The dog days of Strummer
A new album of songs from Joe Strummer’s post-Clash career serves as a reminder of the rocker’s rich form before his untimely death in 2002
It's funny how first always trumps last. Have you ever heard anybody enquire about the best final albums ever made? I can't recall ever reading a listicle featuring the likes of the Smiths' Strangeways, Here We Come or David Bowie's Blackstar. But there's never a shortage of discussion about great debut albums, the ones where the likes of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' Rattlesnakes is pitched against the Ramones' eponymous debut.
When it comes to The Clash, it's just as well that we place much greater stock on what our favourite artists came out of the blocks with than what they finished with. Their self-titled debut from 1977 remains a milestone punk album, a thrilling statement of intent to mark that wonderfully fertile period in British music. Their final album, 1985's Cut the Crap, was greeted with, at best, a shrug of indifference, at worst a litany of dreadful reviews. Time hasn't been kind to it either - with the exception of the excellent 'This is England', the album is a weak, incoherent mess from a group who were on their last legs.
It's a great pity that Joe Strummer's final offering as the frontman of The Clash would be so poor, considering the magnificence of his work from that incendiary debut up to 1982's huge-selling and unashamedly radio-friendly Combat Rock.
Strummer was just 30 when that album, and its all-conquering hits 'Rock the Casbah' and 'Should I Stay or Should I Go', was released. It's worth pointing out, though, that the latter song truly became huge - a UK number one - when it was used in a ubiquitous Levi's ad in 1991.
If The Clash were arguably the greatest British band of the late 1970s and early 1980s, few could have imagined just how quickly their stock would fall and how the world would move on. Strummer's heart didn't seem to be in Cut the Crap, especially now that his great songwriting partner Mick Jones was out of the band. And drummer Topper Headon was also absent, having been fired over his heroin use.
When the remnants of the band quietly went their separate ways in 1986, few seemed to care. British rock music had changed: in the mid-1980s, it was all about the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as more artfully minded groups like The The: the punk revolution already appeared a bit passé.
Even today, when one thinks of Strummer, it's the music he made with Mick Jones a year or two either side of 1980 that stays with us. And that music was really great - and enormously varied. There was punk, obviously, but also reggae, blues rock, rockabilly… you name it. The triple album Sandinista! was a true 'world music' album before the term had even been coined.
And, of course, one can't think of this whip-smart, hugely erudite public-schooled son of a diplomat, and not think of his politicised songs: his work rails against injustice, whether it was on the streets of London, close to where he spent his formative years, or far, far away, in the jungles of Nicaragua.
But what about Strummer in the years after The Clash? There were solo albums and albums with the short-lived group he founded, The Mescaleros, but his new music wasn't troubling the charts or capturing the zeitgeist like his old songs used to. Certainly, anyone who watched the excellent documentary film The Future is Unwritten, by that prince of punk movie-making Julien Temple, would conclude that the post-Clash Strummer struggled with many demons, including depression. Here was a man who'd become hugely famous when he was just 25, and a decade later he was seen as a washed-up has-been.
But anyone who has explored Strummer's life and art in the years after his split, from The Clash right up to his untimely death from a heart attack in December 2002 will know that he left behind an intriguing body of work, and while collectively it's not at the same level as what he achieved in the first five of six Clash albums, there's some fantastic, genre-hopping work to get acquainted with.
A new album, 001, collects 35 songs from Strummer's post-Clash career (as well as a pair from the 101ers, the rockabilly-inspired pub band he fronted before forming The Clash). It's an eclectic collection, befitting a man who hated to be straitjacketed as merely a punk rocker, and it offers as good an introduction as you might hope to find into Strummer's less-trodden music. While more committed Clash fans will be familiar with the three strong albums he made with The Mescaleros in a hugely fertile period from 1999 until his death three years later, some may not be aware that he took on several commissions for movie soundtrack work, and contributed several songs to projects both well known and others that slipped through the cracks. Strummer acted in a handful of movies in the mid-1980s and he had a lifelong interest in the medium.
On 001, some of the songs that stay with you most first saw the light of day in the cinema. One of them, the brilliantly catchy garage stomp of 'Trash City', was written for an early Keanu Reeves film called Permanent Record, released in 1988.
There's a captivating pair of songs from the 1990 cult film I Hired a Contract Killer (directed by Finnish arthouse favourite Aki Kaurismäki). The troubled 'Burning Lights' can be read as both a commentary on the central character's difficulties and the mental-health struggles Strummer was feeling at the time. Even more intriguing is 'Afro-Cuban Bebop', which features Strummer with backing from The Pogues. He would go on to provide frontman duties for the London-Irish upstarts when Shane MacGowan departed, for a time, in 1991 and there are several Strummer-fronted Pogues performances available for your edification on YouTube.
He was a keen collaborator, too, and there's a superb version of Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' here - a duet with none other than Johnny Cash, then in the wonderfully rich vein of form that he found towards the tail-end of his life.
Two of the strongest offerings on 001 are Clash songs, or at least were written while the band was still a going concern. There's a fantastically raw version of 'This is England' (from the Cut the Crap sessions) while a demo version of 'London is Burning' (written in 1984, but only released on a Mescaleros album at the turn of the millennium) is gloriously raw and potent.
The ghost of his old band was ever-present, it seems, and while he and Jones reportedly turned down very lucrative offers to reform The Clash, Temple's film suggests he was much more open to the idea in the early 2000s.
Strummer was hardly to know that his life, at just 50, would be cut short due to an undiagnosed heart condition three days before Christmas 2002. And who knows where his legend may have gone had he lived on - he would be 66 today, and there would have been plenty of music to make.
For now, though, there's an enviable body of work to dip into, including the world captured in 001.
It's a reminder that the great artists never lose their restless spirit and unstinting creativity, even when the spotlight has been redirected elsewhere.