw him reunited briefly with his right-hand man, Mick Jones. In-between those points we get a whole host of diverse and fascinating material, proving (if indeed, proof was ever needed) that Strummer was no one-trick pony. No Pogues material, which is a shame, as anyone who witnessed any of the live shows where he fronted the loose band of Irish reprobates, will testify to how ferocious that combination was. Much of 001 is given over to his work with the Mescaleros whose banjo friendly, genre-straddling punk-folk became Strummer's modus operandi in his later years.
Compilations are difficult to get right – do you go for crowd pleasers that we know and love for the wider public or go down the out-takes/b sides/ultra-rare stuff for the uber-nerds? 001 walks that fine line with aplomb and his high(ish) profile stuff like "Love Kills" – surely one of the only good parts of the desultory "Sid and Nancy" debacle, rubs up against tunes from the short-lived projects like Astro-Physicians and Radar. It's all here. And it's nearly all great. The lovely thing about this compilation is that many of these songs sound better out of their original context. "Burning Lights", which was originally hidden on the soundtrack to the 1990 film, I Hired a Contract Killer sits beautifully here, but that can't be said of "Afro Cuban Be Bop" which sounds like a slightly wobbly demo.
Strummer's restlessness is obvious from the range of styles he trips through, effortlessly here. Fortunately, his voice and, to use a rather Californian idiom – his spirit -knits everything together in a most agreeable fashion. There are a few tunes on this record which you would be hard pressed to put into any bag – "Generations" is pushed along by an overdriven pedal steel and an arsenal of percussion, while "Yalla Yalla" has the pulse of a '90s trip-hop tune, but Strummer's vocal takes it somewhere else entirely. The man had quite a mind.
Also included here, is his duet with Johnny Cash on Bob Marley's mighty "Redemption Song". One can only imagine how star struck Strummer would have been and how baffled Cash would have been when confronted by the former agitprop-pop superstar. It's not essential, but it is cute and charming. Slightly more successful is his duet with Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff on "Over the Border" which ranks as one of Strummer's finest post-Clash works. Both singers sound committed, and the backing track is a winning mix of squelchy, synthesized bass and rockin' electric guitar. File this under "lost classic".
The second disc of this set is what will drive hardcore Strummer-superfans to the record stories. Twelve tasty unreleased treats, ranging from demos to unreleased soundtrack recordings. The demo version of "Letsagetabitarockin'" starts off the rarities in fine style and would have made him a few quid, if he'd sold the tune to Dr. Feelgood. "Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England" is a real curio. It's an embryonic version of "This Is England" from no-one's favorite Clash album Cut the Crap. The dub-style bass tries to pull the song along, but the previously released version still has the edge. "Where Is England" is especially prophetic given the situation that Strummer's homeland finds itself in, as it drifts further away from Europe and possibly, the rest of the world.
It's also pretty weird to hear Strummer singing a fairly traditional blues tune, which he does on "Crying on 23rd". Wasn't punk rock supposed to get rid off all that stuff? That's followed by Pearl Harbour's "2 Bullets", where Ms. Harbour pulls off a pretty convincing Tammy Wynette impersonation. It's rather lovely. We finish off with "U.S. North", a collaboration with Mick Jones, which owes more to Big Audio Dynamite than it does to the Clash. Originally mooted for the Sid and Nancy film, it's 10-plus minutes of '80s drum sounds, Jonesy's distinctive London bark and a lovely pop melody. Why this is surfacing now, 30 years after its' recording is a mystery.
001 is a carefully thought out compendium of the work of a fascinating artist who defied being shoehorned into one genre. I defy anyone to like every note of music over these 32 tracks, but there's plenty to enjoy. It's a respectful tribute to a much-missed musician who left us way too early. And what the hell would he have made of Trump?