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OCD EPs : #4 : JOE STRUMMER : ‘THE WILDERNESS YEARS’

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A GUEST POSTING FROM DAVE MARTIN

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My ICA of Joe Strummer was deliberately split into two parts, not just in the spirit of a vinyl compilation, but also in recognition that post Clash, Joe’s musical career had two mainstream parts, with the self-titled ‘Wilderness Years’ making a span of ten years from around 1989 onwards. During this time, due to label wrangles, the only music being released was mostly on soundtrack albums, and that is if there was a release at all. This OCD ep tips a toe into the pool of music which Joe recorded during this decade.

1 Afro Cuban Be-Bop – Joe Strummer & The Astro Physicians

From the soundtrack of the Aki Kaurismäki 1990 movie “I Hired A Contract Killer” which Joe also appeared in. The only official release of this track I can find from the original date is a Finnish promo single which was released in limited numbers. This is a pity, as this is one of those charming songs Joe did where you don’t know what to expect, and when you hear it, it’s not what you were expecting. The actual recording was quite rushed, as Joe was producing The Pogues Hell’s Ditch album at the same time, and these guys are the Astro Physicians on this recording. Thankfully, this track eventually saw a proper release on ‘Just Look Them In The Eye’, a five disc Pogues compilation which is well worth seeking out, not just for this track, but for so many more.

2 Pouring Rain – Joe Strummer

Although appearing on the unreleased soundtrack of 1993’s “When Pigs Fly”, this song actually dates back to the dying days of The Clash Mark II, a live version of which can be heard on “The Future Is Unwritten”. This song is sometimes referred to as a ‘lost classic’ in the Clash canyon, although to be perfectly honest it isn’t quite that, although it does stand head and shoulders above all of ‘Cut The Crap’ with the exception, perhaps, of ‘This Is England’. It’s hard to tell if the lyrics are autobiographical, but “the sun won’t shine my way again, lucky moon was on the wane, oh I’ll never see a star again, in the pouring, pouring rain,” seems to be telling a story which is every bit as worth investigation as the film it was eventually used in.

3 Generations – Electric Dog House

Taken from the album ‘Generations 1: A Punk Look at Human Rights’, Electric Doghouse was a short lived band which included Seggs from the Ruts and Rat Scabies from…, come on, you know! The plan for the band came about when Rat and Joe were working on “Grosse Point Blank” and had attended a Ministry gig in the presence of Timothy Leary. It’s hard to believe that this track, recorded ‘live’ in the studio, was ever intended as the beginning of a long term plan, but more as the expression of a few individuals who’d been in the same circles for years and had come together with mutual feelings. However, as Rat admitted, it “never did pass go.”

4 MacDougal Street Blues – Jack Kerouac and Joe Strummer

From an album called ‘Kicks Joy Darkness’ which has been in and out of press, this is a Joe Strummer demo over a Jack Kerouac spoken poem. The musical merit may be questioned by some, but the adventure should not be missed. This track also begs the question, ‘Which punk rocker has recorded with two beat poets?’, as Allen Ginsberg is another Joe has worked with. Of course, Ginsberg was alive when he appeared on Combat Rock, and the feel of this track is that Jack and Joe are in completely different places, both time and location.

5 War Cry – Joe Strummer

John Cusack had asked Joe to score and pick the songs for the soundtrack of ‘Grosse Point Blanc’, and this is the one track which was eventually released from the original score, albeit on the GPB 2 soundtrack album. The remaining tracks are, so far, and as far as can be seen, unreleased, but ‘War Cry’ serves to show a way forward in the midst of a soundtrack featuring music from the 80s for the main part. Richard Norris worked with Joe on the soundtrack score, and also co-wrote and produced ‘Yalla Yalla’ and ‘Sandpaper Blues’ for the subsequent Mescaleros album ‘Rock Art and the X-Ray Style’ and it is impossible to miss his (uncredited) contribution to this track.

All in all, I believe this is an ep of fairly obscure Joe Strummer material recorded during The Wilderness Years which helps to bridge the gap between his more involved periods in the general music scene. As a fan of him, I find it hard to be objective over the question of whether the obscure releases or the uncommercial sounds of the time make this small body of music inaccessible to most people, although it is certainly worthy of a listen.

DAVE

AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #82 : JOE STRUMMER

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A guest contribution from Dave Martin

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I thought long and hard about making a Joe Strummer compilation that would fit within the confines of the ICA series, and had several different ideas in my mind during that time. I had thought about his work with other artists, and interesting as this concept was, I rejected it as being unrepresentative of his own body of work. I also swapped my ten tracks and their running order several times before coming up with what I think is the best compromise, in that it cohesive and also almost reads true to the chronological line of recording and progression in his music.

