Thursday, 18 June 2020

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros




Rock Art & The X-Ray Style (1999)


Tony Adams/Sandpaper Blues/X-Ray Style/Techno D-Day/Road To Rock 'n' Roll/Nitcomb/Diggin' The New/Forbidden City/Yalla Yalla/From Willesden To Cricklewood     

After several years in limbo after the decline and eventual disbandment of The Clash, Joe Strummer had not really released anything for around fifteen years, not much. He had been briefly involved with Clash bandmate Mick Jones on Big Audio Dynamite’s “No 10 Upping Street” in 1987, writing and playing/singing on several songs. Here, now, he was back, with a most impressive album, with his band, The Mescaleros.
          
Tony Adams (named after the Arsenal defender, who is mentioned vaguely, once, in some barely audible backing vocal sound effects) is a vibrant slice of rock/reggae and the instantly recognisable Strummer garbled, throaty vocal. This sounds like Radio Clash at some points, although there is a wailing saxophone on it that was a rarity for Clash recordings (some on Sandinsta! But it was not a regularity). The lyrics are the usual politically aware, but not quite sure what they’re all about style. They probably meant something to Joe, or maybe not. Either way, they always sounded credible, as they did on The Clash’s material. There is some vital, captivating instrumentation on this (particularly the bass and sax) and a really vivid atmosphere. A real urban, underground-ish vibe to it. Sort of late night and vaguely menacing.

Sandpaper Blues is a shuffling, rhythmic Latin-influenced lively number with influences from World Music. A West African lilting guitar underpins the backing and some Merengue-style rhythms together with some Sub-Saharan sounding backing vocals. Strummer has brought together all sorts of musical styles and influences on this album, those mentioned already plus a bit of Celtic folk as well. Some bongos and acoustic guitar usher in the melodic X-Ray Style. Strummer’s voice has a mournful sound here, almost like a weary man who has seen too much in his lifetime. Strummer actually references the Sub-Sahara in this song, so the influence must be real one! However, the sound on the song is more Latin. The bongos become more lively and impressive as it continues. A lovely Latin acoustic guitar part at the end too. Like with the material on Sandinista!, there is a real intention here to diversify and utilise multiple styles and influences, leading to a most interesting listen.

Techno D-Day is a grungy, infectious groove - thumping drums and scratchy electric guitar and an animated Strummer vocal. The guitar riff parts are strident, punchy and energetic. There are vague hints of The Clash’s Know Your Rights, I think, or maybe it is the lyrics about free speech. Road To Rock 'n' Roll is a bassy, slow-pace dance beat lament from Strummer, with him again sounding somewhat world-weary. The sadness has a poignancy to it, particularly considering Joe left us only a few years later. Nitcomb is another plaintive number, with Joe’s moving voice over a solid slow drum and guitar beat. These songs are all so emotive and stirring. The musical cognoscenti loved the album, but in many ways it slipped under the radar, which was a shame. Mix tracks from this with some of the best of Big Audio Dynamite’s first two albums and you have one hell of a Clash comeback album!

Diggin' The New is an uplifting pot boiler of a track at the beginning that has a rocky, upbeat chorus. Forbidden City has an understated appealing melody and another fetching vocal and hook. The infectious Yalla Yalla has one hell of a bass line and a mesmeric rhythm and more lyrics whose meaning are somewhat indecipherable. Sincere mentions of homelands and townships, but in what context, we will never know. It simply sounds as if it means something really profound. Melodically, it has hints of the later track, Coma Girl, in places. I really like it and together with the next track, provides a great ending to the album.

From Willesden To Cricklewood is just marvellously evocative, particularly for anyone who knows that area of North-West London. A beautiful urban poem. Living, as I now do, in the tranquil countryside of the Scottish Borders, it makes me just a little bit nostalgic for those long-gone urban days. Only a little, mind. Just makes me fancy a kebab at a bus stop after a gig. A lovely song from an intriguing album.




Global A Go-Go (2001)


Johnny Appleseed/Cool 'n' Out/Global A Go-Go/Bhindi Bhagee/Gamma Ray/Mega Bottle Ride/Shaktar Donetsk/Mondo Bongo/Bummed Out City/At The Border, Guy/Minstrel Boy

This was Joe Strummer's most dense and inscrutable album. There is a distinct lack of any rock stylings as folk, acoustic and world music influences abound. It takes longer to get into it than his other two albums, being more intense and, at times, slightly impenetrable. It is possibly his best piece of work, however, if not the most instantly appealing.

