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October 14, 2015

Interview: Xavier Rudd -A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought


Australian musician Xavier Rudd has been singing and performing for more than a decade now. Best known as a kind of one man band, appearing on stage surrounded by an array of yidakis (digeridoos), a guitar across his lap and his feet pounding out the rhythm with a stomp box, his latest album, Nanna, released in May of 2015, saw him working will a full band, The United Nations, for the first time.

While there have always been hints of reggae in his music, Nanna, saw him embrace the genre whole heartedly to great effect. While he's never been shy about throwing his heart and soul into his music before, it seems reggae has given him the means to take everything to a higher level. Anyone who has been listening to his music for any length of time will quickly realize how this album was a natural progression in his musical evolution.
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Currently Rudd is on his second tour of the United States and Canada with United Nations and I was able to catch up with him on the phone on October 12 2015. Considering how some of his material deals with the mistreatment of indigenous people, especially the Aboriginals of his native Australia, the irony of talking to him on what's called Columbus Day in the US (Thanksgiving in Canada) wasn't lost on me.

This is the third time I've talked to Rudd over the course of his career, and each time I've come away impressed by how open and sincere he is. There are plenty of musicians and actors who after they've made it big throw their names behind causes, but those whose output is a organic extension of their beliefs are few and far between. With Rudd you quickly realize the music and the beliefs are one. There's no disconnection between who he is and what he sings about. Even better is how well this translates into music that moves both your heart and feet.

The time constraints of the journalistic interview don't allow for much more than scratching the surface, but hopefully this little introduction to Rudd will encourage you to both check out his recordings and go see him in during his current tour.

How has the transition been from basically a one man show to a band? What have the differences been?

I guess musically the biggest difference was I got use to taking up real estate by myself on stage and in the music; making sound as fat as I could. I had to learn to keep my parts thin but creative - to give enough room for everyone else. The playing in the band, and all the members, such a powerful and interesting experience, something I've always wanted - and this was something, special. The connection to the others while playing was great. It may not last for a long time, probably just this album, but I've felt really honoured to play with these people.

What is it about reggae that appeals to you so much?

I've been always liked it, the bass, the vibrations, and the expressions of unity and all love. I love where it puts people and how brings people together. It's also a good platform for expressing various thoughts and ideas. I've brought people from different cultures together, from all over the world, for this band - our ancestors decided to have a cup of tea together - that music was the right platform for this meeting.

When you're bringing that kind of story, the story of struggle and rising up and displacement in modern culture - bringing that discussion to a musical forum - reggae is a good base for that - a good easy base. It's like being able to talk to grandma because she's soft and easy, while you can't talk so much to grandpa because he's hard and stern.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your songs from?

Life in general, spirit. I never sit down and try to write a song, they just come through me. They'll come through thick and fast and almost write themselves sometimes. I don't write them down, the ones that stay with me are the ones that stay with me and become songs. The same thing with the lyrics. They are usually attached to part of something on my personal journey - or spirit.

Why are the themes of respect for indigenous peoples expressed in your songs so important to you?

Honestly, I think it's because my great grandmother disappeared. No one knows what happened to her- she vanished - we don't know what that story was. It's a big black hole in my father's family. I genuinely feel there's been an old woman with me since I was a little boy. Her spirit rests somewhere inside me.

I went to Canberra (capital city of Australia) to a register of Aboriginal people and I put her name into a computer. The only listing I could find was for a woman who was murdered in 1951, the killer was never found. I don't know if that was her or not. A lot of aboriginal people just disappeared like that.

I think a lot of my music comes from that space. My understanding of Australian society and the oppression of a people.

At this point I mentioned to him how the day before our interview I had come across an article about one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movements in the US from the 1960s, John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute upon accepting their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The picture shows a third man as well, a white man, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.

It turns out he supported and encouraged them, and joined them in wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. As a result he was shunned by the Australian government when he returned home, and in spite of owning the Australian record for the 200 sprint to this day, he was erased from their history books and never allowed to compete again. It wasn't until 2012, six years after his death in 2006, the Australian Parliament apologized to his family. In 2006 Carlos and Smith travelled to Australia to be pall bearers at his funeral.

Rudd wasn't familiar with the photo, nor did he know who Norman was, but he thanked me for the information. All of which led us to the next question about West Australia and its current treatment of the Aboriginal population

Is the grab for indigenous homelands still going on? Have the people been evicted?