When The Clash finally came to a stop with the aptly named Cut The Crap, Joe Strummer had suddenly lost his place in The Only Band That Mattered. His initial recordings were followed by a decade, the Wilderness Years in his own words, and then a quite different, more worldly set of releases in what was a far too short period of time before his premature death. I have split the ICA accordingly, with side one allowing ten years before side two starts. Of course, you can choose to cut this gap down accordingly, but bear in mind, this was an era for a man who had released eight slabs of vinyl in a five-year period from 1977, and represents a loud silence.

The first few recordings in Joe’s post-Clash career came through soundtrack recordings, the first being from Sid & Nancy. Joe realised quite quickly that kicking Mick Jones out of The Clash had been a mistake, and soon hooked up with him for Love Kills and also to co-produce and co-write on BAD’s second album, No.10 Uping Street. However, this is Joe’s album…

Side One

1 Evil Darling

The third film soundtrack Joe Strummer participated in, with two songs, was Straight To Hell, a parody of spaghetti western films by Alex Cox. Filmed in the Almeria region of Spain, like most in the genre actually were, the film and soundtrack also featured The Pogues as a bunch of cowboys addicted to coffee. Joe would later play some of the band’s tracks live with them in later years, but his main (vocal) track is an evocative piece which captures the sense of the wild west and effectively draws a line in the sand between where he was and where The Clash were when he left them behind.

2 Tennessee Rain

Released earlier in 1987 than Evil Darling, the entire Walker soundtrack was ‘written and produced by Joe Strummer’ as opposed to being called a Joe Strummer release. For those who want the whole story behind this, go read, but suffice to say for our purposes, Joe was limited to singing on three tracks on this album. The Unknown Immortal vies with Tennessee Rain for me, at times, but this song just makes the cut for the album. Tennessee Rain has a warmth to the lyric which had not always been evident in Joe’s music before, and towards the end breaks into a mood that is so far from the posturing he’d been guilty of a few years earlier, that it becomes the first sing along song he did, rather than chant along – with the possible exception of White Man In Hammersmith Palais.

3 Trash City

From the fourth soundtrack album in three years, Permanent Record, Trash City saw Joe going back to a more formal band line-up with Latino Rockabilly War. The guitarist, Zander Schloss, had actually been on the previous two releases, and he had clearly become a foil for Joe to work with, and while not being of the calibre of Mick Jones it should be remembered he was not in competition either. Having said that, this is perhaps the most Clash-like song Joe did, and his first single in two years, since 1986’s Love Kills with Mick. However, it’s the beginnings of a band sound that makes the difference here, and at the point where they seem to break loose, you hear a bunch of men comfortable in their grouping.

4 Island Hopping

The second single from Earthquake Weather, Joe’s first bona fide solo album, featuring LTW in recording but not in credits, this is yet another breakaway from Joe’s previous sound. If The Clash had broken musical barriers in their career, Joe was continuing that trend and adapting to his freedom quite handsomely. This is a song I love, and in the last year it has had more plays on Kirkwall jukeboxes than probably anywhere else in the word. My only regret about this not bothering the charts is that it will never be the answer to the pub quiz question, “What hit single mentions ‘Papa Hemingway’ by name while describing life in the setting of his later years?” I’d get that one right.

5 Sleepwalk

The closing track on Earthquake Weather, and a dark, brooding song which in typical Clash lore was supposedly written for Frank Sinatra. Whether Jo believed that or not, the many ups and downs in his personal and professional life in the next ten years lend the lines ‘what good would it be, if you could change every heartache that run through your life and mine?’ a certain poignancy and close side one.

Side Two

1 Sandpaper Blues

Ten years later, and 1999 saw Joe Strummer releasing Yalla Yalla as a single from a new album, Rock Art & The X-Ray Style. Dating back from work with Richard Norris, the single and this track herald the coming of a new band in The Mescaleros. Featuring hand drums and African chanting, Sandpaper Blues is an all embracing song, immediately telling the listener it’s going to boom Mariachi and urging everyone to shape it up all around the world. A man back with a purpose.

2 Bhindi Bhagee

The second album with The Mescaleros saw old time friend and occasional collaborator Tymon Dogg join the band. Despite never being released as a single, this track can be argued to be the defining sound of the band. The album had a genre-melding folk-rock sound a million miles from Steeleye Span, and this track is at first a celebration of the diverse and exciting ethnic and multi-cultural areas of the local London High Streets, principally through the foods on offer, and then describes the band’s sound in a similar manner.

