collage of Joe Strummer and Clash album covers

Social Distancing Spins: Clash-mas Eve edition

By Joel Francis

Joe Strummer, lyricist, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash died on December 22, 2002. By the time I found out it was late the next day. Every 24th of December since then, I have declared Clashmas Eve and dedicated to the memory of Strummer and the majesty of The Clash. This non-denominational holiday can – and should – be celebrated by all.

Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War – Permanent Record soundtrack (1988)

Joe Strummer only gets one side of this soundtrack, but he used it to re-establish himself as a solo artist and build anticipation for a proper, full album. In retrospect, I wonder if the Permanent Record didn’t work too well.

It’s true that none of the five songs here are going to replace “White Riot,” or even “Johnny Appleseed.” At the same time, there’s none of the sub-par material like “Ride Your Donkey” that mar Strummer’s eventual solo debut Earthquake Weather.

Most of the songs on Permanent Record are solid, straight-up rockers. Although “Trash City” stands out as the best track, “Baby the Trans” and “Nefertiti Rock” are also a lot of fun. “Theme from Permanent Record” is an instrumental with Strummer’s wordless vocals.

The biggest problem with both the Permanent Record material and Earthquake Weather is the weird ‘80s production that makes everything sound both flat and glossy at the same time. The energy of these performances really struggles to come through. I don’t know if the problem is in how the instruments were recorded or in the mix, but I would love someone to try clean up these remix them.

While I’m dreaming, there is another 10 minutes worth of outtakes from these sessions floating around on bootlegs. It would be nice to add them to this set and release everything as stand-alone EP.

In case you are wondering, the second side of this album finds the Stranglers covering the Kinks as well as original songs from Lou Reed, the Bo-Deans, J.D. Souther and the Godfathers. I bet I play the Strummer side of this album 10 times for every spin the flip side gets. Take the Lou Reed track off there and that number goes down even more.

The Clash – Live at Shea Stadium (2008)

On a road trip several years ago, I subjected a traveling companion to a recreation of the legendary Clash and Who concert at Shea Stadium in 1982. Thanks to archival releases by both bands, each set can be heard in its entirety.

The two groups were obviously in very different places and had very different jobs to do that night. The Who performed for nearly three times as long as the Clash (two hours and 20 minutes) and were nearing the end of their first farewell tour.

The Clash poured their souls into a breathless 50-minute set that maintains its intensity and energy throughout. The music videos for “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Career Opportunities” were shot at this gig and with good reason. The quartet is tight and ready to blow anyone off the stage. “Clampdown,” “I Fought the Law” and opening number “London Calling” are also impeccable. Legend has it that The Clash were treated poorly by Who fans at earlier concerts. In this set they aim to convert everyone in the ballpark. Although the band splintered the following year, none of those cracks are apparent in this set.

Coming on the heels of this set, the Who’s performance couldn’t help but be a disappointment. The band had to pace itself for a much longer set and couldn’t match the Clash’s energy. Although the Who open with several of their earliest hits, they sound like a group tired of each other and tired of the road, going through the motions. Although these performances are nearly 40 years old, the Who ended up having the last laugh. It is still possible to hear Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend play these songs. Sadly, our ability to hear the Clash in concert is limited to archival releases like this.

(Side note to the official Clash archivists and Columbia Records: How about a retrospective collection from The Clash’s shows at Bond’s Casino?)

The Pogues with Joe Strummer – Live in London (2014)

Joe Strummer was never the kind of performer who would plop down on a stool, acoustic guitar in hand and play his catalog. He needed to be in a band. Even when his name was out front, Strummer fed off the energy from the musicians around him. I think this is why Strummer struggled so much after the Clash ended. He didn’t have a group of mates to perform with and draw inspiration from.

When the Pogues asked Strummer to play guitar on a late ‘80s tour, Strummer had so much fun he stuck around to produce the Pogues fifth album. When the Pogues again asked Strummer to go on tour with them in 1991, he was no longer anonymously playing guitar, but positioned front and center, replacing Shane MacGowan.