It's still going on, it's all about natural resources. Western Australia - is one of the last great wildernesses areas of the planet - we were able to band together and stop one of the biggest gas operations a while back - but under that same land there's everything you can think of resource wise. The Western Australia (state) government, I got in trouble for saying in a Canadian paper they're corrupt, so let's just say they're dodgy government, is all about resources - all about land grabbing. They've been using political moves to trick or convince aboriginal people to give them their land for development. People were moved forcibly from their homelands, with comments made to the press about rampant alcoholism and abandoned home to make it seem necessary.
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How do you deal with what seems like so much antipathy towards the changes your music expresses? You sing about people coming together and all the time politicians are playing up fear and hatred to win elections

I don't really care. (We laughed) My interests are deeper thing that. My interests are in creation, our earth is a lot stronger and greater than we give her credit for. Politicians and what we do are small little grains of sand in creation. Sure I get frustrated and upset by what's going on around but doing something like sitting with a tree, keeping connected to the planet, helps remind me of what's important.

There was a time when we were energetically connected to the land in order to survive. In a lot of people's minds that seems like a fantasy, but it's what reminds us of our place in existence. If everyday one or two humans connect to the earth and remember this, there's always hope. She will take care of us if we let her, the planet is a big thing - its much bigger than you can hope.

You know I was in San Francisco and was in Golden Gate Park and the Blue Angels were doing an air show. They were doing their fly pass and it was really loud. They were doing their acrobatics, and they're really good, and all these people were standing and watching them. But I couldn't help thinking these things cost I don't know how many millions of dollars and were the types of planes which dropped bombs on people.

They flew through in formation and then flew out again, and while people were waiting for them to come back a flock of birds flew through in perfect formation - one of them dived down to scoop up a fish. I remember thinking, no matter how expensive those planes are, none of them can do that - dive down and pick up a fish. Nobody else seemed to notice the birds.

So I saw Surfer Dude a few years ago, and was surprised to hear your music in it. How did that come about?

Matt (Matthew McConaughey) contacted me and asked if I would do some music for the film. I chose some songs from various places, but to be honest I sort of lost interest in the project. There was this music producer who added stuff to my songs which hadn't been there to begin with and I ended up never even seeing the movie. It was an experience.

(Me:The best part of the movie was Willie Nelson as a goat farmer) I never got to meet Willie, but I do like Matt and Woody (Woody Harrelson who was also in the movie).

And that was all we had time for. We had talked briefly about me having seen Peter Tosh in 1980 and the Toronto reggae scene of the late 70s and 80s and touched on a few other areas of mutual interest, but that was about it. Xavier Rudd is one of the most genuine people I've spoken to, and he believes what he says with his heart and soul. However, in neither his music nor his words do you ever get the feeling he's preaching or trying to convert you. This is just who he is.

Information on the rest of his North American tour can be found at the tours page of his web site, but he's currently making his way up the North American West Coast. He' almost done in the States (Austin, Dallas, Taos, Denver, Park City, Portland and Seattle October 14-21 respectively).

Then he hits Canada going West to East with two shows in Vancouver (October 22 +23rd) and two in the British Columbia interior (Duncan (24th) and Nelson (26th). Then he's on to Calgary (27th), Edmonton (29th) in Alberta, Saskatoon Saskatchewan on the 30th and finishes with the Prairies in Winnipeg Manitoba on the 31st. November sees him in Sherbrooke Quebec on the 3rd, St. Casimir on the 4th and Montreal on the 5th. The 6th and the 7th sees him in Toronto and Ottawa respectively than back to Quebec again to finnish off in Quebec City.

If you have the chance go and see him you won't regret it. The music is great and it will be an experience you won't forget.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Interview: Xavier Rudd - A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought)

March 18, 2015

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & The United Nations - Nanna


Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations, released on March 17 2015 in North and South America on the Nettwerk Label, is the latest release from Australia's multi-instrumentalist Rudd. However, unlike previous albums this CD sees him accompanied by a full band for the first time. While he's occasionally been joined by a drummer and bassist in the studio or on the road, he's been best known as a kind of one man band; playing drums with his feet, lap guitar and yidaki (indigenous Australian instrument often wrongly called didgeridoo). So the multi-national nine piece band joining him now is quite a change of pace.

