THE FUTURE IS REWRITTEN
By the mid 1980s, seminal punk rockers The Clash had disbanded. Founding member Joe Strummer fired lead guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Jones via public communiqué in 1983 and the hastily reconstituted Clash Mark II only managed to launch one final, misguided salvo before skulking off to die: 1985’s Cut The Crap which, for all the opprobrium heaped upon it, boasts the epic, defeatist state-of-the-nation address This Is England.
In the traditional rock ’n’ roll playbook there is a post-band-breakup ritual to be observed: after an appropriate grieving period the former members, having gone their separate ways, set about issuing solo albums. Tunes that were torpedoed, vetoed, or simply failed to pass muster finally see the light of day, at last immune to internecine wrangling. Mick Jones took this well-trodden path, forming Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) in 1984. B.A.D.’s mix of sloganeering punk, electro pop, sampling, hip hop, dub reggae and funk seemed like an organic update of The Clash’s genre explorations and for a time the band enjoyed great success.
Joe Strummer’s solo career, on the other hand, presented as a classic case of Wilderness Years. He went off the reservation, sporadically popping his head above the parapet before promptly vanishing again. Unless one was a keen eyed aficionado of late 1980s independent film, it was a pretty effective disappearing act motivated by Strummer’s state of mind following the implosion of The Clash.
Having reached the summit of rock stardom, Strummer found himself isolated and riven with remorse. In his relentless pursuit of fame he had severed many significant human bonds, becoming the very thing he had once decried. In his own prophetic words:
“What’s the point in being one of the few? There’s nothing there. You can get all the Rolls Royces, all the country houses, all the servants, all the dope – and there’s nothing at the end of that road… no human life or nothing.”
– Joe Strummer, Rude Boy (1980)
Strummer’s ensuing period of itinerant soul-searching was contextualised within a redemptive narrative arc by Julien Temple, in his 2007 documentary The Future Is Unwritten. At the end of Temple’s film, Strummer devotes himself to rekindling the spark of camaraderie with those he had once spurned, around the flames of his legendary Glastonbury Festival campfires.
But back to the mid-1980s, before such reparations had been made. Whether consciously or not, Strummer made use of the years between 1986 and 1989 to systematically dismantle his iconic persona and scatter the fragments to the four winds. This was a strategy that, to a large extent, involved Strummer subsuming his ego and identity to the will of other artists.
The first was filmmaker Alex Cox, who invited Strummer to contribute two songs (Love Kills and Dum Dum Club) to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy, which depicted the doomed romance between punk idols Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In the first of several acting roles he would take on during this period, Strummer appeared in the music video for Love Kills (also directed by Cox), playing an incompetent Mexican Federale opposite Gary Oldman’s Vicious, in a prison-break superhero fantasy.
Strummer already had some prior form as an actor, playing himself in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s 1980 docu-drama Rude Boy. And it could, of course, be argued that “Joe Strummer” was a long-form role-play by the downwardly mobile, class-conscious John Mellor – one he was growing ever more weary of performing. Aside from the odd Travis Bickle-style Mohawk haircut, Strummer was never given to the chrysalis-like transformations of a Bowie or a Dylan – it was always about the music – but he would nevertheless don a variety of guises in the next few years, before emerging in his final incarnation at the turn of the century.
By 1986, the wounds sustained during the breakup of The Clash were already starting to heal: Strummer co-produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Big Audio Dynamite’s second (and strongest) album, No. 10 Upping St. His role in this case was essentially that of ‘Silent Partner’, lending artistic support to former band mate Mick Jones and his new crew.
In 1987 Strummer returned to acting, in Alex Cox’s next feature Straight To Hell. Surely one of the most bizarre Plan Bs ever conceived, the film came about after the collapse of a proposed Nicaraguan tour by Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello, in support of the embattled Sandinista government. Augmented by an eclectic supporting cast (including Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch) the musicians and Cox relocated to Almeria, Spain, where they cooked up a genre-colliding heist film slash ‘Paella Western’ remake of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill. Roundly dismissed at the time as a self-indulgent piss-take, or a very expensive home movie, Straight To Hell endures as an often hilarious, anarchic, proto-Po-Mo hybrid (and quite possibly an unacknowledged influence on one Quentin Tarantino).
