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.