Joe Strummer had quite an outstanding second act. For those who needed convincing, BMG/Ignition Records released Joe Strummer 001 in 2018, a double compilation that caught listeners up on the legendary punk singer’s post-Clash career. For those who need no convincing but remain completists at heart, there’s now Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years, a box set spanning a short but productive phase in Strummer’s career. Joe Strummer 002 combines all three albums released by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros between 1999 and 2003 and adds a fourth collection of mostly studio demos and outtakes named Vibes Compass.
Coming in both CD and vinyl packages, the liner notes come with many glossy photographs and a lengthy essay that collects quotes from Strummer and those who knew him late in life. It all depicts a hopeful but ultimately sad tale of a punk rock record legend who truly came into his own yet again, only to be stopped by an untimely death. The listener is, at once, thankful that it’s all here and wistful at the thought of what could have come next.
If you are unfamiliar with this stage of Joe Strummer’s career, the Mescaleros used a musical synthesis that recalled Strummer’s work with the Clash on albums like London Calling and Sandinista! There was rock, but it was sometimes mixed with reggae. Techno and other electronic elements could be blended into the reggae already combined with rock. Periodically Strummer would visit the English countryside for inspiration, and other times he would take it to Columbia. Sometimes he’d just strum an acoustic guitar and sing. The Mescaleros certainly weren’t the Mothers of Invention, but there was an “anything goes” attitude to their approach that eluded some of Strummer’s aging peers. Joe did it all with ease. “I’m far more dangerous now,” Strummer is quoted at the start of the book, “because I don’t care at all.”
Rock Art and the X-Ray Style began when Strummer teamed up with Antony Genn as a way to get back into songwriting and performing after spending more than a decade doing soundtrack work and the occasional collaboration. Genn more or less told the frontman, “you’re Joe Strummer; you should be making a record!” which sealed the deal. Rock Art did not set the world alight, but it proved a strong case for Strummer’s lingering vitality with plenty of solid songs to back it up. While the chorus of the hard reggae number “Tony Adams” looked for the “morning sun”, the Cumbia beat-inspired “Sandpiper Blues” and the slow electronic jam “Yalla Yalla” both reveled in non-English chanting to drive their hooks.
But for all the melding of style in Rock Art, its 2001 follow-up, Global a Go-Go, upped the ante in that department. Some in Strummer’s inner circle felt the need to bring the sounds back down to earth for Streetcore, the Mescaleros’ third and final album. Global a Go-Go begins with a jaunty little slapper named “Johnny Appleseed”, an ode to peacemakers: “If you’re after getting the honey, hey / Then you don’t go killing all the bees.” There’s also the cool paranoia of “Gamma Ray”, the woozy samba of “Mondo Bongo”, and the flute-peppered Indian-flavored “Bhindi Bhagee”.
Most of Global a Go-Go came from jams, a trait the Mescaleros chose not to refine over the course of the recording process. The entire album is an hour and 12 minutes long, though the closing track “Minstrel Boy” occupies over 17 of those minutes. Like Rock Art’s “Willesden to Cricklewood”, Global a Go-Go ends with the band at their most British, with sighing fiddles ringing out over some Celtic glen.
Streetcore was released in October 2003, ten months after Strummer’s death. Most critics were predictably kind to it, seeing as how it would be Strummer’s swansong, but many were also enthusiastic over the musical distillation it offered. The jamming and experimentation of the first two Mescaleros albums were fine-tuned into a concise record that sent Strummer off this mortal coil on a high note. It starts with “Coma Girl”, a rock-reggae blend that sold excitement of “Mona Lisa on a motorcycle gang”, tears through even thicker reggae on “Get Down Moses”, and stops to busk on the street corner on “Long Shadow”.
A cover of Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old” is renamed “Silver and Gold”, and, somehow, a version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is not performed in a reggae style. Downtempo numbers like “Ramshackle Day Parade” and “Burnin’ Streets” conserve all their energy for the soaring choruses, but elements like the techno-lite touches of “All in a Day” offer a tremendous boost. All told, Streetcore was the best possible silver lining to Strummer’s untimely death, seemingly leaving behind no traces of unfinished business. Joe had left the building, and the building would never be the same.
Vibes Compass is not a treasure trove of forgotten gems. It’s mostly studio demos of songs that would later appear on the Mescaleros albums. Thus, despite the musical professionalism of the Mescaleros, many of them sound like pale versions of the official thing. Most of these tunes had yet to enter the editing phase. “The Road to Rock’ N’ Roll” demo may only be four-and-a-half minutes long, but it feels longer. Their cover of “Secret Agent Man”, a tune made famous by Johnny Rivers that really could be retired from radio by this point, gets a fresh coat of paint thanks to Strummer’s fascination with – you guessed it – reggae. The desert-scorched “Time and the Tide” and the cavernous “Ocean of Dreams” would have been a welcome addition to Rock Art, indicating that Strummer probably had plenty of backup ideas in his back pocket at any time. With 15 tracks spanning 74 minutes, Vibes Compass is generous if imperfect.
“Don’t be afraid to mix styles. Have an open mind to music, make it interesting. We make it interesting for us.” These words from Strummer indicated where he held his standards for making his own music and consuming it. His fear of becoming bored or stuck provoked him and the Mescaleros to turn over new stones any chance they could. Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years gets to the heart of this matter comprehensively, dishing up all three albums and a modest peek behind the curtain. The packaging is lovely, and the Mescaleros never made a bad album.