A revelatory new box set collects rarities from the late Joe Strummer, highlighting how his worldly philosophies and strong songwriting took root in many genres
On the first page of Joe Strummer’s “notebook” of writings included in Joe Strummer 001, the comprehensive and enlightening new box set collecting rare and unreleased gems from the late Clash frontman’s solo career, the iconic songwriter addresses a seeming contradiction that must have occupied his mind for years: How can one sing sincerely about the dispossessed from a position of privilege?
“Let me make it quite clear who I am & what I am trying to do cos there are some people watching who won’t know,” he wrote. “I am representing, as best I can, a group of people, in fact a large section of the population who I will call the dispossessed. The people who have been denied….”
Strummer then acknowledges that this is the thrust of many of the Clash classics that he wrote, including “White Riot”, “Career Opportunities” and “London Calling”, before unpacking the paradox.
“Immediately there rose the cry of ‘contradiction’,” he continued. “But I see no contradiction. I see no other representative I will move in high company but I carry the words & feelings of those lovers who crouch in an overpriced room eating Chinese takeaway, of those gifted from birth who have been denied a chance to discover their talent, of those who have been fed through the machinery of a state apparatus, of those people who turn to a means to dull the thoughts of what could have been.”
Being a subversive agent among high company must have been a big part of Strummer’s raison d’être. Born the son of a British diplomat in Ankara, Turkey, he moved around a lot as a kid and was raised all over the world—Egypt, Mexico, Germany, Iran and Malawi. That early sense of worldliness surfaced in various forms of wisdom about international relations in Athens Clash’s discovery, but it comes full circle in Strummer’s post-Clash work, particularly with the Mescaleros, represented in this collection by remastered tracks like “Yalla Yalla” and “Sand Paper Blues,” along with hard-to-find gems like “Afro Cuban Be-Bop” from the soundtrack to 1990 Finnish comedy I Hired a Contract Killer. (For Strummer’s most exhilarating foray into world music, check out his incredible 2001 record with The Mescaleros, Global a Go-Go, represented here by the seminal “Johnny Appleseed” and a shorter cut of the album’s “Minstrel Boy” from the Black Hawk Down OST.)
Strummer’s many soundtrack contributions here further suggest that he used the gigs as opportunities to further flex his experimentations with genre. “Love Kills”, from the Sid & Nancy OST, which jumpstarted his soundtrack career after The Clash disbanded in ‘86, is an unrepentantly overproduced ‘80s groover; Thee tracks from his soundtrack to the 1993 indie film When Pigs Fly, in which Alfred Molina played a down and out jazz musician living in a town of Irish Immigrants, let Strummer apply his brilliance to a more acoustic pop palette. “Tennessee Rain” off the soundtrack to 1987’s Walker, meanwhile, is a full on American folk classic, a style he would later lean in to on the Mescaleros track “Johnny Appleseed” but never fully embrace.
Walker tells the story of a titular American lawyer who named himself president of Nicaragua, and Strummer played a small part in the film as he did in Contract Killer (for my favorites of his roles, treat yourself to Jarmusch’s Mystery Train or the Clash classic, Rude Boy). These camels not only demonstrate how artistically invested Strummer was in every project that he attached his name to, but the fact that he used these career opportunities (sorry) to keep telling his eclectic, worldly story and amplify the voices of those who would otherwise remain unheard.
This perhaps comes through strongest in “Generation”, Strummer’s opening track on the 1997 comp, Generations 1: A Punk Look at Human Rights, recorded with Chris Miller and John Jennings as Electric Dog House. His collaboration with Jimmy Cliff, “On the Border”, meanwhile reminds us that Strummer’s dalliances into dub were genuinely arrived at and heartfelt (and that Cliff would return the favor by covering “Guns of Brixton” in 2012).
The greatest gems on Strummer 001 are its unreleased tracks, though, and they are worth the price alone: a pre-Clash demo of “Letsgetabitarockin” from his first band, the 101ers, was found by his friend, Julian Yewdall, sealed in an envelope and placed in his bank vault to preserve the copyright; an early version of “This is England” called “Czechoslovak Song”/“Where is England” will make Clash fans salivate; a pair of unreleased tracks from the Sid & Nancy OST highlight Strummer’s post-Clash stylistic metamorphosis—“Crying on 23rd” gallops with a punk strut, while “2 Bullets”, recorded with Pearl Harbour, again makes us long for the full-on Americana record Strummer never made. Unreleased gem “The Cool Impossible”, meanwhile, suggests Strummer could have made an incredible jazz record, too, had he wanted to.
An educational, revelatory and lovingly compiled retrospective, Strummer 001 makes clear that Strummer’s mercurial genre-hopping was but a vessel for his philosophies on how the societies of the world treated each other, illuminated by strong songwriting and a truly global groove. The included notebook of lyrics, photos, doodles and musings, meanwhile, shows the inner thoughts (and meticulous recording processes) of a man always conscious of how he might best use that privileged worldview to shine a light on the dispossessed.