Streetcore Album Review:
"Somewhere in my soul, there's always rock'n'roll" Joe Strummer sings in "Long Shadows." It's an admission that's borne out everywhere on this album, as Streetcore puts an emphasis on straight-up rock that slipped through his fingers on his previous two outings with The Mescaleros.
Produced from bits and pieces of finished and half-finished cuts made by Strummer shortly before his unexpected death at the end of last year, Steetcore isn't just a final album: It's a testament to everything the rock icon stood for over his now legendary 25-year career: It fuses the love of world-beat music with a rockin' backbone that hints at Strummer's days as a rabble-rousing punk. Most of all, it puts the songwriter's endearing sense of pathos and his two-sizes-too-big heart in the spotlight.
Global A Go-Go (2001, Hellcat) put Strummer's voracious musical appetites on display, as he led his act through everything from rocked-up rocksteady to confusing jaunts through psychedelia, Streetcore builds upon a rock foundation. From the rocked-up blues meets rocksteady that drives "Get Down Moses," to the driving rock beat that propels "All In a Day" through funky bass lines and a sense of groove-meets-punch that's been the signature of Strummer's best songs, this record forces Strummer's eclectic aims back onto a rock foundation. It's where they belong, too, as the to-the-point attitude on Streetcore makes it one of Strummer's most accessible solo ventures ever.
While most of the world will probably remember Strummer as the angry young dynamo who helped to propel The Clash through hundreds of songs, Streetcore, like all his subsequent solo work shows that underneath the piss and vinegar, sat a heart that overflowed with a love for the common man. When it combined with his eye for the injustices in the world, Strummer earned his reputation as an irate rocker. Whether it's with "Long Shadows," an acoustic track penned in honor of Johnny Cash or "Arms Aloft," a jaunt through straightforward rock that triumphs as tribute to the outright joy of life, there's no doubt that with his final album, Strummer was still as in love with the world as ever.
Despite the loving work done by The Mescaleros to finish this album after Strummer's death -- an approach that keeps his song structures and vocals at the center of each song -- the most compelling numbers on this album are the most unfinished ones. "Long Shadows," brims with the intimacy that comes with the acoustic-and-voice rendition of a song, as well as Strummer's songwriters' passion for his subject. The record's most stellar moment, however, comes in an acoustic guitar and voice rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that's poignant enough to put shivers down your spine.
There's no doubt the world lost one of its best songwriters when Strummer passed on in December. Luckily, Streetcore gives the world one final bittersweet glimpse, and a downright impressive one at that, at Strummer's passion.
- Matt Schild
Joe Strummer Feature:
With last week's release of Streetcore, the final chapter in Joe Strummer's legacy ended. Or did it?
Push aside all the rumors of live records, tapes dredged out of the bowels of Strummer's home and the lingering nostalgia that's kept the edges of Joe's memory raw for the past 10 months. If there's one thing we should have learned, it's that some things are bigger than music, bigger than records and bigger even than the defective ticker that cut his life short. While his final album captures unfinished business in The Mescaleros final trip into the studio, it's far from over: There's more to the Strummer legend than flesh and blood or the noises he made by plucking guitar strings.
If there's a more fitting reminder of Joe's legacy than Streetcore (Hellcat), it's contained on a Clash album. Already hailed as a future classic (it's only been on shelves for six days), Streetcore is Strummer's best solo effort. It dabbles in everything from the straightforward rock of "Coma Girl" to the blues-goes-raga of "Get Down Moses" in a reminder that, as long as it's done right, anything can be punk. From the intimate handling of Bob Marley's protest classic "Redemption Song" to the passionate celebration of life in "Arms Aloft," he took on the world's injustices with just as much excitement as he rejoiced in its finer moments. After all, could a just plain "angry" rocker ever have penned tunes that stir the passions as much as classics like "Complete Control" or modern cuts like "Coma Girl?" Look to your local punk club for evidence in the negative.
