A Boston rock critic goes back in time in a birthday salute to legendary Clash frontman
August 21st, 2018 would have been Joe Strummer’s 66th birthday. The first time I saw Joe Strummer it was February 1979, the Clash having – finally – embarked upon their first United States tour, nearly two years after the release of their stunning, import-only first album. The show was at the Harvard Square Theatre, then a large single room, and the stoked audience rose en masse as the Clash took the stage. Strummer – wound up tight, dressed in black, right foot tapping an agitated beat – barked out the first song, “I’m So Bored With the USA.” There was a sense of right righteousness, rage, and catharsis – and an immediate bonding of band and audience.
The last time I saw Strummer was October of 2001, fronting his band, the Mescaleros, at the Palladium in Worcester. Strummer took the stage with his backing quintet, the Mescaleros, with a large US flag hung behind the stage. Strummer and company began with an instrumental Irish traditional song, “The Minstrel Boy,” a tune that’s been played at many of the funeral services for the New York firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks. Times change; people change.
Strummer – singing with squinty eyes, often facing the side of the stage, dressed as always in black, and hammering out rhythm guitar chords – looks pretty much the same as he ever did, which is to say sharp and impassioned. Long ago (with the Clash and beyond), he broke from the fast-loud-short orthodoxy of punk and moved to incorporate a world of sounds: dub, reggae, rap, funk, Celtic, Middle Eastern, and more. That’s the journey on which Strummer remains two albums deep into the Mescaleros era, which seems to have rejuvenated him. Their two-hour set had the feeling of a band working together, not a solo artist plus hired hands. The flavorful lead lines often came from fiddler Tymon Dogg (on his knees or on his feet), who also played Spanish guitar; Martin Slattery contributed on various keyboards and horns. The music is a crazy quilt of sounds; the mood these guys put across is one of, as Bob Marley once termed an album, positive vibrations.
As you’d expect, Strummer featured songs from the latest disc, Global a Go-Go – the title track, “Cool ‘N’ Out,” “Johnny Appleseed,” “Shaktar Donetsk,” “Bummed Out City,” and “Mega Bottle Ride.” The selections from the Clash’s catalog were, as expected if you’ve followed Strummer’s career, the slinky, more groove-oriented selections – “Armagideon Time,” “Bankrobber,” “Rudie Can’t Fail” – and the reggae covers: Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” and the ska-rock Specials’ song “A Message to You Rudy.” (The rapturously received nods to Clash punk came with “Police on My Back” and “London’s Burning.”)
You could say Strummer’s mind-set is more mellow – only if by “mellow” you don’t mean complacent and settled. His music is less agitated, less all-out galvanizing, more groove-centered and flowing. (Check out the live Clash disc From Here to Eternity if you want incendiary.) Strummer’s vocals were often lost in the somewhat echo- y sonics, but he’s never been, to these American ears, the most intelligible of singers. He had the company of numerous stage crashers and mike grabbers, all trying to claim a moment of glory and/ or share a vocal with their main man. Sometimes it came off as punk solidarity, but too often clueless crashers overstayed their welcome, had to be hauled off or pushed back into the crowd by security, and engendered boos from the large percentage of the 1,700 people there for the music, not the tiresome stage crash ‘n’ dive spectacle. There’s a fine line to walk there – you don’t want security brutalizing your most rabid fans, nor do you want the concert to descend into chaos.
The show ended, as it did at the previous one in New York, with a tribute to late Ramones singer Joey Ramone. Strummer and his gang played the Ramones’ concert opening salvo, “Blitzkrieg Bop” – with its “Hey ho, let’s go” optimism, sense of expectation, and, yes, cartoon violent imagery intact. These guys kept the song beating for maybe four minutes, just about doubling the original version. It proved to be a nice bracketing of the set – a somber tribute to New York’s finest at the onset and a raucous paean to New York’s finest punks at the end.
And now, back into the obit: In 1977, with the Sex Pistols and others, the Clash, cofronted by singer-guitarists Strummer and Mick Jones, brought politics to punk rock. It was the politics of rebel rock, of restless youth facing a life controlled by a rigid system. The Clash sprouted as Thatcherism ruled Britain and unemployment was rampant.
“He was the backbone to the whole punk thing, really,” said Steve Diggle of the band the Buzzcocks. “He was very humane, and he was a great punk orator as well, bringing a political and social awareness. Strummer’s songs challenge you to examine your life and find yourself through music.”
With their eponymous first album – and to some degree their second, Give ’em Enough Rope, and their third, London Calling, – the Clash laid down a sound and vision that would influence bands through the present day, including Green Day, Rancid, Blink 182, Sum 41, the Shods, Fear, Circle Jerks, Red Rockers, New Model Army, 311, Bad Religion, the Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Rage Against the Machine and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
The Clash’s major commercial breakthrough came with 1982’s Combat Rock, which yielded the hit “Rock the Casbah.” Jones and Strummer parted company in 1982. Strummer kept the Clash afloat with different players, but its days were numbered. Strummer and Jones had resisted attempts to reunite the band until, as fate would have it, a couple of weeks ago, when they shared the stage in London at Acton Town Hall in a benefit for London’s striking firefighters.
“I was with Mick Jones last Thursday,” said Diggle, “and he was saying how proud he was of those punk-rock days. There was talk of them finally getting back together for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing in May.”
Strummer’s influence wasn’t limited to who he once was or what he once did. With the Mescaleros in 1999, Strummer continued on the path he’d begun with the Clash on Sandinista! – a world of music that included dub, reggae, funk, Celtic, Middle Eastern, and Spanish styles. He titled his penultimate album Global A-Go-Go (his final LP, released in October of 2003, was titled Streetcore).
Strummer, who loved the myths of the American West, used to register in hotels under the name “Pat Garrett.” He even acted in a terrible western called Straight to Hell. He contributed music to the “Sid & Nancy” movie. He filled in as an acoustic guitarist on one Pogues tour; on another, in 1991, he took center stage, filling in for Shane MacGowan when the troubled singer went AWOL from the group.
Right up until the end, Strummer remained convinced music could bond and heal.
“He was one of the greatest rockers of all time on stage,” said Diggle. “He was a rocker of great depth. And he was very kind and sensitive and accessible.”