Live in London is a fantastic snapshot from that tour. On one hand, it shows how uniquely suited MacGowan is for the Pogues. Strummer seems to have trouble keeping up with the band on the faster songs, such as the opening song “If I Should Fall with God” and “Turkish Song of Damned.” Conversely, the recording also shows how easily the Pogues are able to slip into Clash numbers “London Calling” and “Straight to Hell.”

The Pogues soldiered on for a couple more albums and tours after the ’91 tour eventually breaking up, then getting back together with MacGowan in 2001. They have toured sporadically since then, but released no new studio material. Strummer became involved with several film soundtracks throughout the ‘90s but didn’t release any new studio material until forming the Mescaleros at the end of the decade.

The Clash – London Calling (1979)

I have an excellent, 560-page book that breaks down each song on the Clash’s third album. Countless other think-pieces have been written about the album as well. Here are some stray thoughts.

I love that Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the ‘80s when it was released in 1979.

I love that artists across all genres have drawn inspiration from London Calling. The Black Crowes, Anne Lennox, Third Eye Blind and Manic Street Preachers all covered “Train in Vain.” I’m not sure those four acts have much in common beyond a love of this song.

I love that 32 years after its release, the song “London Calling” – a warning about an environmental apocalypse – was selected as the theme song for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

I love that Beto O’Rourke loves and relates to the Clash so deeply that he said Ted Cruz was working for the clampdown during a debate like this was an everyday reference. (Beto isn’t wrong, by the way.)

I love that the greatest punk album of all time went out of its way to also include ska on “Rudy Can’t Fail,” lounge music on “Lost in the Supermarket” and pop music on the aforementioned Top 40 hit “Train in Vain.” The song “The Cheat Card” even features a wall of sound, Phil Spector-esque arrangement that had guitarist Mick Jones on piano and trumpet solo.

Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash’s first album may have burned hotter as succinct statements of raw punk rock, but London Calling sustained that passion across four sides of vinyl and transcended the genre in the process. If you like music, you love London Calling.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Live at Acton Town Hall (2012)

Joe Strummer’s time with the Mescaleros has gained heightened importance over the years. The Mescaleros were, of course, Strummer’s final band, but also the ensemble that galvanized him to record and tour regularly.

Even in that context, this show at Acton Town Hall is of historic importance. This recording captures Strummer in fine form a little more than a month before his death, doing a benefit show for striking firefighters. Even better, former Clash bandmate Mick Jones joins Strummer onstage during the encore for the pair’s first performance together since the US Festival in 1983.

Acton Town Hall wasn’t Strummer’s final show, but it sure seems like the stars aligned for one magical night.

The Clash – Sandinista! (1980)

At three LPs and 36 songs, most would say Sandinista is too much. I would argue there’s not enough. The Clash were ridiculously prolific, turning out five albums in five years, plus another album’s worth of non-album singles, but the time around Sandinista was bountiful even by those standards.

In addition to fitting studio time for Sandinista! around a hectic touring schedule, the Clash also recorded and released the “Bankrobber” single with two dub versions as b-sides. After recording on Sandinista wrapped, the Clash started working on Ellen Foley’s Spirit of St. Louis album. Foley was dating Clash guitarist Mick Jones at the time. The Clash not only serve as Foley’s band for the entire album, but Jones and Joe Strummer wrote six original songs for the album. (Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg, who worked with the band on Sandinista, also wrote three songs for Foley.)

Imagine a version of Sandinista! where “One More Dub” on side two is replaced with “Bankrobber.” Swap out “Broadway” with “Charlie Don’t Surf” and call the third record a bonus LP: The Clash in Dub. While we’re at it, let’s drop the children’s songs as well. I wonder how history would regard this much improved version of Sandinista! It wouldn’t eclipse London’s Calling, but I bet it would have a much better reputation and we’d see more Sandinista! tracks on tribute albums.