Even the most shortsighted rock historians could probably fill a book with the Joe's impact upon the music world. There were few, if any, acts in Britain's punk explosion that combined the Clash's runaway train energy with its knack for matching riffs and catch phrases. Throw in the band's conviction to the everyman's punk ideal -- it was known for its open dressing-room policy and hands-on approach to fans -- and its adherence to the power-to-the-people ethos that was lost in the '60s under an avalanche of acid, free-love and play-in-the-mud hedonism, and it's no wonder that The Clash quickly earned its "Only Band that Matters" nickname. And that was just in the first couple albums: 1979's London Calling (1979) and 1981's Sandinista! took the punk spirit out of the city and around the world, combining the band's trademark energy and zeal with everything from funk and a burgeoning New York style known as rap, to gospel, folk and, of course, the Caribbean styles of ska, rocksteady and reggae.<
Amid all the raves -- remember when Rolling Stone dubbed London Calling the best record of the 1980s? -- and the manic output (The Clash recorded well over 100 songs in a little over seven years), Joe's vision held true. Punk wasn't just a flash in the pan: In The Clash's able hands, it was a powerful weapon, a tool for crafting songs that were as lasting as anything was from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley.
His solo career, though less celebrated, shook off the gobs of spit from the punk masses and brought Joe's vision into the up-and-up rock arena. The tempos and distortion were gone, but who could mistake the passion in "Love Kills," a memorial to punk icon Sid Vicious or the excitement of a budding genre in "Techno D-Day?" That's the kind of stuff you just can't fake.
The sterile world of black-and-white pop cultural history will always undervalue Joe Strummer's legacy, because it deals in the world of what's easily defined, exactly measured and precisely described. Joe's work, like that of all the greats, simply can't be boiled down to hard facts because he dealt in feelings. It's easy to discuss how he changed rock history, from The Clash's importance of legitimizing punk to its visionary world-beat appetites to the number of bands that, to this day, continue to put the Last Angry Band at the top of their list of inspirations. There's no argument that Joe's work with the Clash, and to a lesser degree on his solo albums, changed rock history, but it doesn't stop there.
It changed lives.
Maybe it was the mystique that surrounded Joe's music that made it so easy for his fans to read between the lines. Punk rock was a passing fad for many listeners -- except when it came to The Clash. With songs that were more than youthful, idealist catchphrases, Strummer's songs resounded with listeners like so few other songwriters of his age. Ask any fan what Joe Strummer's solo work or The Clash's catalog and you're bound to get tales of lifelong inspiration, recollections of first listenings to The Clash (1977, Epic) the opened their eyes to the world of leftist thought, or realizations that, despite what their peers said, they weren't strange or weird because they wanted to be different.
While familiarity breeds contempt -- especially in a world where nearly every fast-talking punk rocker turned into the self-serving rockstar they claimed to despise -- Joe gave fans proof that living out punk's true-to-yourself ethos wasn't difficult. While he's taken flack for his involvement with major labels, critics overlook the concessions his band made to keep their music affordable: The double-LP London Calling was priced as a single record; 1983's Sandinista! (Epic), a massive three-disc set, was priced as a double album. The leverage The Clash used to get those prices? Cuts from royalty payments -- so much that it wasn't into well into the '90s that the act earned a dime from Sandinista!.
Fan support wasn't the only trick up Joe's sleeve. Well into his years as a solo artist -- when his reputation as a certifiable rock legend was already cemented -- he was still known to be as amicable and approachable as he was when he fronted the unknown 101ers in London's pub circuit.
Joe may not have cornered the market on pathos like Johnny Cash, rivaled Elvis' supply of cool, been as eccentrically genius as John Lennon, achieved prophet status like Bob Marley or even become as anti-corporate as Ian MacKaye, but he sure came close on all accounts. Can you name anyone who could come close to the top on so many lists? Probably not. Then again, how many people can write music that's just as inspirational to a middle-aged career man as it was to him 10, 15, 20 years ago when he was a wet-behind-the-ears punk rocker? How many musicians can boast any sort of abstract ideology in their music, let alone say that they still represent it after more than 25 years at the mic'?
Last time anyone checked, it was just Joe who could make such claims. His music permeated the souls of thousands of fans, and continues to do so. Whether it's with the little things -- dropping spare change into a disabled vet's hat -- or the big things -- knowing when to draw a line in the sand on moral issues -- Joe's sprit lives on. Sure, it'll thrive on recordings, but the intangible spirit that was inseparable from Joe and his music has found a life of its own in his fans. That's immortality.
Don't say Joe Strummer was a hero. He still is, and will always be.