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(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

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(Above: The Stiff Little Fingers in all their glory. This live footage of “Alternative Ulster” from 1979 features scrolling lyrics so fans can sing along. Good luck.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original incarnation of Stiff Little Fingers wasn’t around very long, but during their five-year tenure they were the best band to call Ireland home.

The Belfast, punk group formed in the late-‘70s as a cover act with a moniker nicked from one of their favorite songs – “Highway Star.” It wasn’t long, however, until the punk bug that had been sweeping England infiltrated Ireland. After replacing their bass player and swapping guitar solos for gnarled sneers, the quartet rechristened themselves after their new favorite song, the Vibrators’ “Stiff Little Fingers.”

After playing a show at the Glenmachan Hotel, the CBGB’s of the Irish punk scene, Stiff Little Fingers, or SLF, singer Jake Burns introduced the band to a couple of his pen pals, journalists Gordon Ogilvie and Colin McClelland.

"The Irish Clash."

Teaming with Ogilvie to write about their native land’s current violent political climate, the Fingers recorded their first single. “Suspect Device” was packaged to look like a bomb, but a copy managed to find its way to legendary BBC DJ and underground music champion John Peel, who played the song endlessly.

The band’s second single became their biggest hit. Released in 1978, “Alternative Ulster” was an insistent, yet catchy plea for plea for a united Ireland. (“Ulster” is British shorthand for Northern Ireland.)

After the success of “Ulster,” the Fingers recorded their first album, “Inflammable Material.” When a deal with Island Records fell through, the band was forced to release the record on their own. The album sold more than 100,000 copies and became the first independent release to chart in the United Kingdom when it landed at No. 14 on the album chart. That success paved the way for a contract with Chrysalis Records the following year.

Despite this victory, drummer Brian Faloon decided to leave the band. He was replaced by Jim Reilly, who beat the skins on the band’s third single, “Gotta Gettaway.”

In the spring of 1978, Stiff Little Fingers performed alongside the Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and several other punk acts in the Rock Against Racism concert. This appearance earned SLF the nickname “the Irish Clash.” Intended as a compliment, the handle hurt more than it helped, since the band failed to live up to comparisons. The Clash had the budget and backing of a major label, while SLF were left to their own devices.

The designation isn’t without merit, though. Both groups had a penchant for populist lyrics, disenchantment and reggae. The Fingers didn’t share the Clash’s penchant for experimentalism, but when it came to straight-ahead punk songs, Burns and guitarist Henry Cluney could definitely give Joe Strummer and Mick Jones a run for their money.

Despite their triumphs, the group had trouble capitalizing on their great singles and memorable albums. They released their second and third albums in 1980 and 1981, but the line-up had become a revolving door. When Reilly left the band after the tour for their third album, Brian Taylor became the band’s third drummer in as many years.

This collection is the best place to for neophytes to jump into the SLF catalog.

The other band started fighting about which direction to take the band. The arguments frequently ended in fistfights. In 1982, weeks after releasing their fourth studio album, Burns pulled the plug on Stiff Little Fingers.

Five years later, the band reunited to make some money. After a handful of short tours, Burns decided to take the group into the studio and record some new songs. Despite and impressive lineup that included former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton, the Fingers were basically Burns’ show. From 1991 to 2006, he and Foxton were the only two consistent members of the group.

The reformed Fingers have released four albums, but have been quiet since the original SLF bass player, Ali McMordie, replaced Foxton four years ago. Burns has been promising new material for several years. Until that comes, there are more than enough treasures from the band’s glory days to keep fans happy.

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(Above: The video for “Love Kills,” one of two songs Joe Strummer wrote for 1985 film “Sid and Nancy.” These songs represented his first post-Clash solo work. )

By Joel Francis

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record examines four songs from the last days of The Clash and Strummer’s reluctant transition to solo artist.

“This Is England” by The Clash, from “Cut the Crap”

The final single in the Clash’s illustrious career, “This Is England” has been unfairly overlooked. After firing manager Bernie Rhodes in 1978, Strummer convinced the rest of the group to bring Rhodes back in 1981. That decision hastened the end of the band. Rhodes played Mick Jones off of Strummer, and after the difficult “Combat Rock” sessions convinced Strummer the band would be better with him in charge and without Jones.

