Tag Archives: Joe Strummer

The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 9. Green Day

In the summer of 2004, I read an article that was previewing what would become American Idiot. It stated that Green Day were working on a rock opera about the state of the nation.  One song, the article said, was about 10 minutes long and would contain multiple sections.  At the time, it seemed quite ridiculous.  Green Day, was after all a band that sang about masturbating and smoking weed.  And who knows, maybethey sang about doing both of those activities at the same time.  Green Day were a good band, a fun band.   Billie Joe Armstrong might have borrowed Joe Strummer’s snarl (and occasionally the accent), St. Joe he was not.  During a drunken night, I told one of my friends about the alleged 10 minute song I read about in the article.  “Shut the fuck up, Matt,” He told me with a bit of disdain.  “Next, ever speak of this again.”  Afterall, who would want to listen to Green Day’s thought on the state of the nation?

As it turned out, Green Day would prove the skeptics wrong. American Idiot, would end up becoming one of the defining albums of the era in part because many of its song were protests against the War In Iraq.  While there plenty of artists making statements and complaining about the war, they seemed to be few and far between.  And it wasn’t just the Dixie Chicks who got some shit.  Dozens of fans walked on  a Pearl Jam concert in 2003 when Eddie Vedder sang the anti-Bush song, “Bushleaguer”.  If artists were speaking out against the war, they certainly weren’t doing it on the radio.  Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief didn’t receive much play, Neil Young’s Greendale only spoke to his devoted fans, and Conor Oberst was too much of a niche artist at the time to make any impact.  But when “American Idiot” came blaring on the radio in the summer of 2004, it suddenly became clear that Green Day were no longer trying to be The Clash.  They were The Clash for this generation.  When Armstrong suggested that ” Everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia” it was a rallying cry to wake people up.  And if the lyrics didn’t cover that ground, the sonic assault of the song was just as arresting.

While many of the songs are a protest agains the War in Iraq, making no pretense about the band’s stance, it’s also much more than that.   In a decade where everything seemed to teeter out of control from every direction.  “Hey can you hear the hysteria?” Armstrong asks. But then he takes it one step further – “The subliminal mind-fuck, America.”   Somehow Green Day managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist – a fusion of anger and disillusionment.  It was an era where many seemed destined to “fall in love or fall in debt” .

Of course, Armstrong’s instincts and intentions would mean as much if the songs on American Idiot weren’t good.  The aforementioned 10 minute song, “Jesus of Suburbia” combined punk and elements of prog-rock.  Amazingly the 5 pieces of the songs fit together perfectly, and the result became of the band’s best songs.  “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” with that weird feed-back loop managed to be the successful song on the album.  The band managed to cover a lot of ground, without missing a step.  The lyrics may have the focal point of the album, but their content also never got in the way of a good rock song.  Which American Idiot was full off.

American Idiot brought back some of the spirit of the 60s and 70s – when music actually meant something, that it could be a catalyst for change.  If a group that previously known for being dumbass stoners ends up releasing the album that best sums up what it was like to live in the mid 2000s, I’m not sure whether Green Day deserve even more credit than they already have, or if I should point a shameful finger at others for not stepping up.

(And for those who might suggest I’m only basing this off of one album, The Sex Pistols only had one album as well.)

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Clash Week, Friday: “The Call-Up”

The Clash followed up the magnificent London Calling with one of rock’s most interesting and frustrating albums –Sandinista! A triple disc, 36 song set Sandinista! found the Clash taking the multi-genre experimentation they explored on London Calling and taking it to its (often illogical extreme).  It’s been called the punk-rock White Album due to the few numbers of great songs piled in between loads of filler.  I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that – I’ve grown to like The White Album more in recent years, and Sandinista! just seems misguided, and egotistical to me.   The one thing I really do like about the album overall though is the production.

That being said – there are shades of brilliance, and “The Call-Up” is the best example of that and ranks among the Clash’s best work.  Musically, “The Call -Up” is one of the Clash’s better reggae/dance experiments.  It’s almost danceable, and its laid back and dreamy groove almost entirely glosses over the bitterness in the lyrics.  It’s a rallying cry for blind-patriotism that often sends young kids to their death  “You must not act the way you brought up,” Joe Strummer sings softly, almost with a hint of sympathy. Later he laments,  “All the young people down the ages/they gladly marched off to die/Proud city fathers used to watch them/Tears in their eyes.”  Sometimes The Clash could be too specific in their attack, but lines like these transcend time, and still applicable almost 30 years later.

I’ve got to admit that “The Call-Up” didn’t even really register on my list of songs from Sandinista! until I saw the Pogues a few years ago.  The connection between the Pogues and The Clash is no secret.  Shane MacGowan is known to have attended their shows in the late ’70s, and Joe Strummer took over the singer’s duties when he was forced out of the band.  Before the show started, the PA blasted “The Call-Up” and I realized how powerful of a song it was.  It’s dark groove proved a perfect introduction for the Pogues – fun sounding songs with serious lyrics.  As John Lennon once said, “Imagine was an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

The Call-Up:

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Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers.  For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms.  “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.  Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.

I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ.  He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and  -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on.  In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.

As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls.  It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it.  (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.)  The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.

The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager.  It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans.  I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape.  It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.

“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well.  Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll.  (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)  It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Videos galore, dear readers!

Studio Version of “London Calling”:

The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:

Joe Strummer & The Pogues:

And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”:

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Clash Week, Wednesday: “Safe European Home”

“Safe European Home” is without a doubt the best song off The Clash’s second LP “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.  Even if the rest the album were good (which it’s not) it would be hard to follow “Safe European Home”.   It’s a bit more polished than the songs off The Clash, but it’s harder hitting.  Topper Headon’s opening drums commands you to listen – and if you’re not Mick Jones’ power chords will pull you in.  By the time you’re hooked, Joe Strummer is back from the place he never wants to go again, but ready to relay the story back to you.