What hasn't changed is Rudd's ability to create message oriented songs where the music is just as important as the lyrics without detracting from the ideas he's trying to express. At various points in his career Rudd has shown an affinity for reggae music, including a wonderful cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" on his second release Solace. So it shouldn't shock anyone that he's taken the opportunity of working with The United Nations to make what is primarily a reggae album. For those familiar with his previous discs, the themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples and their beliefs expressed on this release shouldn't be a surprise either. He has never shied away from singing about what he's passionate about, however, this album takes it to a whole new level.
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In fact some people might be a little off put by the message he's expressing. It runs pretty much counter to almost everything you read or hear in the media today. Instead of propagating commercialism or expressing a political agenda, his songs are advocating finding a better way to live. On the disc's 10th track, "Warrior", he sings, "If she could take him by the hand/and together they could change the world/abolish greed from every man/and spread their medicine throughout the world/and every sun would rise and fall/and restore complete balance on the earth/a brand new chance for one and all".

His songs aren't just about saving the planet, they're also about personal growth, and learning how to live with yourself or with others. Both the first single from the release, "Come People" (track four) and "Struggle" (track 11) express this on various levels. In the latter he says, "One two three four,/positively close the door./Five six seven eight/spread your light radiate./ I'm moving slowly/positive diligent/what other people think of you/is none of your business."

Some of you are probably squirming in your seats after reading those two quotes. What kind of new age clap trap is this guy spouting? However, step back a second, and think about what's going on in the world these days. Governments in North America and Australia are continuing their practices of expropriating land granted to their respective indigenous populations in order to exploit them for natural resources. In the process the land is being rendered unusable because of pollution and the disruption of ecosystems.

People are killing each other all over the world because of religion and the desire to impose their point view on everybody else. As a species we are rapidly descending into a place where the world is divided into those who oppose us and those who are with us. So, just maybe, a voice which pleas for understanding and unity, no matter how he says it, deserves to be listened to without judgement or cynicism.

The other thing you have to consider is the sincerity of the person behind the message. Rudd has never shied away from his indigenous spiritual roots (he's of mixed Aboriginal and European decent). The songs on this release are simply the most open he's ever been in expressing them. However, he's not saying they are the only way of being, he's just asking us to not to ignore what we can learn from people who have a close spiritual connection to the planet. As he says on the CD's fifth track, "Sacred", "I believe we are one and we are sacred", stressing his belief there is common ground between all people if we're only willing to look for it.

Something which listeners in North America and Europe may not be familiar with are the references to indigenous Australian spirituality. Even some of the language used in songs is unique to its people - in fact the language sung in the disc's title song, "Nanna", Jandai, is considered extinct. Which is ironic considering the lullaby was written and sung by Georgia Corowa, one of United Nation's vocalists.
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Adding the disc's Australian flavour is the fact the majority of the band are from either Australia or some its neighbouring islands in the South Pacific. Aside from Rudd and Corowa, Chris Lane, flute, Peter Hunt, trumpet, Alicia Mellor, vocals and Uncle Eddie Elias, keyboards are all from Australia, with the latter two having connections with Papua New Guinea as well. Percussionist/ drummer Bobby Alu is from Samoa originally, while Tio Lerothodi Moloantoa on bass is South African and Yeshe Reiners, world percussion and ngoni (African stringed instrument) was born in Germany. Each of them bring their own musical experiences and backgrounds to the album, and this combination is what distinguishes it from your typical reggae recording.

For while the unmistakeable reggae backbeat and syncopation can be heard in most of the songs, Rudd and company do a fine job of adding new flavours to an old recipe. Some of the songs have more of a calypso swing to them, while others aren't going to be easily defined as any one particular genre. The end result is a beautiful polyphonic mix of sound which seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Rudd's lyrics.

The message on Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations is not going to be everyone's taste. Some might think it too idealistic or too radical. However, in a world full of radical problems, radical solutions which don't advocate violence or hatred shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Whatever you might think of this disc, musically or lyrically, they're can be no denying the passion and belief permeating it. This is a great album of wonderful music and thought provoking lyrics. If you come to it with an open mind, it might just change your heart.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Xavier Rudd and The United Nations - Nanna - New Release From Australia's Eco Warrior)

March 22, 2014

Music Review: IR 29.1: New Generation Dub


One of the biggest crimes committed by the music industry has been their ability to co-opt, dilute and turn even the most radical of genres into something safe for mass consumption. Disco, punk and rap have all been taken and watered down so they would sell in Peoria. Even worse is how the industry corrupts these forms, turning them inside out, so instead of preaching against the injustices which brought the genres into existence, they become something promoting the very things causing the inequities railed against. While disco was turned into mindless dance music for social climbers and punk became new wave and all about dressing well, what was done to rap/dub music was by far the most horrendous.