Strummer fired Jones, but regretted the decision for the rest of his life. Realizing he had been duped, Strummer and Paul Simonon, the only remaining members in the band at the end, abandoned the material recorded for the post-Jones album “Out of Control.” Rhodes finished the album alone, changed its title to “Cut the Crap” released the album without the band’s permission.

As sad and unfortunate as this tale may be, it shouldn’t detract from the greatness of “This is England.” The synths and drum machine may not line up with the Clash’s established sound, but the diatribe against the Motherland, soaring chorus and knife blade guitars are pure Strummer.

“Sightsee MC” by Big Audio Dynamite, from “No. 10 Upping Street”

When Mick Jones found artistic success with his post-Clash ensemble Big Audio Dynamite, Joe Strummer was both elated and devastated. He was happy for his old friend, but fell into a depression, because he knew the Clash were over. Strummer found a way to work with Jones again, though, when he appeared in the studio and offered to produce the group’s second album.

Despite being penned by its two best-know members, “Sightsee MC” sounds nothing like The Clash. Full of samples, synth beds and big drums, the production hasn’t aged well, but the song was very its time when it was released in 1986. Jones’ rap delivery recalls the Clash song “The Magnificent Seven,” and the Jamaican patios fits in with the band’s love for reggae.  Spidery guitar line and references to “send out a mayday to London” delineate Clash connection.

Strummer frequently performed “Sightsee MC” in concert during his 1988 “Rock Against the Rich” tour with his new band, the Latino Rockabilly War.

“Filibustero” by Joe Strummer, from the “Walker” soundtrack

After writing songs for “Sid and Nancy” and “Straight to Hell,” Strummer became British director Alex Cox’ go-to guy for soundtracks. “Walker,” Cox’ 1987 “acid Western” starring Ed Harris and Peter Boyle has been mostly forgotten, but its soundtrack stands proudly as Strummer’s first post-Clash, solo LP.

Strummer was surprisingly tentative in his leadership of the project, though. Every day he showed up at the Russian Hill recording studio in San Francisco with a boom box and cassettes of sketches and ideas he had heard and recorded the night before. Instructing his musicians to “work something up” he’d disappear for several hours, then return to hear what developed. Under those circumstances, it’s amazing the music not only turned out well, but pleased Strummer.

The lead-off track, “Filibustero” sounds like something out of the Buena Vista Social Club or Afro-Cuban All-Stars. The former punk rock warlord uses Latin American rhythms, arrangements and melodies to capture the film’s Nicaraguan setting. For some reason, “Filibustero” was released as a single, which included several remixes. It did not chart, but it did establish Strummer on the road to world music he would explore in depth a decade later with the Mescaleros.

“Trash City” by Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War, from the “Permanent Record” soundtrack

Strummer’s work on the “Permanent Record” album marked his fourth soundtrack in as many years, but these sessions were different. After flirting with world music on “Walker,” Strummer was ready to rock out again. He recruited several L.A.-based underground musicians, including former Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss and former Red Hot Chili Peppers/future Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons, and dubbed them the Latino Rockabilly War.

Of the five songs the group contributed to the “Permanent Record” soundtrack, only “Trash City” was released as a single. The track fades in like a party already in progress, as Iron’s drums and Strummer’s guitar hammer the rhythm home. Dropping his normally serious, political façade, Strummer sings about visiting “a girl from Kalamazoo” and tosses in non-sequiturs about coffee shops in Seoul, bowling and vandalism for good measure. The yelps and scream on the outro show how much fun Strummer is having.

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(Above: The Stooges do “1969″ in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

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Above: Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and Little Steven Van Zant do “London Calling” at the Grammys for Joe Strummer.

