MESSAGE FROM THE UNDERWORLD: JOE STRUMMER AND THE MESCALEROS. ON NOT BEING THE CLASH
"When the jangling guitar alarm that is the intro to 'Londonís Burning' resounded from the stage, I felt, at last, like something vital, urgent and necessary was taking place. I was a sleepy farmer awakening from a tequila-soaked siesta, and the outlaws were at the gate. It was nothing less than a call to arms soaked in snarling humor with rancor and bite. Here, at last, was the requisite irony, the essential aggression. It was about time."
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Recently I went to see Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros wrap-up their U.S. tour at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. I wish I could say he rocked my socks off. I canít. I wish I could say he totally blew. He didnít. Itís not that Iím ambivalent. I know exactly how I feel about Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I am, however, uncomfortable feeling so middle-of-the-road about a performer whose songs and sensibilities warped my consciousness from the first time I heard The Clash as a teenager. I guess you could say I have issues.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros is a five-piece outfit that comprises a vigorous admixture of auspicious young talent and older blokes whoíve been through the wars with Joe. The title of their latest release Global A Go Go on Hellcat, the imprint of indie mega-label Epitaph, pretty much says it all. Itís an eclectic mix of music with influences from all over the world. Sadly, the sentence "Itís an eclectic mix of music with influences from all over the world" is about as lame as descriptors get. Itís a sentence that could apply to the treacle one hears on VH1. Itís a sentence out of the realm of adult contemporary music. To wit, itís the punk rock kiss of death.
Oh, I suppose thereís wit and humor to be found on Global A Go Go, and thereís no shortage of political irony, but itís a strangely downbeat record. The final track, an arrangement of "The Minstrel Boy," sounds like a Celtic dirge, like Ashley McIsaac on the nod. Global A Go Go is a remarkable record for it manages to be interesting and boring as hell at the same time. Of course, none of us assembled at the Troubadour that night came to hear Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. We came to hear The Clash. And Joe, being Joe, managed to exhilarate and disappoint at the same time. The songs he played can be classified in the five following categories:
JOE STRUMMER AND THE MESCALEROS SONGS. Well over half the songs fell into this category, and thatís probably the way it should be. Still, its was frustrating to go from the lazy down-stroke rhythms of the Mescaleros to the uptempo melodies of The Clash and then back down again. It was like waiting for a wave that never came. Despite my fondness for traditional arrangements from the Clancy Brothers to Flogging Molly, I cringed every time that fucking fiddle came out of its case.
SONGS POPULARIZED BY THE CLASH BUT BELONGING TO TRADITIONS FOR WHICH THE CLASH NEITHER IMPROVED UPON NOR PROFANED, BUT FOR BETTER OR WORSE WILL ALWAYS BE ASSOCIATED WITH THE CLASH. You know the songs I am referring to here, namely: "Police and Thieves" and "I Fought the Law," the former appeared on their seminal self-titled 1977 UK debut, the latter a little later on their first US release.
THE MAJORITY OF THE SONGS RECORDED ON SANDANISTA, WHICH DONíT REALLY COUNT AS THE CLASH SONGS. Thankfully, there werenít too many of these, but after just one ("Police on My Back") it started to feel like a cruel joke had been foisted on me. Of all the world-changing, epoch-shattering, punk rock proclamations in The Clash repertoire, a weak-ass Eddy Grant song just doesnít cut it. I couldnít get to the bar fast enough.
THE CLASH SONGS. Too few ("Rudy Canít Fail," "Londonís Burning") particularly when one considers the fifth categoryÖ
FUCKING REGGAE COVERS. I ask you, does any white person really have the right to play a non-ironic version of Jimmy Cliffís "The Harder They Come"? Absolutely, unequivocally, not. Looking around me I began to feel like a lab animal who had been tricked back into its cage. Who were these flaccid fucks dancing like they were at a free white-boy reggae festival on their college quad circa 1990? Where were all the real punk rockers?
For all my disgust and disappointment, when the jangling guitar alarm that is the intro to "Londonís Burning" resounded from the stage, I felt, at last, like something vital, urgent and necessary was taking place. I was a sleepy farmer awakening from a tequila-soaked siesta, and the outlaws were at the gate. It was nothing less than a call to arms soaked in snarling humor with rancor and bite. Here, at last, was the requisite irony, the essential aggression. It was about time.
You canít bring back the Ď70s. Hell, I know that. Only a nostalgic fool would even try. The highlight of the show may have only been an approximation of The Way It Was, but for a fleeting moment, it was exactly the way it should have been. Too bad it couldnít last -- the oft-repeated refrain of the standard punk rock dilemma.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Ruland lives in L.A. and writes for the punk rock fanzines Razorcake and Destroy All Monthly. The Discovery of America, a punk rock picaresque, is presently being serialized at Sweet Fancy Moses.