Rap/dub, the art of free association spoken word poetry/singing being recited over somebody mixing sounds on a couple of turntables, was born out of necessity. It was a cheap and easy way to make music and to relate information to large numbers of people. Individuals, Afrika Bambaataa and groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, took existing recorded music, LPs in the early days, and by manipulating the vinyl and mixing the sound of two turn tables together, would create rhythms and beats for songs, like "The Message", that spoke of modern African American frustration with the poverty, crime and drug use they saw around them.

So, its heartening to know there are those in the world who still see the potential for rap/dub music as an instrument for change and education. As I mentioned in my review of IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub elsewhere on this site, the grass roots organization The Fire This Time (TFTT), has established the record label, IR (Indigenous Resistance) produce rap/dub music which speaks to the plight of indigenous people all over the world. In order to facilitate the making of this music they have established a freedub page where musicians, poets and songwriters can upload and download mp3s for the sole purpose of creating new songs. Thus musicians from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific can exchange ideas with people across the North America and create material which speaks to the plight of indigenous people everywhere.
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Their latest release, IR 29.1: New Generation Dub available for purchase as a download through Bandcamp not only is a great example of how this system works, it also shows there is more to this genre of music than most of us think. There are only four music tracks on the release, its being promoted as the first of two parts, hence the title 29.1, but they're plenty to give you both an introduction to the type of music they create and the ideas and hopes they are trying to propagate.

The second track on the release, "IR Dravidian: Earth & Life: Dr. Das Ambient Mix", is not only a great example of how their international community of artists work together to create songs, but shows you how hip hop/dub/rap can be so much more than what we hear on commercial radio. This track had been originally recorded as "Dravidian Spirit" by DJ Soundar of Asian Dub Foundation but has been remixed for this recording by Jamaican musician Dr. Das. Not having heard the original I can't comment on the impact the changes have made to the song. However I can tell you its a powerful mix of language and music which not only communicates an intellectual message but creates a strong spiritual and emotional foundation for the ideas expressed.

The Dravidian of the title are the Indigenous people of South India who have been gradually marginalized by the majority Brahmin-Aryan peoples for thousands of years according to DJ Soundar. Their culture dates back at least 6,000 years and the percussion rhythms you hear on this track are Dravidian. A quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica for keyboards and percussion, then down to Bogota Colombia for the sound of children reading a passage of the Tried & True: Revelations Of A Rebellious Youth by dub Jamaican writer Dutty Bookman. Finally there's a quick side trip up to North America for the words of Native American poet/activist/musician John Trudell which were recorded by Bookman for this mix.
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What's wonderful about this mix is how well all the seemingly disparate sounds, languages and ideas are blended together to create a unified message. Built around the core of Trudell's words about the nature of power, how people are being misled into believing money and the political vote are the true sources of power when they are merely manifestations of greed and exploitation ("We are connected to the real power source which is life and earth") the music is both ethereal and grounded enough so its message is emotionally and intellectually real.

Unlike most politically oriented music which tends towards the polemic, the music on IR 29.1: New Generation Dub doesn't ignore its media's role in conveying the message. The tracks on this recording work on multiple levels, reflecting the artists' concerns with conveying both a political message to the world at large and a reminder to their indigenous audience to never forget who they are and where they came from. The spiritual messages found in these songs aren't meant to make non-indigenous people feel better about themselves and their exploitation of the world like the ones found in New Age bookstores. Instead they're a means of reinforcing the cultural identity of those who have been the victim of systemic cultural genocide.

If you're like me, and the sound of rap/hip hop blaring from some car's souped up sound system is usually enough to hope the vehicle will blow up on the downbeat, these tracks are a revelation. They show that dub music can be more than just mindless noise and used as a viable tool for self-expression. With contributors from literally every corner of the world, this truly international collaboration gives voice to the concerns of indigenous people all over the globe while allowing each distinct culture to shine through.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review IR 29.1: New Generation Dub)

January 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Harder They Come


While it might surprise some people, there was a time when hardly anyone in North America knew what reggae music sounded like. Of course this was back in the dark ages of the early 1970s. For most people in North America their introduction to reggae came via Bob Marley and the Wailers. However, some us discovered its joys from an another source, the soundtrack album from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come. While some of the songs were in mono, and some of the recordings weren't of the highest quality, the music represented a broad cross section of music that had been or was being produced in Kingston Jamaica at the time.