Since we can’t change the past, my dream version of Sandinista! would contain the original album, plus the “Bankrobber” single material and the demo or working versions of tracks Jones and Strummer wrote for Foley (in other words, the Clash versions, sans Foley). I shudder to think what studio scraps from the Sandinista! sessions might remain after listening to sides five and six of the original album, but if there are any other goodies left over, include them as well. That’s easily three compact discs worth of material and I’d buy it in a second. As with all of these suggestions, someone, please, come take my money.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37 (an in-depth look at Cut the Crap, the Clash’s final album)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer in the post-Clash ’80s)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer and reggae)

Social Distancing Spins, Day 4

By Joel Francis

Each day during the quarantine I’m going deep into my record collection and writing about what I pull out.

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out (1961) Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking 1959 release Time Out was so successful a sequel was inevitable. The point of these albums isn’t the complexity of each composition’s time signature. It’s how much fun the group seems to be having as they effortlessly skate through rhythms that would make prog rock bands break out in sweat. Take “Unsquare Dance” for example. On the face it seems simple enough – just handclaps and snare drum with Brubeck intermittently tickling the keyboard. The result is catchy and edgy enough to appear in “Baby Driver,” a mixtape masquerading as a heist film released a mere 56 years after the song was recorded.

Bob Dylan – Live 1966: Acoustic Set (1998) The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert, in the late ‘90s, a friend asked me if he played acoustic or electric. The answer, of course, was both, but the aftermath of that plugged in Newport set warranted the question nearly half a century later. This archival release was recorded about a year after the firestorm at the folk festival. The seven songs that comprise this acoustic set are immaculate. Of course the songs are amazing, but what stands out to me is Dylan’s harmonica playing and the way he teases phrases and moments. This set makes a strong case that Dylan may be an even better performer onstage alone, without a net. Knowing that the arrangements will soon get turned up amplifies the solo performances even more.

Pete Townshend – White City (1985) After the death of drummer Keith Moon, Pete Townshend is often accused of holding back his best work for solo projects and delivering second-rate material for The Who. I disagree. “Face Dances” has just as many strong moments as “Who Are You,” Moon’s final album. By the time the band got to “It’s Hard” no one’s heart seemed to be in it. Besides, it is very difficult to imagine Roger Daltrey singing anything on this album beyond the bombastic (and excellent) opener “Give Blood.” I don’t see where John Entwistle’s bass would add anything, either.

There’s supposed to be a story in here somewhere. I once watched Townshend’s 60-minute film version of White City so long ago it was on videotape. The narrative wasn’t any more apparent after that experience, although it was nice to hear different and extended versions of the material. Don’t overthink this, just appreciate it.

Raconteurs – Live at Cain’s Ballroom (2020) I saw the Raconteur’s performance in Kansas City that immediately followed the shows in Tulsa, Okla. that form this album. It was … good. Nothing groundbreaking, but a solid night out. Unless something changes, I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to buy a ticket next time they come through. The same goes with this album. It’s great to have a document of that tour, but the performance doesn’t have the energy of their concert at the Ryman Auditorium on a 2011 tour (released in 2013). I think I’ll be playing that album more often.

Various Artists – Big Blue Ball (compilation) In the early 1990s, Peter Gabriel hosted a series of weeklong workshops at his home studio. Artists from all over the world were encouraged to add to existing recordings and develop and contribute original material. This collection, released in 2008, a brisk 13 years after the final gathering, is the culmination of those sessions. There are a couple Gabriel gems to be sure, but fun for me is scouring the musician credits and try to pick out how everyone interacts together. Living Colour axeman Vernon Reid lays down synth guitars on “Rivers,” a New Age track that wouldn’t be out of place at a spa (or at least what I imagine a spa would be playing). Gabriel corrals jazz drummer Billy Cobham, former Public Image Ltd. bass player Jah Wobble and onetime Prince foil Wendy Melvoin for the single “Burn You Up, Burn You Down.” The song “Forest” opens like an outtake from Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack before turning into something that might be heard at a dance club or upscale art gallery (or at least what I imagine an upscale art gallery would be playing). Most of the album stays in this vein of world music with modern elements.

Echo de Africa National – Récit Historique de Bobo-Dioulasso (unknown) I know absolutely nothing about this album. I couldn’t even determine the year when it came out. The two side-length songs aren’t even given titles. To my ears, it sounds like this was recorded sometime between 1965 and 1975. I can tell you that if you like African ensembles with multiple horn players, percussionists and guitarists, who like to stretch out, this is probably for you. I haven’t been disappointed by it.