It was during the production of Straight To Hell that Strummer connected with a musician who would take on an increasingly significant role in his subsequent creative efforts: Zander Schloss, formerly from punk band the Circle Jerks. They bonded on-set: Strummer was playing one of the film’s protagonists, Simms, a member of a gang of thieves who hole up in a desert town only to run afoul of the caffeine-addicted McManus Gang (played by The Pogues); while Schloss was cast in the minor role of local hot dog vendor Karl The Weiner Boy. Further details of the film’s eccentric ‘plot’ are probably best omitted, though it is worth noting that Strummer fully immerses himself in the role of a brooding, sexually frustrated wannabe bank robber. In addition to contributing two songs of his own to the film’s soundtrack, Strummer teamed up with Schloss to co-write Karl’s theme song, Salsa Y Ketchup, a rousing, double-entendre-riddled paean to sausages. Thus an unlikely yet fruitful collaboration was born.
That same year Cox, on a creative roll, directed a second feature: his allegorical masterpiece Walker, penned by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Ostensibly an historical biopic about William Walker, the freebooter who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s under the doctrine of manifest destiny, the film is a rabidly anti-American stab at President Ronald Reagan’s then-contemporary support for the counterrevolutionary Contras. The film is rendered all the more subversive by the fact that it was made with $800,000 of Universal Studio’s money. Confined to a furtive cameo on the periphery of the frame, all but unrecognizable beneath bushranger beard and straggly long hair, Strummer’s on-screen contribution to Walker is negligible. Off-screen, it’s another story.
No longer content with dashing off a few tunes for the soundtrack, Strummer expressed a desire to compose the entire score for the film. Duly afforded the opportunity by Cox, Strummer recorded a series of 4-track demos using only acoustic guitar and a rudimentary keyboard. These skeletal ideas were entrusted to the prodigiously talented Zander Schloss – a “show off” by his own admission – who fleshed them out into lush arrangements for stringed instruments, horns and percussion. Much inspiration was apparently taken from the local music Schloss and Strummer heard in the cantinas they frequented during the film’s Nicaragua shoot.
Walker’s resulting score blends folk and country with more distinctly Central American and Caribbean influences, at times echoing Bob Dylan’s minimalist soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, elsewhere evoking the strident dramatics of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. The Clash often experimented with musical genres (dub, reggae, funk, rockabilly), assimilating their influences through a tight-knit filter. Out on his own, Strummer became an ever more inclusive musical polyglot, a twitchy World Music exponent (minus the Great White Saviour Complex). Strummer’s contribution to the actual recording is limited to lead vocals on a few lilting campfire ballads, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy imparted to Schloss and his session musicians. It is sublime in its own right, but as the first full-length solo album by the former front man for The Clash, it understandably left many fans bewildered.
In 1988, Strummer was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for Marisa Silver’s independent film Permanent Record, a melancholy meditation on teenage suicide. An early test screening of the film reportedly moved Strummer to tears. The backing band assembled for this project, fittingly dubbed The Latino Rockabilly War, comprised the rhythm section of punk/jazz outfit Tupelo Chainsex – bassist Joey Altruda and drummer Willie MacNeil – augmented by the now ubiquitous Zander Schloss on lead guitar. The eight songs they recorded rank among Strummer’s best solo work and display a brash, one-take vitality, repetitive rave-up Trash City even featuring the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, guesting on scrappy rhythm guitar. A slightly altered line-up of this band would soon go on to create Earthquake Weather.
But before they did, Joe cropped up on screen once more, skulking around a Memphis bar playing a suicidal drunk in one of three intersecting storylines that comprise Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train. A role specifically written with Strummer in mind (as is Jarmusch’s casting modus operandi), his character’s repeated line: “Don’t call me Elvis!” is a succinct, significant statement of Joe’s desire to shrug off the ill-fitting rock star mantle.
Which brings us, finally, to 1989’s Earthquake Weather.
I recall buying this album eagerly upon its release – apparently one of only 7,000 people to do so, if my research is correct. Finally, a fully-fledged Joe Strummer solo album! After a few perplexed spins, it was thereafter consigned to some dark recess of my record collection. Reviews from the time vindicated my initial disdain.
Before we take the platter out for reconsideration, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the front cover. As a tequila sun sets over Californian palm trees, an enigmatic silhouette stands on the edge of a swimming pool diving board, quiff hanging lank atop his uplifted head, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. A leather-jacketed, bow-legged, cowboy-booted guitar slinger, Telecaster slung like a rifle at his hip. A pomaded pirate poised to walk the plank. It’s simultaneously elegiac and defiant. Later adopted as the logo for The Joe Strummer Foundation and as Chris Salewicz notes in his biography Redemption Song, it’s “an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.”
Off-mike, Joe bellows a war cry: “LET’S ROCK AGAIN!” and the album opener Gangsterville kicks off with no fanfare, the words and music coming thick and fast, rhythms wrestling. Strummer hollers urgently over the top of a reconfigured Latino Rockabilly War, now with Lonnie Marshall replacing Joey Altruda on bass:
The Revolution came, the Revolution went
Strummer summarises, with an abrupt sense of futility.
Wanted: one man to lead a crusade
Payment: a bullet on a big parade
Then, all at once: the pounding punk thunder flips to a tipsy Caribbean sway and we’re relocated to the titular ‘Gangsterville’. The effect on Strummer’s vocal also turns on a dime, switching from mighty slap-back echo to tinny, crackly filter, as if emanating from a cheap transistor radio in a broken down ’57 Chevrolet. The song continues in this schizoid fashion, alternating back and forth between two distinctly opposed feels, the effect unnerving yet undeniably cinematic: the abrupt transitions from verse to chorus are like scene cuts. The lyrics equivocate every bit as much as the music – Strummer is alarmed to discover common ground with both the victims and perpetrators of political crimes:
On the other hand, sitting next to an evil crew
They just got down from floor 82
Been selling Indian reservations
Comin’ in looking for some jazz and a little libations
I like the same kind of beer
I gotta get right out of here
If the first track speaks of political disillusionment, the second, King Of The Bayou, immediately contradicts this position with a hopeful salute to Phillipine President Corazon Aquino, elected in the wake of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Here, the optimism is infectiously anthemic:
Cory is the one
She’ll never ever die young
Next up is Slant Six, which comes on like a Keith Richards solo number, right down to Schloss’ wiry slide guitar licks. It’s apt, then, that the song critiques the decadent trappings of rock stardom – and their isolating effect – that Strummer himself was struggling to avoid:
You got Juan-Le-Pins
You got the needle and the deep cellar wine
You got the slow boat to China
You own part of South Carolina
What a fate: to be imprisoned at the height of your dreams
An abrupt climate change comes in the form of Island Hopping, whose lazy nylon-string lope, evocative of Jamaican folk, underpins a telling ode to the joys of shirking one’s duties and the lure of capitulating to wanderlust:
I don’t like to do a drop of work
Drive a cab, or paint the church
It’s been the same since I don’t know when
So I’m goin’ island hopping again
Throughout the album Strummer is preoccupied with rebellion, escapism and restlessness, topics that must have felt very dear to him during these “lost” years. Significantly, the majority of the song titles suggest movement, modes of transportation or destinations: Slant Six, Leopardskin Limousines, Ride Your Donkey, Island Hopping, Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Highway One Zero Street, King Of The Bayou, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit. The lyrics coalesce into a surreal, novelistic, globe-spanning travelogue, jumping to and from locations both real and fictional, rapidly juxtaposing rich and poor, cops and robbers, boardrooms and barrios, in imagery pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Invisible Republic and William Burroughs’ nightmarish Interzone.
Earthquake Weather marks the point where Strummer’s laissez-faire approach to band leadership reached both its zenith and nadir. Evidently pleased with the result of recent collaborations, he allowed his co-conspirators great liberty to flesh out his foggy notions, bringing their diverse musical pedigrees to bear as they discovered the arrangements through intensive jamming. Zander Schloss, for his part, revels in this freedom, grandstanding on lead guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument within reach as he navigates the hairpin genre curves. His hyperactive solos come off like Marc Ribot channeling J. Mascis. These musical explorations often took place with Strummer in absentia: he would take to the streets in search of real-life lyrical stimulus, or hunker down in a far corner of the studio in his notorious spliff bunker to pursue more inward inspirations.