3 Johnny Appleseed

A call to look after the planet, or just looking out for his cider? This is a rare animal in that it is an environmentally charged song without seeming to be so, or being dragged down by the message. It works on different levels, like good songs do, but the simple message of looking after the bees if you want to get the honey is a lesson not easily learned by everyone.

4 Get Down Moses.

Released posthumously, with instrumentation added to demos, Streetcore stands as a good indication of the sort of third album Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros were capable of. This track, also released as a single, had already been in the live set for most of 2002, harks back to ideas Joe had over 30 years earlier. The failure of religion and modern society had already been covered on The Sound Of The Sinners, but whereas on Sandanista’s track the message on the tablets was Valium, the modern tablets were LSD pills.

5 Willesden to Cricklewood

Actually the last track from Rock Art, this also featured as the closing track on the film and soundtrack of The Future Is Unwritten, Julian Temple’s documentary of Joe’s life. And this song seems to be about Joe’s life. The lyrics, ‘thought about what’s done is done, we’re alive and that’s the one’, sound like a man content with his life. These thoughts were articulated by Antony Genn, who had provided the inspiration while tinkling about on the piano in the studio. Antony had also been instrumental in getting Joe back into music, and told this story with barely hidden emotion.

DAVE

DEATH IS NOT THE END

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The following is a repost from the old place.  It originally appeared on 16 December 2008 and received a number of lovely comments.  I thought it was worthy of a cut’n’paste

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With a career that lasted well over 40 years, Johnny Cash attracted millions of fans the world over, many of whom stayed with him through thick and thin – particularly in the late 70s and 80s when his recordings were infrequent and sold poorly.

It is of course no secret the Man In Black enjoyed enormous critical acclaim and re-assessment in the last few years of his life, as well as finding a whole new audience and set of fans, thanks to the series of LPs he recorded between 1994 and 2003 with Rick Rubin, someone whose initial burst with fame came courtesy of the Beastie Boys.

The merits of these LPs have split hardcore fans – there are some who think they’re an abomination made up largely of glorified karaoke, while there are others who rate some of the songs, and in particular the interpretations of the covers, as among Cash’s best.

It’s actually a difficult one to reach a definitive conclusion, partly because the advancement of recording and production techniques make the Rubin recordings completely different from anything else that Johnny Cash ever did. And it’s also clear that his voice wasn’t nearly the weapon it used to be – but then again, once any singer goes over the age of 40 or 50 they will never be able to hit the notes they could when they were in the 20s or 30s – for instance, ask Morrissey to try and sing the falsetto on Miserable Lie from The Smiths debut LP and I bet he’ll fail miserably so to speak….

I reckon Rick Rubin took a big risk when he initially partnered up with Johnny Cash, as no-one knew just how well the CD-buying public would react, and all too often stars of days of old come back and give us total turkeys. What we got over those last few years were a series of albums with a great deal of magical moments, but which also had some stuff that was dull and stodgy.

However, what it did do was create a new appreciation of the talents of Johnny Cash, and I’m guessing that almost everyone who bought one of the Rubin records would have at some point later and picked up one of the many compilation CDs released over the years that feature those mono-recordings with The Tennessee Three, not to mention the songs recorded live during concerts in infamous jailhouses.

The final LP released before Cash’s death was The Man Comes Around. By this time, illness had ravaged the singer’s body and his voice was not in great shape. There’s a lot of painful listening over the 16 tracks, and I think Rubin recognises this as evidenced by the inclusion of supporting and backing vocalists such as Nick Cave, Don Henley and Fiona Apple.

Nevertheless, the opening track after which the LP is named, is a truly astonishing bit of work. It is one of the last songs ever written by Cash. It has a hugely complicated lyric that weaves all sorts of biblical quotes into an incredibly catchy tune that is part-country, part-folk, part spiritual and part-rock. It’s a song written and sung by a man who knew he was dying and it is clearly an effort to leave one last might of memorable music behind amidst a tremendous legacy. In the accompanying sleevenotes, the great man admits “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote. “

mp3 : Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around

It’s an LP best known for the cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt, thanks to an unforgettable video that featured very heavily on the worldwide variations of both MTV and MTV2. The success of the video helped it to reach sales of more than 500,000 copies meaning for the first time in more than 30 years Johnny Cash qualified for a gold disc, an astonishing feat for someone who not too long beforehand would have struggled to get 1% of that amount of sales.

And while I’m rabbiting in this incoherent fashion, I think it’s a good time to share one of my favourite Cash recordings, a duet with Joe Strummer, covering a Bob Marley song:-

mp3 : Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer – Redemption Song

Happy Listening.