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Five for Friday: Post-Clash Joe Strummer Songs

For decades now, the Clash has taken on mythic status. Led by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the group lasted just six years during which it recorded an impressive eight LPs worth of material – the music ranging from politically inspired calls to action to work inspired by reggae, jazz, and disco. The band's power always hung in its contradictions: the restless and reckless enthusiasm of Strummer married with the sharp, pop smarts of Jones. The combination proved combustible and, after the Clash split, its members enjoyed sporadic success and rare moments in the limelight. Strummer spent much of his post-Clash life exploring his love of film. He recorded numerous soundtracks and finally settled in with a new band, the Mescaleros, a decade after the Clash called it a day. But just because Strummer's later fare didn't enjoy headline status doesn't mean it isn't full of gems. Just look to the new compilation, Joe Strummer OO1, which collects the best of Strummer's work outside the Clash. In that spirit, here are five must-hear non-Clash songs from the late bandleader.

"Love Kills"
About a year after Strummer issued the last album branded to the Clash – Cut the Crap, a work without Jones and one Strummer soon disavowed – he embarked on sporadic recording for soundtracks. Among the highlights is "Love Kills" for 1986's Sid and Nancy, a bio-pic that documents that tragic relationship of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. While no doubt drawn to the film's punk-rock nature, Strummer also set out to patch up his relationship with Jones, who helped produce the tune and contributed some uncredited guitar work. Rather than straight riff on the ill-fated pairing of Vicious and Spungen, Strummer spins an outlaw tale in which justice shows no mercy. Here, a spiky guitar gives the song its power and slices through a synth-like rhythm as if on a rampage. As a vocalist, Strummer seems to relish playing various roles, getting wild in the chorus but lowering his voice to bloodthirsty determination in the bridge. "Love Kills" remains a tantalizing tease of how the Clash's sound could have developed throughout the 80s.

A long-overlooked gem, this 1997 cut was recorded for a compilation dedicated to human rights. Strummer's band at the time, Electric Dog House, included a few punk-rock vets, including Rat Scabies (the Damned) and John Jennings (the Ruts). Not surprisingly, the short-lived group's "Generations" brings together a number of Strummer trademarks: lyrics that hint at a revolution ("Let's go burning down the road!"), a Caribbean rhythm, and a clean but fierce guitar riff. Here, Strummer goes in search of a groove, and layers on dreamy, hopeful-sounding digital effects. The guitar gets tough in the first chorus and stays angry for the remainder of the song. What's more, "Generations" illustrates what makes Strummer's political writing so effective. Rather than preach, the track serves to awaken. Strummer writes of a person buying pajamas for a child only to recoil in horror when discovering the conditions in which said clothes were made.

"V. Thirteen"
"V. Thirteen" doesn't belong to a Strummer-led band, and it's the only selection on this list missing from Joe Strummer OO1. But the tune represents the enduring potency of the Strummer/Jones combination, even after the Clash split. A centerpiece from 1986's No. 10, Upping St., the second full-length from Jones' Big Audio Dynamite, the song was penned by the duo and produced by Strummer. It sounds leaner and more guitar-focused than most early Big Audio Dynamite songs, rightly toning down Jones' penchant for samples and movie snippets. Lyrically, it remains something of a mystery, referencing the Bible and drug abusers – and implying no salvation awaits its characters. Jones solemnly sings in a clear upper register: "Sodom and Gomorrah, let the DJ play/'Cause I'm only gone tomorrow and here today." It all amounts to understated anthem for the overlooked.

"Yalla Yalla"
One of the first singles from Strummer's only post-Clash band to really stick, the Mescaleros, a group that initially formed for the purpose of doing soundtrack work but swelled in size and intent. The Mescaleros' charm relates to their often-ramshackle albeit global sound, a less-refined but no less passionate take on the Clash of London Calling/Sandinista! The ensemble always felt casual and, perhaps indicative of Strummer's age and more mature worldview, tackled change in reflective manners. Strummer spoke of 1999's "Yalla Yalla" as an attempt to write a folk song. Of course, folk in his hands is far from quiet, and the seething opening line sets the tone: "Well, so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show."

"Coma Girl"
Among the final songs Strummer wrote, "Coma Girl" appears on his posthumous 2003 album Streetcore, completed by the Mescaleros shortly after Strummer's death in December of 2002. A month before he passed away, the singer had reunited with Jones on stage at a benefit concert in London where they performed Clash songs such as "Bankrobber," "White Riot," and "London's Burning." Strummer hadn't been shy about his openness to reuniting with his old band, provided everyone was on board. We'll never know, but one could safely guess the Clash would've reunited for Glastonbury, the giant English festival Strummer never missed. Aptly, "Coma Girl" doubles as a love letter to Strummer's daughter seeing it's about watching her sleep peacefully amid the chaos of the music festival. It's also the hardest-rocking track the Mescaleros ever recorded – and a fitting send-off for an artist who always put excitement and bravado first.

Photo credit: Anton Corbijn

September 28, 2018

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