Joe Strummer was a first-wave punk, but not just safety-pin-in-the-nose/mohawk/Doc Marten punk. He was the kind of punk who didn’t waste time worrying about the way things are supposed to be done. He did it his way. Sorry, Sid, but it’s true.
And that’s why when Joe went solo, I went with him, on every weird, wild and unexpected turn.
During his time fronting “the only band that mattered,” Strummer and his McCartney, Mick Jones, folded in everything from dub reggae to rockabilly and hip-hop production into the Clash’s world music gumbo.
Strummer’s solo adventures read like the stamps on his weathered passport
After booting Jones from the band in 1983 and then breaking the Clash up three years later, Strummer went out on his own for a series of solo adventures that read like the overlapping, globe-hopping stamps on his weathered passport. His output was erratic and, for me, never quite enough. But when something new bubbled up, it was like a special gift from that friend who is always turning you on to a new sound.
He recorded two funky songs for the Sid and Nancy soundtrack (1986), a Mexican folk-meets-Ennio-Morricone-style score for friend Alex Cox’s Walker, and some snarling rockers for the Permanent Record soundtrack with his short-lived band The Latino Rockabilly War before releasing his proper solo debut with that band in 1989.
Before that, though, Joe did the truly unexpected: he reunited with Jones for a few songs on No. 10, Upping St., the second album from Jonsies’ Big Audio Dynamite. B.A.D. was Mick’s pioneering post-Clash rock-rap band, which mixed rock, hip-hop sampling, funk and electronica. Strummer coproduced the disc and cowrote five tracks on the 1986 release, easily sliding into Jones’ oddball slipstream on songs such as the Clash-y big beat rocker “V. Thirteen” and the electro jam “Ticket.” Animosity, what animosity? Clash fans likely rejoiced, but Strummer’s wanderlust urged him to keep moving on.
Nineteen eighty-nine’s Earthquake Weather is like a rough sketch of the solo Strummer aesthetic coming into view. You have his signature scratchy, urgent vocals on the opening reggae rocker “Gangsterville” and a tropical breeze blowing through “Island Hopping.” Ever the seeker, Strummer sounds unbound on this one, trying on different stylistic hats (funk, jazz, acoustic folk) and searching for the global groove he’d perfect on his next two albums.
By the time of his debut with his new band, The Mescaleros, on 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, it was clear that Strummer had been very busy during a nearly decade-long absence from the music scene due to a contractual dispute with his former label. The party explodes from the very first track, “Tony Adams,” a stream-of-consciousness transmission from a “city of madness” fueled by a funky, on-the-downbeat guitar strum and tribal drumming. The album is full of the kind of painting-outside-the-lines touches that defined Strummer’s solo work: African chanting and hand drumming on “Sandpaper Blues,” the electronica-tinged “Techno D-Day,” and the rap-meets-Middle-Eastern groove on “Yalla Yalla.”
Strummer never stopped seeking
This is the sound of an artist using all the tools in his arsenal, listening to the music drifting in the window from his legion of young admirers and throwing it into his studio blender. Strummer never stopped seeking, in his lyrics and in his beats, painting portraits of cities in dust and the rays of light peeking through the rubble that motivated him to keep moving on. (If you want further proof, watch the excellent 2007 documentary by Julien Temple, The Future is Unwritten.) As Joe looked at middle age, the establishment-smashing fury of The Clash turned into a desire to find common ground and meaning in the world around him.
Sadly for fans, 2001’s Global a Go-Go would be the last studio album we’d get from Strummer before his untimely death from a heart attack at age 50 in 2002. But what a way to go. If you only knew Joe from his cranked guitar, gate shaking rants in the Clash, this might sound like an even bigger departure.
“Johnny Appleseed” is a rollicking, pretty acoustic folk story song about listening to, and protecting, the voices of peace and freedom. Because, after all, “If you’re after getting the honey/Then you don’t go killing all the bees.” (The song was later used as the theme to the HBO series John From Cincinnati.)
The genre-hopping is as ripe as ever on this one: from the swirling samples and ska rhythms of “Cool ‘n’ Out” to the flute loops and-scat-like talking blues of “Bhindi Bhagee” and the Cuban sway of “Mondo Bongo.” (The latter was used in the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie film Mr. & Mrs. Smith.)
The centerpiece, for me, though, is the 17-minute instrumental Celtic meander, “Minstrel Boy” (which was poignantly used in the war film, “Black Hawk Down”). The shuffling, soothing waltz that sounds a lot like Strummer’s solo career: modern and ancient at the same time, untethered from expectations and joyfully in a moment that nobody wants to end.
A posthumous 2003 album, Streetcore, features a moving cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and the video acts as a virtual vigil and deeply cathartic document of just what Strummer meant to so many of us.
A couple of years after he died, the documentary, Let’s Rock Again, was quietly released and too easily overlooked. It was shot during the Mescalero’s final tour, and showed Joe at his most inspiring, hustling from gig to gig, not afraid to drop in on DJs unannounced to try and promote a gig, playing his soul out at every one of them, and hanging out as long as it took to meet every fan and sign every album. Watching him hustle hand-made flyers to disinterested tourists on the Atlantic City boardwalk, you’d never know this was an artist who once played to sold-out stadiums. But that was Joe, wasn’t it? And while you may wince a little at the irony that he was playing at a Trump-owned casino that night, it should also make you wonder how Strummer might have reacted to Trump’s candidacy and feel some sadness that Joe’s voice is missing from what can feel like Armagideon Times.
If you want to hear more solo Joe, we put together a Strummer Songs playlist of his post-Clash adventures (plus “Keys To Your Heart,” from his pre-Clash band, the 101ers).