This 32-track collection combines remastered rarities and unreleased oddities. More than a collectors’ compendium, though, it offers a welcome collage of a restless, empathic spirit.
Timing never was Joe Strummer’s strong suit. Not more than a year after the Clash cracked the stateside Top 10 in 1982, with “Rock the Casbah” peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, Strummer fired his partner, Mick Jones. Instead of pulling the plug on the “The Only Band That Matters,” he kicked around for a few years, sticking with the Clash long enough to alienate even his hardcore fans with 1985’s incoherent Cut the Crap. Strummer released a solo album in 1989, when neither UK nor U.S. audiences were much interested in his earthy passion. When punk did have a commercial resurgence in the mid-1990s, his attempt to reunite the Clash fell apart. He couldn’t round up another proper gang until he formed the Mescaleros near decade’s end. Just as they began to hit their stride, Strummer died of a heart attack on December 22, 2002. He was only 50.
Released nearly 16 years after his death, Joe Strummer 001—a 32-track compilation of remastered rarities and previously unreleased material—continues this streak of bad timing, appearing at a moment when the Clash’s memory mostly surfaces for Greatest Albums Of All Time lists. Yet Strummer’s absence from mainstream discourse works in favor of Joe Strummer 001. It arrives to almost no expectations, save for those diehards who scrambled to collect these scraps over the years and long harbored hopes that Strummer’s recordings for obscure indie films such as Sara Driver’s 1993 When Pigs Fly would be released.
Joe Strummer 001 meets those collectors’ needs, but it’s much more than some utilitarian compendium. Eschewing chronology for collage, Joe Strummer 001 paints a vivid and complex portrait of Strummer as he existed outside of the Clash. Each CD opens with a version of “Letsgetabitarockin,” a nifty little Chuck Berry lift he wrote for his first band, the pub rockers the 101’ers. It’s an appropriate opening salvo. No matter how far Strummer roamed in life and music—singing Bob Marley with Johnny Cash, dabbling in African rhythms, and interpolating New Orleans R&B during extended sojourns in Spain and California—he was always rooted in rock’n’roll.
While Strummer started his professional career singing retro rock, he was consumed by understanding other cultures, which Joe Strummer 001 makes clear. Shuffling between elastic reggae, Irish folk, cinematic country, boombox hip-hop, and pseudo-jazz, the compilation showcases a singer/songwriter restless for new experiences, a hunger abetted by the Clash's collapse. Without a band, he was free to join directors Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch on exotic film sets, contributing a few songs and even popping up on screen.
In Redemption Song: The Ballad Of Joe Strummer, biographer Chris Salewicz argues Strummer suffered from depression during this period. Still, this music is vibrant and never listless, gaining life from its ragged edges and brittle recordings. The cheapness suggests vitality, as if Strummer just needed to get these thoughts down as quickly as possible. For that reason, chunks of this material can seem tentative, even incomplete. Certain songs are revisited, and melodies are reappropriated. That circularity feels integral to Strummer’s creativity. He always worked his way back to the basics, writing rocking rave-ups and diving into spiritual dub when other ideas fell short.
A compilation with such rough edges typically remains the province of the converted, but Joe Strummer 001 explains the rocker’s sensibility in a way that is instructive and even inspiring for neophytes. The Clash were omnivorous and passionate, but their familiarity can sometimes mute their sense of adventure and emotion. That’s not the case here. Strummer embraced other cultures, formed the short-lived Latino Rockabilly War for 1988’s Permanent Record soundtrack, recorded with the Pogues under the Astro-Physicians disguise, and reunited with old bandmate Mick Jones to make hip-hop that didn’t sound like the Clash. His insatiable curiosity and endless empathy give this rough-hewn music a powerful core. Strummer’s career was a testament for open borders and open hearts. While such compassion may have fallen out of fashion, Strummer’s messy, impassioned music now sounds even more urgent and necessary.
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