Names like Desmond Decker, Toots and The Maytels and others with equally exotic sounding names, some whose music would never be heard again (according to the liner notes on the LP one of the artists on the album was in jail and one was on death row at the time of its release). However, the man whose career both the LP and movie really helped kickstart was both the movie's star and the singer and writer of the best songs on the soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff. Ironically, while the soundtrack to the movie has been fairly easy to come by since its release, actually seeing the movie has been another matter all together.

Thankfully, its now being made available for audiences through the online digital service VHX and i-Tunes through a distribution deal with Syndctd Entertainment. I say thankfully, because I've been wanting to see this movie for decades and having finally been given the chance, I can say not only wasn't I disappointed, it actually exceeded my expectations.
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The movie follows the life of Jimmy Cliff's character Ivan from the moment he leaves his life in the country to try and begin something new in Kingston, Jamaica. While his eyes are filled with stars and hopes for the future, he gets off to a bad start when all his possessions are stolen almost the minute he gets off the bus. It's not a very promising start for the young man, and it also foreshadows much of what will happen to him in the future. For Ivan discovers, no matter what he tries, the odds are stack against him of ever getting ahead.

While he dreams of becoming a famous musician he discovers that's not going to be the road to fame he thinks it is. When he is able to finally record his song he finds he either has to take the record companies lousy deal of selling it for $20.00, or nobody will ever hear it played. Even when he turns to selling marijuana to make a living he finds things just as stacked against him. The system is tightly controlled by the police and their chosen dealers. When he begins to demand more of a share of the profits for himself and his fellow distributers he's branded a trouble maker. He becomes a genuine outlaw when he shoots the police officers sent to bring him in and teach him a lesson. Ironically, as his outlaw/hero status grows sales of his record increase making him even idol for the poor and oppressed of Kingston's shanty towns.

The movie plays out like a cross between the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the day and an exercise in social realism. Cliff's character is not a likeable person. He's not really interested in anything except getting ahead, or as the song "The Harder They Come" says, "So as sure as the sun will shine/I'm going to get my share now of what's mine/And then the harder they come the harder they fall one and all". While the song's lyrics might sound like a rallying cry for the poor and oppressed to demand their rights, in the context of the movie and the character of Ivan it's not quite so altruistic. Ivan wants his chance at the good life, just like everyone else. The big cars, the flashy clothes and the idolization of the masses. He wants celebrity.

While he might not get celebrity, he gets the next best thing, notoriety. When his name is splashed all over the newspapers as Kingston's most wanted for killing three cops his only comment is, "See I told you I'd become famous". What's frightening about this is how much it foreshadows what's to come in the inner cities of North America. How whole generations of inner city young men, and women to some extent, have been forced to follow the same path of greed and violence by a society which offers them no alternatives. How's a person like Ivan supposed to react to a culture which tells him a man's worth is measured by what he is able to amass materially?
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He has a real talent and the hopes and dreams that come with it. When he discovers his talent only exists for others to exploit, and he won't reap any of its benefits, he naturally becomes bitter and looks for a way to get his own. The system seems to designed to keep him and everyone else like him in their place and make sure the wealth only stays in the hands of the few. Ivan's descent, or ascent, depending on how you look at it, into the role of the outlaw, is almost out of his own hands. As soon as he makes the decision to demand a larger share of the pie, whether from his music or from drug money, his fate is sealed.

One thing anyone who watches this newly remastered version of the movie will quickly become aware of is the inconsistency of its quality. Unfortunately we're talking about a movie which was filmed over forty years ago and under less than ideal conditions as it was made on location in Kingston. I've a feeling this cut was pieced together from various prints of the film in order to try and make it as good as possible. However, the final result appears a little piecemeal. For instance, some of the scenes contain sub-titles while others don't (Most of the characters speak Jamaican patois with thick accents) and there doesn't appear to be any reason for their disappearance from one frame to the next. At other times the image quality changes radically from scene to scene, with the picture being washed out in one frame and clean the next.