Various Artists – Light on the South Side (compilation) Less an album than an aural art installation, Light on the South Side combines 18 obscure blues and soul cuts with a gorgeous 132-page hardcover book featuring sumptuous black-and-white photography of African-American working class adults in the 1970s looking to escape the pressures of everyday life in the dive bars on Chicago’s South Side. You can smell the polyester and cigarette smoke listening to Little Mack do the “Goose Step” or hearing about Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman.” Crack open a High Life tall boy and enjoy.

Review: Roger Daltrey plays “Tommy”

(Above: Roger Daltrey and his outstanding band, which included guitarist Simon Townshend, rip through “Tommy” at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Roger Daltrey didn’t write a note of “Tommy,” but he found himself as a singer telling the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a messiah at high-profile at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight. More than 40 years later, Daltrey is still finding ways to express himself through the character.

The Who singer brought a five piece band, including guitarist Simon Townshend, brother of Who mastermind Pete Townshend, to the Midland on Friday for a trip through “Tommy” and other favorites.The band stuck pretty close to the recorded version of “Tommy,” give or take a few guitar solos and a nice gospel piano intro to “Come to This House.” “Pinball Wizard” finally got the crowd on the floor to their feet, where they stayed for the rest of the night. After “Tommy” ended, Daltrey paused for a few minutes to introduce the band before plowing into more material.

For the second half, Daltrey wanted to sing some harmonies, so he enlisted the rest of the band to help out on “I Can See For Miles,” “The Kids Are Alright” and a side trip through Americana with “Gimme A Stone” and a Johnny Cash medley.

Although Daltrey’s voice isn’t as strong today, in many ways he’s a better vocalist. Improved phrasing and delicate attention to nuance make Daltrey more expressive than ever. This isn’t to say he doesn’t sing with authority. “Eyesight to the Blind” featured a tough blues growl, while “Smash the Mirror” and “Young Man Blues” were as forceful as the original Who recordings.

In an evening filled with highlights, the best moment was a potent reading of “Young Man Blues,” which featured Daltrey’s signature microphone twirling and incorporated the Who rarity “Water.” The immortal “Baba O’Riley” concluded a generous set that ran well over two hours.

Setlist: Tommy – Overture; It’s a Boy; 1921; Amazing Journey; Sparks; Eyesight to the Blind; Christmas; Cousin Kevin; Acid Queen; Do You Think It’s Alright?; Fiddle About; Pinball Wizard; There’s a Doctor; Go to the Mirror; Tommy Can You Hear Me?; Smash the Mirror; Sensation; Miracle Cure; Sally Simpson; I’m Free; Welcome; Tommy’s Holiday Camp; We’re Not Gonna Take It. Band introductions. I Can See For Miles; The Kids Are Alright; Behind Blue Eyes; Days of Light; Gimme A Stone; Going Mobile; Johnny Cash Medley; Who Are You; Young Man Blues (including Water); Baba O’Riley.

Additional thoughts:

The Star didn’t give me many words for this review, so here are some other thoughts that didn’t make the cut.

  • The set was cut short by a couple songs. Most shows ended with “Without Your Love” and “Blue Red and Grey.” It was clear after “Baba O’Riley” that the spirit was willing, but the throat was weak. Still, it’s hard to complain about an evening packed with more than two hours of classic material.
  • Filling standing room with folding chairs near the stage is usually the kiss of death for a performance  – most fans would rather sit than stand. But the crowd in the pricey seats on the floor stood and cheered for most of the night, a refreshing change of pace.
  • The first time I set foot inside the Midland Theater was when the touring version of the Broadway version of “Tommy” swung through town in the early ’90s. I was in high school at the time. Nearly 20 years later it was nice to come full circle.

Keep reading:

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

Reunion bands: Ain’t nothing like the real thing

15 x 15

Chris Cornell – “Scream”

cover-front-chris-cornell-scream-2009

By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.