By Joel Francis

I remember getting the call from my brother-in-law like it happened yesterday. I was sitting in my apartment, it was the night before Christmas Eve, 2002 His words slowly trickled out: “Joe Strummer is dead.” The next day I loaded my CD changer with nothing but Clash and Mescelaros music and played it on shuffle for the entire day. Every Christmas Eve since then has been Clash-mas Eve, with at least a couple hours devoted to celebrating the art of Joe Strummer. To borrow a line from The Hold Steady’s “Constructive Summer,” let’s “raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer” and revisit five of his greatest moments.

“Letsagetabitarockin’” by the 101ers, from “Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited”
The 101ers drew more on the bluesy rock of the Rolling Stones and classic American rock and roll than they did on the jagged precursors of punk rock. Formed in 1974, Joe Strummer knew his band was done in 1976 after hearing just five seconds of the Sex Pistols. When the 101ers lone single, “Keys to Your Heart” came out later that year, the group was already over. Having seen the light, Strummer jumped ship to join the Clash, but the 101ers remained a curious footnote of Strummer’s pre-punk powers. In 1981, the group’s few studio and live recordings were cobbled together for release.
“Letsagetabitarockin’” kicks off that album with a shot high-octane rockabilly recorded in 1975 that would become the Stray Cats stock in trade several years later. Stylistically, it’s not much of a leap from this to the music Strummer was making in the Clash. The change in attitude and approach, however, is huge.

“1977″ by the Clash, from “Super Black Market Clash”
Strummer eviscerates his former life as a pub rocker and skewers rock’s sacred cows with his cry of “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” on the chorus of “1977.” An early calling card for the band, it appeared on the b-side of their first single and helped establish them as the new guard of rock and roll.
Written by Strummer and Clash guitarist Mick Jones, the two packed a lot into their 99 seconds. In addition to denouncing the previous generation’s music, they draw on the Rastafarian prediction of July 7, 1977 bringing chaos and tip a hat to George Orwell’s novel “1984″ by counting up to that year before ending abruptly.

“Brand New Cadillac” by the Clash, from “London Calling”
“Letsagetabitarockin’” and “Brand New Cadillac” are both rockabilly songs, but the similarity pretty much ends there. Strummer not only changed his surrounding musicians, his voice has transformed. His singing has the edge of a switchblade knife and you can hear his sneer as he angrily spits likes like “Jesus Christ, where’d you get that Cadillac?”
That line wasn’t in the 1958 version of “Brand New Cadillac” written and recorded by Vince Taylor and his Playboys. Taylor’s version was menacing in its own right back then, but he sounds less inclined to track his woman down. Strummer, on the other hand, is ready to do more than slash her tires.

“Magnificent Seven” by the Clash, from “Sandinista!”
Rap music wasn’t much older than punk when the Clash cut this track in 1981. Strummer throws stream-of-conscious lyrics over a bass loop composed not by Clash bass player Paul Simonon, but Norman Watt-Roy from the Blockheads. The arrangement over the loop is strongly influenced by reggae and dub, two of the cornerstones of the Clash’s sound.
The result, though, was unlike anything recorded up to that time. Preceding Blondie’s “Rapture” by six months, this was white rock’s first attempt to write a rap song.
Strummer delivers his story about a good working boy with his typical swagger, but throws a curveball in the third verse – the work isn’t to make ends meet, but to buy all the junk he sees advertised on TV. Emboldened by his anti-consumerist diatribe, Strummer tosses Ghandi, Karl Marx and Richard Nixon into the final verse before musing who’s better known, Plato the Greek or Rin Tin Tin.

“Straight To Hell (live)” by the Clash, from “From Here To Eternity: Live”
Recorded live at The Orpheum in Boston on the Combat Rock tour, the band stretches this reading of “Straight To Hell” more than three minutes longer than its LP run time. Given more space, the song becomes even more moody. Strummer wallows in the beat as he damns those who mistreat immigrants by closing steel mills or burning their communities.
The deliberately slow tempo shows how much the Clash have grown since their rapid-fire debut just five years earlier. The arrangement again echoes strongly of reggae and dub elements and was borrowed by M.I.A. for her hit “Paper Planes.”
The defining moment comes at the end when Strummer yells at the crowd to “sing in tune, you bastards.” For a man who always wore his emotions on his sleeve, it doesn’t get more heartfelt than this.

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