However, you shouldn't let these technical anomalies deter you from shelling out the few dollars required to stream and download this movie. In some ways they actually give the film a stamp of authenticity. This is a raw and gritty depiction of life in the shanty towns of Kingston Jamaica where nothing is smooth or polished. There's nothing glamourous or sexy about the life these people lead, or the violence they are forced into. The movie's roughness around the edges ensures there's no chance of forming the wrong impression. You won't find any glorification of violence or the accumulation of wealth here, just an accurate depiction of how lives are ruined by both.

Of course, one of the biggest draws of the movie is still the soundtrack. This isn't the reggae were used to hearing either, it's what some would refer to as roots reggae I guess. It's rawer, and more pop influenced than what Marley and others made popular. However, it was the sound of Kingston in 1972. Some of it we only hear incidentally, over the radio, while some of it is played as part of the soundtrack, but all of it helps build the atmosphere of the desperate life these people were leading in the early 1970s. The slums of Kingston were the crucible which gave reggae its shape and its context, and the music heard in this movie shows its birth pangs and what it had to fight against in order to be heard.

After seeing this movie you'll gain a better understanding of just why Marley is such a cultural icon in Jamaica and why Peter Tosh was assassinated by unknown gunmen for being so outspoken. Reggae was the sound of hope for a better future and reflected the fears and ambitions of the poorest people in Kingston. Watching The Harder They Come gives you a pretty damn good idea of how this came about. Not only is it an interesting and well told story, its just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. For all those who wonder where the disaffected youth willing to turn themselves into walking bombs come from, watching this movie will tell you all you need to know.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Movie Review: The Harder They Come)

December 14, 2013

Music Review: The Clash - Special Edition Releases


I remember a conversation I had with my brother when I was a teenager. He asked me if I thought I would still be listening to any of the music I liked then when I was 50. At the time it seemed like it was an eternity in the future, our parents weren't even that age. However, it did make me think. What would happen to my tastes in music as I aged? Looking at my parents record collections didn't bring me much solace as it was predominately classical music with a couple of token collections of old socialist/union songs.

As the years passed I forgot the conversation and never really gave it much thought again. My musical tastes have broadened and I listen to material from all over the world. I've come to appreciate the sublime beauty of a Brahms concerto but am equally moved by classical music from Persia (Iran) and India. However, like most everyone else these days, a quick glance through my iPod's playlist is probably the best indication of where my heart really lies. While you'll find an eclectic mix of music reflecting my various interests, you'll also notice a predominance of music from thirty to forty years ago, with one band in particular standing out among the others.

In their heyday The Clash were referred to as "The Only Band That Matters". While that may not be a title any band can legitimately lay claim to I listen to them today at 52 just as often and with as much enjoyment as I did over three decades ago. I still say the best rock and roll concert I ever saw was seeing them in 1982. They might have been on the downward end of their career as a band, but they were still the most dynamic rock and roll band I'd ever seen. This may sound like the typical nostalgia of an old geezer going on about the bands of his youth, but I'm not the only one who thinks they were important as Legacy Recordings has just re-released all five of the band's original studio recordings re-mastered by the band's surviving members and in their original album packaging.
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The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are the legacy of the original core of the band: Joe Strummer guitar and vocals, Mick Jones guitar and vocals and Paul Simonon bass. Terry Chimes (credited on the first album as Terry Crimes) played drums on the first release and returned to the band for their 1982 tour after Topper Headon, who had replaced him on drums for all the subsequent albums, was fired because of his heroin addiction. Crimes then left the band again prior to 1983 and was replaced by Pete Howard for what would be the final tour. Strummer fired Jones in 1983 and the band staggered on until 1986, releasing Cut The Crap (an album Strummer later disowned) before they finally broke up.

In many ways The Clash were the epitome of the punk scene. They were raw energy which couldn't be contained and eventually self-destructed like the scene itself. Punk's "do it yourself" ethos couldn't stand up to the corporate reality of the music industry as even signing a recording contract would mean surrendering some of your independence. Becoming successful would almost contradict everything punk was supposed to have been against - the bloated self-importance of rock stars living in old castles and driving around in Rolls Royces while their fans were kept at a distance by managers, promoters and record companies.