The story goes that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took a trip to Jamaica, and felt out so out of place that they came home and wrote “Safe European Home” is response.  “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer laments in the chorus.  “And sitting here in my safe European home, I don’t want to go back there, again.”  The Clash have sometimes been described as naive in some instances, and this is one instance where I can say that critics might have actually have a point.  Bob Marley was shot a year or two before Strummer and Jones arrived in Jamaica (depending on the time-frame) for trying to ease political tensions at a free concert.  Did Strummer and Jones expect to be welcome with open arms because they talked about world issues and played reggae music?

But Strummer and Jones’ misfortune made for great music.  Like John Lennon who turned his marital issues into the great (and perhaps under-rated) “Ballad of John and Yoko”, Strummer’s first person account in song was at times self-deprecating.  Strummer spits out each line with venom and Mick Jones calls back, “Where’d you go?” after each line.  It’s as if he can’t believe that Strummer actually went.  His calls demand Strummer to finish the story.    Strummer ends his tale stating, “I’d stay and be a tourist, but I can’t take the gun-play.”

The break-down in the second half of the song sounds like an escape.  Jones strums his guitar in a repeating crunch.  Strummer starts mumbling and scatting about “rudie can’t fail” (a theme that would be explored later on “Rudie Can’t Fail”) as the band tries to regain itself.  Topper Headon brings tension, by creating some of the best drum rolls ever put to record.  But ultimately, Strummer (as one most Clash songs) steals the show through his combination of Springsteen-sincerity, Dylan-esque sneer, and Lennon self-deprication showcased in this song.

Safe European Home:

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Clash Week: Monday: “Garageland”

The Clash’s “Garage Land” is not only one of the best songs off of their debut, but it’s also one of the best responses to a harsh review.  In 1977, New Musical Express wrote that The Clash were “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage.”  While it probably bothered The Clash they got bad press, they certainly weren’t pissed at being called a “garage band” as the lyrics suggest.  Not only do they play garage music, “we come from garage land” snarls Joe Strummer in the chorus.

Funnily enough, “Garage Band” starts off with a riff that sounds pretty mainstream.  The riff that Mick Jones plays seems destined to be played to on the radio.  But after a few seconds, it’s clear that the riff is deception and the song quickly reveals itself to a be a jagged mid-tempo rocker. The first verse describes the love of being inside the garage, even as carbon monoxide hangs in the air, and people knock on the doors.  And if there’s any question about their motives, Strummer declares, “We’re a garage band.  We come from garage land.”

Luckily Strummer is smart, and can sense his detractors’ criticism before they have the time to pronounce.  Some might suggest that being inside the garage is just a bubble, and that The Clash would perhaps be jealous of other bands.  “I don’t want to go where the rich are going.  I don’t want to go where the rich are going,” Strummer spits out.  “They think they’re so clever.  They think they’re so bright.”

Here’s the original studio version:

And a version from 1977, which shows why The Clash were one of the greatest live bands ever:

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Joe Strummer – Art Rock & The X-Ray Style

Usually I hesitate to listen to solo albums by the frontmen of bands I absolutely love.  Too often, the singer indulges himself and the album leaves you wanting the restraints the band put in place.  I first got into the Clash sometime in 1999, and wanted everything that they ever put out.  (I don’t count Cut the Crap as a Clash album in case you were wondering.)  Sometime later, I discovered that Joe Strummer put out another album with a new backing band dubbed the Mescaleros.  It couldn’t possibly be good, I remember thinking.

About a year or so later, I finally did break down and buy Art Rock & The X-Ray Style. I knew right away it wouldn’t sound like The Clash or be as good as their debut or London Calling. What possibly could?  (Even the band themselves never reached those heights again.)  But what shocked me, was how much it didn’t sound like The Clash.  Except for one song (“Techno D-Day”) there’s nothing on the album that even sounds remotely like The Clash.  Instead, Strummer takes on the listener on a laid-back groove that’s part folk, part world-beat that could only be made by the man who fronted a band where every single genre imaginable was tried on Sandinista!

“Has anybody seen the morning sun?” Strummer asks on the opening track “Tony Adams”.  For anyone else, this line might sound trite, but Strummer had been lost in the wilderness for years following the demise of the Clash.  Now, he’s revitalized with an album that actually sounds perfect for a late 40-something year old man.  The morning sun has come up to him, and he’s taking you on the road to rock and roll.  The song “On The Road to Rock and Roll” was originally written for Johnny Cash, but I’m not sure that it would fit Cash’s style stripped down style that he perfected late in life.  Strummer’s version takes blends two pieces of of rock and roll together – it’s led by a country/folk riff but the backing band plays a hip-hop beat.

I often find myself listening to Art Rock & The X-Ray Style whenever I can’t find something particular that I want to listen.  Every single track is of high quality.  Strummer is still political in parts throughout the album, but he doesn’t beat you over the head or demand something of you like he did with the Clash.  It’s him enjoying music, and its infectious for the listener.

His other two albums with the Mecaleros weren’t as focused.  Global A-Go took the world-beat of Art Rock, a bit too far and Strummer seemed to forget about the songs.  Streetcore could have been very good, but as it wasn’t completed at the time of his death in 2002, it feels too much like the collection of out-takes that it was.

Even if the world wasn’t listening like they were with London Calling, Strummer achieved a renaissance late in life with Art Rock & The X-Ray Style worthy of a legend.

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Quick Update

I’m going to a wedding for the weekend, so until Monday enjoy this clip of Joe Strummer performing “London Calling” with the Pogues.

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