10 Best Joe Strummer Songs
Ten years ago, on Dec. 22, 2002, when Joe Strummer died suddenly of an undiagnosed congenial heart defect, rock 'n' roll lost one of its most passionate and complex figures. As frontman for the Clash, the legendary London punk band he didn't found but certainly defined, Strummer stood for truth and justice, inspiring generations of guitar slingers, political activists and rebels of all stripes. He seemed a man of mythic virtue -- a Woody Guthrie-style crusader whose Telecaster sure as s--- killed fascists -- but behind the scenes, he was all too human. Following the breakup of the Clash in 1986, Strummer lost his way, and during his so-called "wilderness years" -- a period that didn't end until the late '90s, when he signed to Rancid singer Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records label and began a remarkable late-life comeback -- he wrestled with numerous contradictions and personal troubles. Ultimately, he's more interesting for his foibles and missteps -- no one likes a boyscout -- and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his death, we created a list of the 10 Best Joe Strummer Songs, selections chosen from his often-frustrating, periodically brilliant post-Clash years. RIP, Joe.
Recorded in Los Angeles with the colorfully named backing band Latino Rockabilly War, Strummer's 1989 solo debut, 'Earthquake Weather,' is a messy attempt at Clash-style eclecticism. Still, Joe seldom failed in rock 'n' reggae mode, and with lead single 'Gangsterville,' he manages at least one keeper.
Presumably written about Sid Vicious -- "Walking out of England thinking you were king taking on the world" -- this harmonica-laced rocker plays more like a eulogy for a doomed cowboy than a tribute to the late Sex Pistols bassist. Chalk that up to Strummer's fascination with American culture, particularly Hollywood Westerns -- a genre he would explore further the following year, when he composed the score for 'Walker,' another Alex Cox film.
The leadoff track to Strummer's Hellcat debut announces Joe's comeback with a rock-solid reggae groove and hopeful lyric: "I'm waiting for the rays of the morning sun." The title refers to a sensitive British soccer star who went public in the '90s with his struggles with alcoholism. Did Joe, who fancied a bit of drink, see himself in the famous footballer, or did he simply need a symbol of originality and rejuvenation? Either way, 'Tony Adams' is a stellar kick-off to Strummer's most satisfying and consistent solo effort.
Another winning reggae-rock hybrid, the opening song on Strummer's posthumously released 2003 album 'Streetcore' is a romantic, semi-sensical travelogue about a motorcycle gang and its muse. "Let's siphon up some gas!" he sings, as restless and enthusiastic as ever. "Let's get this show on the road!"
Our Turkish-born, London-raised hero possessed a boundless curiosity, not just for music but culture in general, and with this, No. 4 on our list of the Best Joe Strummer Songs, he squeezes together lyrics about Africa, bebop and the great rockabilly singer Eddie Cochran. By this time, Strummer had found happiness with his second wife, Lucinda, and recommitted himself to family, and the domestic stability inspires his all-time tenderest line: "You'd think that god wouldn't be so hard/ when you see all the little children running, running in the backyard."
A duet with Johnny Cash appears on the late country legend's 'Unearthed' box set, but Strummer's solo reading of the Bob Marley standard hits just as hard. The version heard in the video is even more powerful, thanks a spoken-word intro taken from one of Joe's BBC radio broadcasts. "It's time to take humanity back to the center of the ring," Strummer says, making a plea for decency and compassion and sounding on the verge of tears. "Without people, you're nothing." In fact, he was suffering from a cold, but that can't completely explain the warble in his voice.
On this spacey electro-dub cut, recorded before Joe formed the version of the Mescalaros that would back him on his three final albums, Strummer again writes from the perspective of a parent. "Well, so long, liberty / Let's forget you didn't show/ Not in my time," he sings, looking ahead to a better world for his kids. He derives his optimism from the anything-goes multiculturalism afforded by modern technology, and big-upping old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee in between bites of kebab at a London takeaway, he's the quintessential 21st century global citizen.
Arriving some 10 months after Strummer's death, 'Streetcore' was bound to pack an emotional wallop. Still, nothing could prepare fans for this Bobby Charles cover, sequenced last on the album by Joe's grieving bandmates. It's a song about loving life, asking forgiveness and planning new adventures, and as if that weren't heartbreaking enough, the track ends with Strummer declaring, "That's a take." Borderline manipulative, this emotional sucker-punch hurts so good.
Indicative of Strummer's crummy luck in the '80s, the fantastic 'Trash City,' dubbed by some "the last great Clash song," is buried on the soundtrack to 'Permanent Record,' a film that even star Keanu Reeves has likely forgotten about. The pinnacle of Joe's work with Latino Rockabilly War, 'Trash City' is Strummer's version of a mindless party jam, and for as tossed off as the lyrics may seem, they're pretty clever. "First I got a hot dog in a nightmare zone / Then I vandalize a cheap payphone," he sings in one crazy couplet, talking nonsense yet hitting on two of his favorite themes: American junk culture and upsetting the status quo.
'Global a Go-Go,' the second installment in the Meskys trilogy, is too far-reaching for its own good, and more often than not, Joe and the gang sacrifice melody and meaning in favor or sonic experimentation and lyrics about food. But they get it right on the opener, pairing Joe's simple yet profound words with a melody composed by violinist Tymon Dogg, a then-new addition who'd played with Strummer in his pre-Clash days. Johnny Appleseed,' No. 1 on our list of the Best Joe Strummer Songs, is a modern folk classic about finding and preserving what's good in the world, whether that's Martin Luther King's peaceful dream or the sweet hum of a Buick '49. "If you're after getting the honey," Strummer says, "Then you don't go killing all the bees." Sounds right to us.