Joe Strummer Boxed Set Proves the Clash Frontman's Songwriting Skills

A new Joe Strummer box drops on September 28.
A new Joe Strummer box drops on September 28. Bob Gruen

In a 1991 interview, Joe Strummer told writer Chris Salewicz in an article for the Daily Telegraph (which also appears in his biography Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer) that he realized his “stuff was never going to reach a wide audience. So that’s a hard thing to realize, and to come to terms with, especially after you’ve been big. The Clash had massive record sales and reached a lot of people.”

While Strummer’s output after the Clash might not have achieved sales on par with the band he fronted from 1977 until 1986, when a second lineup of the group disbanded, the material he recorded until his death in 2002 at the age of fifty was broad in scope, as evidenced by Joe Strummer 001, a 32-track boxed set slated for release on September 28 that covers his work outside of the Clash, including a number of songs he wrote for soundtracks, his work with the Mescaleros, collaborations with Johnny Cash and Jimmy Cliff, and a dozen previously unreleased cuts.

Not long before officially ending the Clash, Strummer first met Repo Man director Alex Cox in late 1985, in the bathroom of a London pub where Cox was throwing a wrap party for the English section of a film he was working on about the lives of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, originally titled Love Kills and later dubbed Sid and Nancy. Cox asked Strummer if he’d like to see the film after he finished and write some music for it.

The five songs he recorded for Sid and Nancy would be his first post-Clash. “Love Kills,” the main theme of the film, is included on Joe Strummer 001 along with two outtakes with Clash guitarist Mick Jones, the first recording Strummer and Jones did since 1982’s Combat Rock — the bluesy “Crying on 23rd” and “2 Bullets,” sung by Pearl Harbour.

Strummer would go on to work with Cox again, starring in Straight to Hell after scoring the film Walker, which Strummer composed during and after production in Nicaragua. While most of Walker is steeped in Latin rhythms and might be the furthest astray from the music of the Clash, at least stylistically, “Tennessee Rain,” which is included in Joe Strummer 001, has more of a country feel. Strummer aligned more with his Clash history on “Trash City,” from the Permanent Record soundtrack, which was released in 1988, a year before his solo debut album, Earthquake Weather.

One of the boxed set’s strongest songs is “US North,” an unused track for the film Candy Mountain that pairs Strummer with Jones and Big Audio Dynamite drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan. A demo version of the song, which was found in Strummer’s cupboard in cassette form, is included in the limited-edition deluxe set, which also boasts four 180 gram LPs, a 7” single, an A4 book, an enamel badge, an art print, a screen print, lyrics and a sticker sheet.

click to enlarge Joe Strummer 001 limited-edition deluxe boxed set. - JOE STRUMMER 101
Joe Strummer 001 limited-edition deluxe boxed set.
Joe Strummer 101
Strummer’s film music was as varied as the material he wrote later in his career with the Mescaleros, of which there are seven songs recorded between 1999 Rock Art & The X-Ray Style through Streetcore, released a year after Strummer died. The box includes “Burning Lights” and “Afro-Cuban-Be-Bop,” both from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s film I Hired a Contract Killer, in which Strummer also had a cameo. Sara Driver, longtime partner of Jim Jarmusch, recruited Strummer to write music for her film, When Pigs Fly, and three songs are included on Joe Strummer 001, including the title track, “Pouring Rain” and “Rose of Erin.”

While most of Joe Strummer 001 focuses on his post-Clash work, there are three cuts from the 101ers (the band he fronted from 1974 to 1976), including the version of “Letsagetabitarockin” from the 1975 album Elgin Avenue Breakdown and a stripped-down cassette demo of the song with just Strummer and his guitar.

The demos and unreleased cuts, some of which were found among tapes and letters in Strummer’s barns after his death, are part of what makes this boxed set so compelling. There’s the bass-heavy “Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England,” which is an early version of “This Is England,” or the jazzy “The Cool Impossible,” which feels like a cousin of “Leopardskin Limousines" from Earthquake Weather, or the unreleased version of “London Is Burning,” which was reworked into “Burning Streets” on Strummer’s final album, Streetcore.

Although Jones was the main music writer in the Clash, with Strummer writing a majority of the lyrics, Strummer proved in years following the Clash that he could handle both lyrics and music amazingly well, and Joe Strummer 001 is proof of that. 
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon