ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: JOE STRUMMER ‘EARTHQUAKE WEATHER’ BY ADAM SPELLICY

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…………….

Sources:

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 )

Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.
Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: THE CLASH ‘GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE’

Some albums are born classics while others need a more revisionist approach. The Clash’s second album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ is definitely in the latter category. If any album was in need of a critical rescue 37 years after its release then it’s this one. Back when this album was released I was 15, just about to turn 16, and I’d played their eponymous 1977 debut album, The Clash, to death. Every single track on the first album, according to my young ears, was amazing. At the time I’d worked hard to earn the money to buy this album by having two paper rounds, one early morning and another one in the evening. In compete contrast to today; music back then was an expensive commodity. I worked hard, saved my money and rushed out to my local record store to buy this record. When I got it home and first played this record I was pretty disappointed. Where was the anger, where was the aggression and where was the confrontation? In fact, where was the punk rock? This record sounded like some mid Atlantic over-produced pro-rock band?

Retrospectively there seems to be some social and economic parallels between the UK today and the late seventies. It was a time of economic depression, the working class were still down trodden by the conscienceless political rulers and moneyed elite, racial tensions simmered and a generation of disenfranchised young people with no future prospects were ready to lash out a wave of destruction in the form of riots in protest at the injustices of the world they find themselves in. We’re not quite there with the youth riots yet, Brixton and Toxteth style, but they are definitely on the horizon if things don’t change.

It was during this period that The Clash released their second eagerly awaited album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ on 10th November 1978. When all the other major British punk bands died in 1978 and were replaced by tepid New Wave acts, CBS (the Clash’s label) tried to push the band into the US market whether they liked it or not. In preparation for the recording of this album the band undertook a ‘secret’ mini tour of the UK Midlands. Bernie Rhodes, the band’s manager, and the record company had settled on Sandy Pearlman, a heavy metal producer with a commercial track record with bands like Blue Öyster Cult, to produce their second album. He was described as the “Hunter S. Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision” in the Billboard Producer Directory.

Between 24th and 26th January 1978 The Clash played in Birmingham (Barbarellas), Luton (Queensway Hall) and Coventry (Lanchester Polytechnic). According to Paul Simonon (2008) “The record company had this idea that they wanted a big name American producer for the second album”. The record company felt that the band’s first album was just too raw and not radio friendly enough for American audience’s refined taste. Pearlman attended all three shows to audition the proposed material for the album. At the last show at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry (26/1/78) Perlman tried to get backstage just before the show to meet the band. Mick Jones’s old school friend, Robin Crocker (AKA Robin Banks), was taking care of backstage security and he didn’t know who Pearlman was. Crocker wasn’t a man you messed with. Some heavy duty manners were employed to keep Pearlman from going backstage resulting in the longhaired American record producer lying prostrate on the floor blood pouring from his nose as the band stepped over him to take to the stage. As normal The Clash don’t play by the rules, what a great introduction to your new record producer. Pearlman must have been keen because this incident did not dampen his enthusiasm to make their second record.

As 1978 wore on an exasperated record company desperately wanted a follow up album to capitalize on the quick and cheap first album. CBS did not release the first album in the USA; it was only available via import, as they thought the quality was not high enough for American audiences. To compound matters, the once wholly supportive music press where also starting to view The Clash with suspicion amid claims that they were lazy and not pulling their weight. Strummer and Jones de-camped to Jamaica for two weeks to write new material prior to recording. The whole band reconvened and undertook an initial multi-track recording at Wessex Sound Studios, and Basing Street Studios in London.

Wessex Sound Studios would become The Clash’s studio of choice for future recordings while Basing Street would see Mick Jones return there with Big Audio Dynamite. The Clash, Sandy Pearlman and engineer Corky Stasiak spent many weeks recording the tracks for Rope. This was in complete contrast to the first album, which was recorded and mixed in CBS’s own basic Whitfield Street Studios, London. The first album had urgency to it; it was recorded and mixed over a three-week period working Thursday to Sunday each week. The band, and in particular drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon and bass player Paul Simonon, complained about the nick picking way that Perlman recorded. Both complained bitterly about the lack of spontaneity during these recording sessions. Once recording was complete Mick Jones and Joe Strummer claimed to have been virtually kidnapped and taken to San Francisco for overdubs and mixing. Jones and Strummer probably went to San Francisco without Headon and Simonon quite willingly but their claims aid the myth and legend of The Clash. What is known is that Headon and Simonon where very pissed off about not being involved in the USA overdub and mixing sessions.

CBS Records, The Clash’s record company, initially owned The Automatt studios in San Francisco but by 1978 it was sub leased to ex-CBS employee David Rubinson. The studio complex was known for its top-notch equipment and for the radio friendly hit records it produced. Between September and October 1978, singer Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones worked with Pearlman at The Automatt to record overdubs for the album. Flying in from the UK, Jones and Strummer stayed at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, and almost every night they went to see punk bands play at the Mabuhay Gardens, known locally in the punk scene as ‘The Mab’. Between takes at The Automatt, Strummer and Jones listened for the first time to the Bobby Fuller Four version of I Fought the Law on one of Rubinson’s studio lobby jukeboxes. When they returned to England this song was re-made into a Clash classic which would make its first appearance in March 1979 on their short, five date, London Calling Tour. Then in May 1976 it would become the stand out track on The Cost Of Living.

The results of the Rope are not nearly as good as they could have been and there are perceived to be three major flaws. First of all, Pearlman hated Strummer’s voice and buried it disastrously low in the mix. Secondly, he packed the sound with distortion, booming drums, and overdubbing, making all the songs sound similar and muddying the impact of The Clash’s considerable guitar fury. Thirdly, the lyrics Strummer wrote came under attack because they were considered histrionic, esoteric and soaked in melodrama: they look unkindly on British punk. What the public didn’t understand was that Strummer’s lyrics were self critical of the band, his own career and the world at large.

Mixing the drums so loud on this record is probably a testament to the abilities of Topper Headon. This is one of the few albums in the DKHQ Album Rescue Series where I largely blame the production on the album needing a rescue. In this instance I would opinion that Pearlman was a bad choice as producer for this record. It could have been much worse though. At the time there was no digital audio workstations (DAW) or software, which allows for the manipulation of audio. If this DAW software and technology had been around at the time of recording, and had Pearlman used it as un-compassionately as he did of analogue recording technology available at the time, then this album would probably be un-savable.

The Clash were not in a pleasant situation during 1978. They were being accused by the music press of selling out, of being phonies and being pushed by their record company for a more commercial, clean, mainstream, sound which they apparently loathed. The music falls apart under the war between producer and band; commerciality and creativity never sit well together. In abstract form the songs written by Joe Strummer are fantastic, and would have been truly world-class had a more sympathetic production been employed. Safe European Home is a great mixed paean to Kingston Jamaica, Tommy Gun is a chilling take on terrorism, Drug Stabbing Time has an undeniable rock groove. Stay Free is a world-class romantic history of the band, written in true Mott The Hoople style by Mick Jones about his childhood mate Robin ‘Banks’ Crocker (he of the Pearlman punching incident pre recording of Rope). I would agree that these songs aren’t punk songs; correct they aren’t. This is Strummer developing as a lyricist, in the same way that Jones was developing as a superb studio arranger. This is the sound of The Clash leaving punk behind and moving into much more interesting territory. Rope is a transitional album. These facts should be celebrated because without Rope we would not have the undeniable classic London Calling or the equally impressive Sandinista. Rope is The Clash and in particular the creative talent of Strummer/Jones developing and serving notice on what’s to come.

The album cover features a painting in stark flat colors of a Chinese horseman looking down at an American cowboy’s body being picked at by vultures. The album art was designed by Gene Greif and is based on a 1953 postcard titled End of the Trail. The original postcard was photographed by Adrian Atwater, and featured the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had come across a painting titled End of the Trail for Capitalism by Berkeley artist Hugh Brown that was on display at San Francisco’s punk rock hangout the Mabuhay Gardens. Strummer and Jones would have seen this picture many times during their three-week stay in San Francisco while attending gigs at ‘The Mab’. It obviously made a lasting impression as the album cover and picture have a striking resemblance.

The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.
The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.

Maybe 37 years is enough time for us to re-evaluate this largely ignored album and accept it into the cannon of The Clash’s work? In many ways this album is like a set of rough sketches of ideas and concepts, which would be employed on further work. On the first album, The Clash stuck to their guns and insisted on Mickey Foote mixing it despite opposition from the record company. On Rope they caved in to CBS and their decision led them to having Sandy Pearlman as producer. In actual fact this gave them a good position to bargain from, insisting that Guy Stevens produce London Calling. The other noticeable fact is that the last gang in town were split into two factions, Strummer/Jones and Simonon/Headon, during the writing, recording and mixing of Rope. Strummer/Jones are probably the beating creative heart of the band but they needed the Simonon/Headon lungs to function. I’d love to hear a Mick Jones re-mixed and re-mastered version of this album from the original multi track tapes (if they still exist). Maybe we should think of this album not for what it is but for what it could have been? Despite the inappropriate and unsympathetic production, this is a great album and is well worthy of rescuing.

Rope1

Album Rescue Series: Big Audio Dynamite ‘This Is Big Audio Dynamite’

Its 1985: Ronald Regan is president; Margret Thatcher is Prime Minister, monetarism rules, capitalism is king, the miners are on strike and This Is Big Audio Dynamite. Despite what many people think, Joe Strummer wasn’t the perfect human being. Joe made some huge mistakes in life, no one’s perfect; probably the biggest one was firing Mick Jones from The Clash. Later in life Joe would admit that the one great regret he had in life was firing Mick Jones as he fully appreciated that this single action effectively finished the band. Like exiting any bad relationship the sense of release can be overwhelming and often results in extreme experimentation.

In Mick’s case this led to a very brief period with The Beat’s Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling’s new band General Public. My ex-class mate of Kelvin Hall High School (Hull), Roland Gift, was responsible for taking bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox from The Beat to form his new band The Fine Young Cannibals. A classic case of one door closing, another one opening. The analogy here is that it’s very similar to dating a young inappropriate girlfriend after a long marriage. It’s great fun for a couple of hot dates but its certainly not going to constitute a long-term meaningful relationship. After this short affair Jones formed Top Risk Action Company (TRAC) with some former collaborators including former Clash drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon. This collaboration soon fizzled out partly due to that old uninvited guest, heroin.

The antecedents of This Is Big Audio Dynamite’s (B.A.D.) experimental funk elements were beta tested on The Clash’s Sandinista and Combat Rock albums. Working collaboratively with Jones on B.A.D. were video artist and long time Clash associate, friend and filmmaker Don Letts (samples and vocals), Greg Roberts (drums), Dan Donovan (keyboards), and Leo ‘E-Zee Kill’ Williams (bass). Another important ingredient was Basing Street Studio’s sound engineer Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle, B.A.D.’s very own ‘dread at the controls.’ Smykle had a serious dub mentality, having previously worked with the likes of Black Uhuru and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Adding samplers, dance tracks, and movie sounds to Jones’ concise pop songwriting, B.A.D. debuted on record with the single The Bottom Line in September 1985 and the album This Is Big Audio Dynamite later that year. The singles E=MC2 and Medicine Show became sizable hits in England, and reached the dance charts in America. The album did not sell well only reaching number 27 in the UK charts and a lowly 103 in the USA.

This Is Big Audio Dynamite is a futurist piece of modernist audio art terrorism. As is often the case with modernism, what was once forward-looking seems inextricably tied to its time. It had one foot in the present and the other firmly in the future. The clanking electro rhythms, Sergio Leone samples, chicken-scratch guitars, bleating synths, and six-minute songs of This Is Big Audio Dynamite evoke 1985 in a way few other records do. This is definitely not a criticism; on the contrary 1985 is a good year for me as my son was born, probably the greatest event of my life. Any record that captures the zeitgeist of 1985, by my reckoning, is a good one. Big Audio Dynamite’s boldness remains impressive, even visionary, pointing toward the cut-n-paste post-modern masterpieces of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Breaking new ground opens up the creative highway for other artists to follow.