Johnny Appleseed begins with a rhythmic acoustic guitar and gentle beat before it breaks out into a full-on modern folk stomp, all fiddles, whistles and crashing percussion. Cool 'n' Out has a grungy, riffy intro before it once again breaks out strongly into a staccato, folky groove, a sort of fusion of contemporary sounds and traditional melody. Both of these tracks thus far have been pretty much impossible to categorise or pigeonhole.

Global A Go-Go begins with some radio wave noises and folky violin and then it progresses into a mid-pace, most attractive rhythm with a delicious bass line and a fine vocal from Joe. There are echoes of The Clash's latter-era material here and there, but once again it is an example of how unique Strummer's solo work was. The same can be said of the frantic tones of Bhindi Bhagee. While there are clear Eastern/world music influences, much of it is a sort of upbeat, contemporary folk sound. I have seen it described as "eccentric, internationalist folk-rock..." by Mark Deming on All Music, and that is a good description. I was searching around for something like that. Nice one.

 

Gamma Ray is an infectious slow burner, again dominated by acoustic rhythms and Tymon Dogg's violin (he had featured on The Clash's Sandinista! album). as on all the material, the lyrics are a sort of vaguely Dylanesque stream of consciousness, as social conscience merges with random wordplay. Mega Bottle Ride is in the same vein, with a strong acoustic attack and melodious, rubbery bass line. It also carries a very slight reggae backbeat. Strummer's vocals sound almost drunken, as if slurred to you at a tropical bar somewhere as he downs another tequila.

The slow-paced, mysterious Shaktar Donetsk is the second Strummer track to obliquely reference football (Tony Adams was the first). At least on this one you hear a clear reference to the Ukranian team. It also mentions Wembley Stadium. Its lyrics tell a sad tale of a desperate immigrant. Strummer's convictions are not shouted out, fist-pumping-style on this album but are movingly expressed, such as on this song.

Mondo Bongo is an infectious Latin groove of a track, with a slow, samba-esque rhythm and more "one world" references. Tymon Dogg's violin is superb on this one too. The acoustic Bummed-Out City has echoes of some The Clash's Combat Rock material in its lyrics and vocal delivery. At The Border, Guy is a seven-minute rhythmic romp of whose subject is not clear  - legendary ex-Clash producer Guy Stevens, maybe? It is a song you can listen to its whole length without getting into it, or not getting it, funnily enough. It just sort of drifts along. Talking of which, the album's final track, Minstrel Boy, a traditional Irish song, ambles on for a full seventeen minutes, which is a pointless indulgence. It is a fine air, if it lasts about five minutes. Incidentally, a vocal version of it appears on the Joe Strummer 001 compilation.




Streetcore (2003)


Coma Girl/Get Down Moses/Long Shadow/Arms Aloft/Ramshackle Day Parade/Redemption Song/All In A Day/Burnin' Streets/Midnight Jam/Before I Grow Too Old (Silver And Gold) 
    
I never knew quite how to categorise Joe Strummer’s solo work, or how to describe it. It is a mixture of dub-reggae influence dread bass beats, Americana, world music vibes, classic rock riffs in places, “London Calling” Clash echoes, intoxicating rhythms, and, of course Strummer’s slightly garbled vocals. While many his songs had so much of a hook, I could never quite get what they meant. Take the rousing, infectious Coma Girl, for example, one of my favourite songs of his. It is about being at Glastonbury it seems, but much of the song is a collection of wonderful images that probably only meant something to Strummer. Still, Dylan songs are mostly like that so he was in good company. The song is also very Springsteen-esque in its “Mona Lisa from a motorcycle gang…” lyrical imagery. I never tire of listening to it. It has an uplifting quality to it.

The dubby, punchy grind of the beguiling, rhythmic Get Down Moses is similar - great sound but what it was about who knew - indeed who really cares? It sounded fantastic. The thing about Strummer’s lyrics (as I mentioned on the review for his first solo album) is they always sounded vaguely political, meaningful and street-suss and highly credible, even though their meaning was not always apparent. Moses has a huge big, thumping bass reverberating beat and some killer guitar and brass in it too and Joe growls convincingly about the “walls of Jericho…”. Songs like this give you an idea of what The Clash would have sounded like if they had continued. There are hints of some of the material on Combat Rock in this, and Sandinista! for that matter. It would have fitted in well on either album.