However, The Clash weren't your typical punk band, or band of any kind for that matter. Strummer, the driving force behind the band, was a committed social activist who idolized political songwriters of the past like Woody Guthrie - even calling himself "Woody" for a time. While bands like the Sex Pistols were singing songs about anarchy and destruction, Strummer pushed The Clash in a different direction attacking what he saw as the inequities and injustices in Britain and the world. Songs like "White Riot", about riots by white supremacists during the West Indian celebration of Carnival in 1976, "I'm So Bored With The USA", condemning the Americanization of the UK, and "Career Opportunities" about the lack of real employment for young people in the UK, on The Clash were an early indication of the direction the band was taking. Instead of just being angry, they articulated the reasons for people's dissatisfaction.

There were also indications right from the start they were going to be more than just your average thrash and burn punk band musically as well. Their cover of "Police and Thieves" shows both Jones' and Strummer's interest in reggae. The social and political themes continued on the second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, as did the continued development of a more sophisticated sound. While there are still straight ahead blast the walls down punk songs like "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" there were also tracks like "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad" with its slower pace and more intricate harmonies and "All The Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)" whose almost catchy beat is only offset by the song's rather bleak chorus, "All the young punks/Laugh your life/Cos there ain't much to cry for/All the young cunts/Live it now/Cos there ain't much to die for".
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It was their third and fourth albums, London Calling and Sandinista, when the band really kicked out the jams both musically and lyrically. London Calling, a two album set, featuring songs like the title track, "London Calling" and "Waiting for The Clampdown" continued the band's assault upon the establishment. However, it also featured songs which were far sophisticated then any other punk band had previously attempted. Jazz, rockabilly, and reggae influences could be heard on songs throughout the album. However, it still retains the same sense of urgency and social outrage which had infused the first two albums making it punk in spirit if not necessarily musically.

Those who felt The Clash were straying too far from the basic punk structure of three chords played extra fast with London Calling discovered they hadn't seen anything yet with the release of the triple LP Sandinista. While the album's title, and songs like "Washington Bullets", with their support of the overthrow of the American dictatorship in Nicaragua by the left wing Sandinistas, made it obvious their politics hadn't changed, musically the material was light years removed from the material on the first two albums and even made London Calling look safe. They went in almost every musical direction possible. From the straight ahead funk of "The Magnificent Seven" to their homage to Motown with "Hitsville UK" and experimentation with reggae dub style music.In fact most of side six are dub versions of other songs on the album and songs they had previously released which they recorded in Jamaica with producer Micky Dread. They even did their version of a gospel tune, "The Sound of Sinners", although its lyrics would have left most Christians gasping and reeling, "After all these years/ To find Jesus/After all those drugs/ I thought I was him".

They also showed they had developed a surprising amount of political sophistication on this release as they didn't limit themselves to easy political targets in order to score points with the converted. They tackled the thorny issue of England's neglect of those who fought in her wars in the past with "Something About England". While the title "Washington Bullets" would make one think the song was only about America's history of propping up dictators, the band also included lines in the song like, "Ask the Dali Lama up in Tibet/ How he feels about voting communist". They also were the first band to sing about how Western commercialism was impacting the developing world with the biting and satirical "Charlie Don't Surf".

Sandinista may not have appealed to those fans who thought the band should have stayed firmly stuck in the past playing the same music they had started out with. However, unlike many bands who had put out three album sets before, each disc remains, interesting to this day. You can't find anything you would even remotely call filler or wasted space anywhere. The band also insisted their label at the time charge no more than the price of a regular single album when it was first released, ensuring everybody would be able to afford to buy it. This combined with their continued refusal to conform to anyone's expectations musically and their insistence on sticking to their political guns marked them as punks in attitude and spirit.
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While Combat Rock might have been their most commercially successful album, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah" are the two songs you'll hear played most often on "Classic Rock" radio stations, to my mind it was their weakest album and the one I've listened to the least. Although still far more interesting than what most bands were putting out at the time, there was something about the disc which felt almost half-hearted. Maybe it's only applying 20/20 hindsight, but when the news came out that Mick Jones had been fired from the band in 1983, it didn't come as much of a surprise. It had really felt like the band was only going through the motions and the end was near.

