Bandmates do Joe Strummer proud with posthumous Mescaleros album
Strummer: His last album is being released today.
By John Moore
Denver Post Staff Writer
Two days before last Christmas, there was too much sadness and shock from one phone call for Martin Slattery to absorb at once. Joe Strummer, former co-frontman of the seminal punk band the Clash, had been found dead of a heart attack at age 50.
The record Slattery and Strummer were making with their band, the Mescaleros, was nine months in the works but nowhere near completed. Would finishing the final album for one of the most important figures in rock history be seen as crass commercialization or the greatest gift Slattery could give a fallen friend?
"(Strummer's wife) Luce called that evening and said that he'd died, so it was a fraught and frantic discussion, you know?" Slattery said from London. "It was pretty heavy, man. We all did Christmas in a kind of a stunned state."
In January, Slattery and bandmate Scott Shields sat down with Luce and discussed what to do.
"I did feel that the right thing would be to finish it, but I was wanting to check with her in particular and just see that it wasn't too insensitive a thing to do," Slattery said. "But Luce really wanted to go ahead with it, and so did we, and to be honest I didn't really care what anyone else thought because Luce was the only one who knew Joe's mind."
Two weeks later, Slattery and Shields, acting as co-producers, ensconced themselves in a Welsh studio with a new mission: To draw a fully realized record from incomplete material, and to make it a fitting farewell.
Thanks to Slattery and Shields, Strummer will rock, rather than rest, in peace. The upbeat and celebratory "Streetcore," released today, already is being hailed as a classic. And deservedly so.
"The spirit is our gasoline" is a line from one song, but it might as well speak for the fuel that feeds the record. It is joyous, rollicking and by its final track, a perfectly sentimental goodbye.
"Streetcore" is easily Strummer's biggest hitmaker since leaving the Clash behind in 1986. It features a little bit of everything, from flat-out guitar rock to country ballads to choral, arm-waving anthems to techno experimentation that includes, of all things, Strummer sampling Strummer.
"Streetcore" is a 10-song record with an intriguing back story to nearly every track. The opening tune, "Coma Girl," was affectionately inspired by Strummer's daughter, Lola. It is likely to become the biggest hit because it comes with a video pieced together by drummer Dick Rude.
Because three of Strummer's favorite new songs - "Dakar Meantime," "Steady America" and the reggae drug tune "Bases Are Loaded" - were never recorded, Slattery included two tracks independently recorded by Rick Rubin and Danny Saber in Los Angeles: "Long Shadow," which Strummer wrote for Johnny Cash (who died before he could record it) and the Bob Marley cover, "Redemption Song."
"Coma Girl," "Arms Aloft" and "All in a Day" make up a smoking dance set, and subsequent tracks include winking references to London both burning and calling: the Jimi Hendrix-inspired "Burnin' Streets" and "Midnight Jam." That's a bit of Clash business that Slattery swears is "pure accident."
"'Burnin' Streets' is a modern-day take on how London is," Slattery said. "And the 'London is calling' thing is taken from Joe's (BBC) World Service shows he did. That was his little introduction to the show that someone recorded, and so we put it to this (repetitive) delay.
"I really liked the idea of sampling Joe for his own record. I suppose it's kind of a Clash reference but it wasn't necessarily intended in that way. The whole thing about Joe was moving forward."
Several songs presented huge challenges in the studio for a team whose members were being driven a bit mad from not knowing exactly what Strummer wanted but still were hearing his recorded voice up to 18 hours a day. They rearranged Strummer's epic stream-of-consciousness narrative "Ramshackle Day Parade," adding a vocal chorus that now makes the song build slowly into a thrilling opus.
"Burnin' Streets" proved the greatest production challenge.
"When we started, that was a completely different tune. It was all programming and it was all very fast," Slattery said. "In the end it just wasn't right for the album because that fast, upbeat thing just made it a bit too twee.
"So we slowed it down, but that was quite a challenge in itself because we couldn't do anything with the vocals. That's why the vocals have this hard-stomping movement to it, even though the music is all pretty chill behind it."
Because Strummer didn't believe in a heaven for himself - "only for Joey Ramone," he often said - his final song will knock his fans over with a feather. "Silver and Gold" is the renamed cover of Bobby Charles' "Before I Grow Too Old." The song, with the lyrics "I do a lot of things I know is wrong; hope I'm forgiven before I'm gone," was written in 1952 - the year Strummer was born.
"That was the first thing we recorded for 'Global A Go-Go,' Slattery said of the Mescaleros' acclaimed "but more random" 2001 record. "Joe just said he wanted to record it and it got put to one side. But as 'Global A Go-Go' slowly became what it was, we had enough original material and there didn't seem really any point chucking that on."
It was Luce and Patti Palladin (who sang with Johnny Thunders) who suggested "Silver and Gold" as the album's last track.
"Luce said to me, 'It's a woman's thing,"' Slattery said. "But she had it totally right."
Slattery is tormented that he did not force Strummer to record the vocals for his final songs, but the acclaim "Streetcore" is generating has brought some relief.
"I'm just proud to have been involved with him, and I'm proud of everything we have done together," he said. "I am really glad this has come out the way it has and that people are digging it. It would have been awful for people to not like this."
In the end, it might be "Long Shadow" that lives on as Strummer's epitaph:
"I'll tell you one thing I know: You don't face your demons down. You grab them by the collar and you wrestle them to the ground."