One reason that this album took some flak is that it doesn’t sound like The Clash. There was a long shadow cast by The Clash that B.A.D. could never fully escape from. We shouldn’t think badly of this album for that reason. If anything Jones builds on the foundations that he laid with the Clash, he was prepared to move on and develop. At the time of its release This Is Big Audio Dynamite sounded like the future, it was a soothsayer for what to expect over the next two decades. B.A.D.’s philosophy was to utilize all the elements of the media to create a fuller sound and write songs that were about something. A combination of New York beats, Jamaican bass, English rock ‘n’ roll guitars and dialogue from spaghetti westerns and Nick Roeg films all found a place on this album. Mick Jones did not abandon his innate gift for hooks, if anything, he found new ways to create rhythmic hooks as well as melodic ones, it’s quite accessible for an album that is, at its core, a piece of modernist avant-garde rock. This Is Big Audio Dynamite is the album that The Clash should have released as the follow up to their last album Combat Rock but didn’t. It certainly stands as a monument to the times and as a musical signpost for the way things were heading.

Mick Jones and film/documentary maker Don Letts are both visual artists to varying degrees. Jones always had a keen eye for fashion and visuals, his influence upon The Clash, and in particular the notoriously scruffy Joe Strummer, was instrumental in their look. Letts’ scopophilic regime was to view the world as though it was through a movie camera lens. In an article for The Sabotage Times (1/10/11), Letts recounts that during the writing of the album (and with Jones’ guidance) he had thrown himself into co-writing lyrics, which he approached in the same way as writing a script or treatment for a film. With Jones’ wide-screen vision for the band, the songs soon took on a cinematic quality. The songs featured heavy sampling of film dialogue. A good example is the 6 minute 31 second opening track Medicine Show which effectively sets the scene for the rest of the album “Wanted in fourteen counties of this State, the condemned is found guilty of crimes of murder, armed robbery of citizens, state banks and post offices, the theft of sacred objects, arson in a state prison, perjury, bigamy, deserting his wife and children, inciting prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, receiving stolen goods, selling stolen goods, passing counterfeit money, and contrary to the laws of this State, the condemned is guilty of using marked cards. . . Therefore, according to the powers vested in us, we sentence the accused before us, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (‘Known as The Rat’) and any other aliases he might have, to hang by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on his soul. . . Proceed“. This whole scene is re-appropriated from the 1966 film The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. As writer, arranger and producer of this album, Jones is aware that the songs must be able to support this heavy use of sampling. Songs on this album are constructed in such a way that in the words of Bob Dylan “they have legs and can stand up and walk”.

Jones brings at least one Clash track with him; track four, The Bottom Line. In its Clash form this song was called Trans Clash Free Pay One, much better with it’s re-titling. Rick Rubin loved this track so much that he produced a 12” re-mix, which was released on his Def Jam label. I am sure that The Clash’s 1981 17-day residency in support of their Sandinista album at Bonds Warehouse in New York City provided Jones with material aplenty. Jones is the classic autodidactic, someone who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education. Jones took much of the same raw material that influenced hip-hop artists, such as The Beastie Boys, and processed it in his own special way. I don’t think there’s anyone who would dispute the claim that the Clash where musical pioneers. This Is Big Audio Dynamite could be offered as evidence in support of the argument that B.A.D. were far more forward thinking, cutting edge and perhaps more of their time, than Jones’s previous band. They were much less confined by the Stalinist constraints of punk rock and were determined to try and shake off the Clash’s formidable legacy. Mick Jones, the member who brought hip-hop beats into the Clash’s repertoire and wrote their sole No 1 hit single, set out to create a new sound that employed the emerging technologies used by dance and rap music. He could have simply formed a crap Clash cover band, like Joe Strummer did, but he made a decisive decision not too. Spoken in the best spaghetti western voice of Clint Eastwood “For this reason, consider this album well and truly rescued”.