The Clash released five albums during the five years the band contained the core of Strummer, Jones and Simonon. Not only does that work out to an album a year, two of those recordings were multi-disc releases making a total of eight albums. They also released a couple of EPs of material they weren't able to fit on other recordings. Listening to these five albums more then thirty years after their release it's amazing to hear the amount the band progressed in such a short time. Musically and lyrically they singlehandedly redefined punk rock by showing it could be more than the simplistic sound of bands like The Ramones or the pure anarchy of The Sex Pistols. They were one of the few bands who demonstrated punk was more than just a style of music, it was an ethos. Speaking out against injustice, spitting in the eye of authority and always playing by your own rules. Which is probably why I can still happily listen to anyone of their albums at the ripe old age of 52. It's not a matter of recapturing my youth, it's a matter of reminding myself what's important. For me, they will always be The Only Band That Matters.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: The Clash Special Edition Releases. A version of this review was also published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review The Clash - 'The Clash', 'Give 'Em Enough Rope', 'London Calling', 'Sandinista' and 'Combat Rock' [Remastered])

November 11, 2012

Music Review: Joe Stummer and The Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-G0 & Streetcore


It's been nearly ten years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of fifty. Born John Graham Mellor he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain's punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.

In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the lose of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years it just wasn't the same.
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For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan's drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band's name implies, they were also far more a reflexion of Strummer's interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.

Over the course of three years and three albums the band's line up was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent line up doesn't seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer's creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records' newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A GoGo and Streetcore you'll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.

While there are obvious similarities between Srummer's work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren't an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with the first band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London England Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn't help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.

The first Mescaleros' disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, "Yalla Yalla" has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you'd never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It's hard to describe as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there's the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it's the sound of Strummer's singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. "Well so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/not in my time/Not in my son's/And daughter's time."
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Even sung to the melodic tune of the song those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing its a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer's best work "Yalla Yalla" isn't just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I'd say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.

Global A Go-Go saw the band's line up changed to include Strummer's old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence but this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer's music didn't change, the scope of the band's means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc's title: "Strummer's world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known...Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns."

Yet what continued to make Strummer's music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that's as funny and cheerful as "Bhindi Bhagee". Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighbourhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. "Welcome stranger to the humble neighbourhood/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus...Welcome stranger, there's no danger." Typical of Strummer the song has a point, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way.
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Strummer died before the release of the band's third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died the remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in. From his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, "Before I Grow Too Old", retitled here as "Silver and Gold", to his writing of "Long Shadow" in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash's repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know/You don't face your demons down/you grab them by the collar/and you wrestle them to the ground."

Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash's guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that he had made in Rick Rubin's studio (the man who produced and recorded Cash's "American" albums). It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, "Coma Girl" and "Get Down Moses" will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.

As lead singer for The Clash Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there's no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn't produce the same volume of material as his first band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go & Streetcore on Blogcritics.)

September 27, 2012

Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years


The performers I've always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I'm concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.

A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer's 60th birthday (August 21 2012) its only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. For not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art And The X-Ray Style,Global A Go Go and Streetcore) it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of b-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
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With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer's musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can't focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, "Rudi, A Message To You". He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact he doesn't really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.

"Rudi" is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop". The three were originally released as the b-side for the single of the Mescaleros' song "Coma Girl". Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There's the social political statement of "The Harder They Come" followed by the still political, but light hearted fun of "Rudi" and finally the raw anarchy/power of "Blitzkrieg Bop". From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat - it's almost his career in a nutshell.

I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or to his 17 plus minute "Minstrel Boy" and you'll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if its a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music. "So won't you help to sing/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/redemption songs/these songs of freedom/these songs of freedom". He sings it so simply and honestly it's hard not to think its his way of telling people what he's been trying to do all for all he years of his career..

On the other hand "Minstrel Boy" is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty, as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere and instrumentation, but there's also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn't happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, "Minstrel Boy" doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. There's no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, its just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It's like Stummer wants to remind everybody there's nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
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While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like "Rudi, A Message To You" and the Clash's "Junko Partner" and breathing new life into them. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash twenty years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, "Bank Robber", "White Riot" and "London's Burning" is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren't just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.

The concert at Acton Town Hall in London England from which these live tracks were taken was on November 15 2002 and turned out to be the second last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22 2002. Strummer was fifty years old when he died and there's no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation it was classic Strummer. A mix of the hard driving and political; "Get Down Moses" and "Coma Girl", the introspective; "Redemption Song" and folk music; "Long Shadow", written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.

Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost fifteen years after they disbanded. The new digital only collection Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post Clash career, its a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It's probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hard core Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years on Blogcritics.)