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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.)