It’s only around the middle of the album that this otherwise fruitful regime of organized chaos threatens to skip the rails: on Dizzy’s Goatee and Leopardskin Limousines the grooves are tentative, the vocals delivered in an unconvincing mumble, as if something hasn’t quite gelled. And Boogie With Your Children and Sikorsky Parts – which no amount of re-listening can fully redeem – bear unfortunate comparison to early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the abrupt mid-session replacement of Willie MacNeil with drummer Jack Irons from the aforementioned Californian funkers.
Four songs on the album reveal that Strummer never fully transcended his Punk Rock Warlord persona. Nor perhaps, ultimately, did he truly wish to. Shouting Street drives like a madman, with Schloss rapid-firing Chuck Berry licks from the passenger seat (complete with a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch); Jewellers & Bums is an insistent thumper that could stack up against anything on The Clash’s flawless London Calling; Highway One Zero Street (with a title that’s pure Zimmerman) effortlessly shifts gears from Mariarchi-Waltz time to stabbing punk to anthem rock to popping funk, unfolding like a map of intersecting ethnic neighbourhoods; and Passport To Detroit rockets along an apocalyptic desert highway at midnight, headlights illuminating doomy portents.
The sole cover version on the album, Ride Your Donkey, is a relaxed rendition of The Tennors’ Rocksteady standard, which Strummer might have first heard at the Marquee Club in the early days of London’s punk scene. Its inclusion here suggests a nostalgic trawling through past influences, and is one of the few backward glances Strummer permitted himself in his relentless forward march to a new identity.
Some critics speculated that Earthquake Weather was a self-sabotaging attempt on Strummer’s part to wriggle out of his contract with EMI, but it’s far too complex a piece of work to have been conceived with such a cynical endgame in mind. Much was made at the time of the “muddiness” of the album’s production and it’s true there is a kitchen-sinky chaos to some of the mixes, but much like Strummer and Schloss’ soundtrack work the focus favours ambience over radio-friendly clarity. Several songs even feel like they’ve wandered in off the set of Walker: Island Hopping, Leopardskin Limousines and the album’s closer, Sleepwalk (originally written for Frank Sinatra), provide gentle acoustic oases of calm amid the urgent electrical storms that dominate elsewhere.
The album has a palpable sense of topography and geography, heavily populated by a multinational cast of heroes, villains and background extras, as if Strummer’s forays into film were feeding back into his songwriting. The cumulative effect of Earthquake Weather is akin to reading the screenplay and listening to the score for an unmade trans-national road movie, as an abstract but nonetheless coherent narrative plays out on the screen behind one’s eyes. The main character, of course, is Joe Strummer himself. No matter how hard he fought to submerge his stardom and defer to his creative associates, the resulting work bears his indelible imprint.
It took another decade for Strummer to finally emerge as a solo artist in the traditional sense. With new backing outfit The Mescaleros, he released a trio of increasingly decent albums in quick succession between 1999 and 2002. The last of these, Streetcore, was completed posthumously by band mates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, Strummer having only recorded his rhythm guitar and vocal tracks before his sudden death at age 50.
And so, once again, responsibility for the realisation of Strummer’s vision fell to his collaborators – but this time out of heart-breaking necessity rather than trusting intent. As a result, Streetcore makes for bittersweet listening: it’s the solid solo album every fan had been waiting 13 long years for – but Joe was no longer around to hear it. Faced with the reality that we’ll never be graced with another, and freed from past prejudices a listener may have once brought to the material, the music Strummer made between 1986 and 1989, culminating in Earthquake Weather, now reveals itself to be richly rewarding and ripe for redemption…………….
Cox, A. (2013) Website of filmmaker Alex Cox (Retrieved from alexcox.com)
Excerpts from lyrics to Gangsterville, King Of The Bayou, Slant Six and Island Hopping © Joe Strummer
Hazan, J. & Mingay, D. (1980) Rude Boy (Buzzy Enterprises / Michael White Productions)
Jarmusch, J. (1989) Mystery Train (JVC Entertainment Networks / Mystery Train)
Pottker, N. (2014) In Conversation: Zander Schloss (Retrieved fromfiles.wordpress.com/2014/10)
Salewicz, C. (2006) Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer (London, Harper Collins)
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Joe Strummer ‘Earthquake Weather’ is written by Adam Spellicy, one of ARS’s guest authors. Adam Spellicy is a screenwriter, filmmaker and an occasional musician based in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Adam Spellicy on Twitter @AdamSpellicy )