The Long Shadow is an acoustic country rock song with Strummer doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation in places. The vocal doesn't quite convince, though, and sounds a bit contrived, I have to say. After the impressive opening two tracks, it is not quite up there with them. That is a minor criticism, though. Lyrically, it has influences from Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost Of Tom Joad album. There's some Billy Bragg in there too. Arms Aloft, however,  is one of the best, rockiest cuts on the album, with a sumptuous New Order-esque bass line at the beginning before it launches into a grainy, punky chorus. Ramshackle Day Parade sounds like something from the old “side two” of Combat Rock. It is another track full with portentous lyrics that sound as if they are really warning of something terrible, spat out by Strummer’s throaty growl over some industrial guitars and insistent drums. It loses itself a bit at the end and gets a bit drowned out by a mass chorus, however.

One of the saddest songs on this album, which was to be Strummer’s very last before his untimely passing is his evocative cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. It brings tears to my eyes, to be honest. Strummer and Marley, both taken too damn soon.

All In A Day is very reminiscent of old bandmate Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite, full of frenetic dance rhythm drums, a wonderful rubbery bass, Jones-esque guitar riffs and B.A.D.-style backing vocals. Burnin' Streets has an anthemic quality to it. Midnight Jam is a Sandinista!-style instrumental, with a few sampled vocals floating around its heavy rhythms. The album ends with a cover version of an old blues/Americana song, Silver And Gold and it is just so sad to think this was Joe’s last song. “I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old…” is his last sung line. Then he says “ok that’s a take”. It was a take Joe, like all those great takes. Cheers.





Joe Strummer 001


This is a somewhat sprawling posthumous compilation of Joe Strummer’s work, featuring early tracks from the 101’ers and a fair few non-album rarities as well as collaborations with other artists as well as well-known work with The Mescaleros.

I won’t list all the tracks, as there are thirty-two of them. Here are a few highlights.

I am most impressed with the two 101’ers cuts - the breakneck rockabilly of Letsagetabitrockin and the very Nick Lowe-esque Keys To Your Heart. The sound quality is excellent. It makes one remember that when Joe hooked up with The Clash he was certainly no green young punk, more of a gnarled veteran (comparatively), although that did not suit the “anyone can join a band” punk ethos.

Also notable is the later-era Clash vibe of Trash City; the reggae of Ride Your Donkey; the world music grooves of firstly the catchy Afro-Cuban Be-Bop and secondly the Eastern music meets The Clash rock of Sandpaper Blues; the Springsteen-esque Burning Lights and the haunting later-era Clash/U2 tones of Generations. There is some really good stuff here, showing just how Strummer had developed as an artist in latter years.

It’s A Rockin’ World is a frenetic Clash-style rocker, a bit like Koka Kola from their London Calling album. Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England is a marvellous, bassy and dubby re-write of The Clash’s This Is England from the point of view of an immigrant. It is so evocative and moving and it could have been written in 2020, let’s be honest. Joe would certainly have some dispiriting shit to write about now, wouldn’t he? Pouring Rain (1984) is another killer track, full of deep bass and one of those urgent, spat-out vocals from Joe.
 

Blues On The River is an atmospheric, acoustic rocker. Although Joe’s voice is a bit ropey here it is strangely suited to the song. Like Billy Bragg’s often is. Crying On 23rd is a chunky, riffy blues with Strummer sounding like early Stones. “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones...” eh, Joe? I never believed you back in 1977 either. 2 Bullets is a country song with a female vocal and When Pigs Fly is an odd-sounding number that may well have fitted in fine on Sandinista! Pouring Rain (1993) is more folky than its predecessor, Rose Of Erin is also folky but with a mid-pace rock beat while Cool Impossible’s jazzy vibes make it another Sandinista! candidate.

The old Clash-title approximation of London Is Burning is apparently Joe’s last recording. If it is so, it is wonderful one to leave us with, an appealing mix of contemporary beats and solid rock. An absolute killer of a track. The album ends with the ten minute U.S. North, which is very Clash-influenced and never  outstays its welcome, despite its length.




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