Clash singer breaks ground

By Todd Martens - Staff Writer

The floor of the stage lay covered in spit and sweat. The young punks jammed themselves into the UK club and slam-danced--an act occasionally misinterpreted as fighting--their way to the front of the club, stretching for the stage as if they were prisoners and it represented their last and only hope for freedom.

The Clash came to the end of "Janie Jones," a song recently covered by Bush and the Neurotic Outsiders, and lead guitarist Mick Jones substituted the lyric of "Let them know" with "Let them go!"--directed at club security for hassling the rowdy crowd. Jones continued his tirade until lead singer Joe Strummer, probably heavily under the influence at the moment, slowly chimed in with, "all right, cool it, simmer down, control your temper." Immediately after getting the punks to calm down, Strummer introduced the next song. "This is entitled `I Wanna Riot, a Riot of My Own,'" referring to "White Riot." So much for settling down the crowd.

Almost 20 years later, the mood is much more serene as Strummer works in his home studio preparing to do something he hasn't done in almost eight years--release a new album.

A call to his London home was answered by his wife. She picked up the phone as if she had just been awakened. "He's in the studio, can you hold a minute?" Of course, it's been eight years. What's another minute?

A moment later, Strummer's hoarse accent, a one of a kind, unmistakable rock growl that sounds as if it has been plagued with an unshakable case of bronchitis, appeared on the other end of the line. "Hold on a minute, I'll just get myself a juice." What's another minute?


For all intents and purposes, the Clash ended in 1983 when Jones left the band. Strummer and bass player Paul Simonon released one more album in 1985, but it is best forgotten.

In 1979 Strummer sang, "Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust." Ironically, 1996 proved that it hadn't. Though the Clash may not have anthologies that tell the kids of today "Hey, this is important," the band's imprint on rock `n' roll can be heard in anyone who picked up a guitar after 1980. Fans have called for a release loaded with only studio outtakes, but Strummer has no plans to release one. "I'm not sure how much is there," he explained. However, Strummer did hint that a live album may someday appear, noting that the recorded material is "pretty kicking."

The Clash are most remembered for "Train in Vain," "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and the dance-influenced "Rock the Casbah." Still, those songs give only a slim look into the Clash's song-book. In 1977, the Clash stole the punk flame from the Sex Pistols and ran with it into the fields of reggae, dub, disco and even a little bit of jazz. "We said that if we can play a style, we'd dive right in there," Strummer said.

Well, enough about the past; Strummer was heard for the first time in too long a time on the punk compilation Generations I: A Punk Look at Human Rights. He was contacted by producer-friend Jason Rotheberg and his admiration for Jack Healey's Human Rights agenda instantly drew him to the project. Strummer hastily put together a band for the project and used the name Electric Dog House, which was suggested by his producer, John X. It seemed a little odd that Strummer would break his silence with a return to punk, and initially it looked as if he was going back to his roots. "It wasn't that at all really," he said. "I wouldn't have minded what sort of album it was. I was just going to do my tune for Jason and Jack."

As it turned out, the tune titled "Generations" wasn't really a punk song after all. The song features a rock chorus but has elements of psychedelia and a flying guitar that sort of hovers in and out. "Speed," Strummer said, alluding to the limited time he was given to record, was the main influence on the song.

"We had one day to record it. I didn't really have time to think about what kind of direction that tune would be," he said. "I just wrote it and we burned it out, and I think it was about the third take that it was in the can."

Strummer recorded the song with ex-Damned drummer Rat Scabies, who he ran into outside the offices of A&M Records in Hollywood. Danny Saber, known for producing Black Grape, recommended that Strummer use Scabies for the song.

"I said, `Oh, that's a good idea, Mr. Saber,'" Strummer said.

Scabies, in turn, brought in bassist Seggs, who is known for working with England's Chemical Brothers. Adding to the hurried pressure of recording "Generations" was the fact that Seggs had to catch a plane back to London. "Seggs' cab driver was in the control room when we were doing that last take. That's how desperate it was getting," Strummer said with a laugh. "He literally put his bass down, jumped in the cab, and flew to England. You can even hear it bang."

Strummer encountered another amusingly desperate situation while recording a track for a Jack Kerouac tribute album. The album, featuring the likes of Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, John Cale and Patti Smith among others, is titled Kerouac--kicks joy darkness and hits stores the first week in April. Strummer used a recording of Kerouac reading one of his poems in a bar in the late 1950s. His assignment was to put music behind it, but Kerouac read his poem in a room adjacent to one where Frank Sinatra was performing, which caused a slight problem.

"I had to try to cover up Frank Sinatra so Rykodisc wouldn't get sued," he said. "So I had to invent this crazed backing part. Every time Frank Sinatra would pop his head round the door, I'd have to cruise over the top of it." Strummer described the song as a sort of "street blues."

Strummer worked on both of these projects while he was in Los Angeles to compose the score for "Grosse Pointe Blank," a John Cusack film starring Dan Akroyd. Strummer would only describe the material for "Grosse Pointe Blank" as "sort of spooky." The Electric Dog House crew helped Strummer, but most of the score was done by himself with the help of engineer Bryan Kerrigan. The film is to be released at the end of April, and Strummer also appears on the film's soundtrack with the Clash song "Armagideon Time."

With the score and songs on two different compilations, it is clear that Strummer is ready to come out of hiding and record again. But why did it take so long?

"To me, it's not like that," Strummer said. "I've kind of been recording songs for a long time, but they've not appeared." Strummer hopes to have them appear in the near future.

Last year, it was rumored that Strummer had recorded an album under the band name Strummerville and then trashed it, but that's really not what happened at all.

Strummer hooked up with Richard Norris, a member of the UK techno group the Grid, and recorded a few songs before the two started to drift apart. He plans on releasing those songs once he gets the clearances to do so. As for getting the clearances, Strummer avoided discussing the specifics of the legal information surrounding the songs, but simply said, "I'm sure you can come to accommodations with anyone."

Strummer plans on releasing the Norris songs and quite a few others in what he calls a "varied bag." "It's going to be a couple of songs with myself and Richard Norris, and then some songs with myself and Pablo Cooke, songs with Seggs and Rat Scabies, or songs with myself and Brian Setzer. I've been doing all these various projects and there's quite a lot of things bubbling in the sea around me."

The new album will range from techno to rock to reggae. With the recent electronic onslaught, some may call Strummer a bandwagon jumper for dabbling in the world of techno, but even those only slightly familiar with the Clash should be able to recall the band's love for disco and studio-made music (see Sandinista!). Strummer's Clash-mate Jones even went on to form a dance-rock band, but Strummer assures us that his songs bear no similarities to Jones' Big Audio Dynamite.

"I quite like the way the techno scene changes so much here," he said, referring to the British dance scene. "Every week a new record will come out and a new sub-genre will play. I find that very exciting."

Although the album will feature some dance tracks, Strummer seemed most proud of a song he recorded with "the great Jamaican singer Horace Andy." The song, "Living in the Flood," highlights an almost Arabian melody that brings to mind images of wicker baskets and dancing snakes, with soul-like lyrics over a reggae beat. "I sent lyrics to Andy and--bang--he just did his stuff," he said excitedly.

Strummer plans on recording some songs with Kermit from Black Grape and to "keep making interesting music" with "whoever stops in." Strummer may be working with a cast of all-stars, but he slyly added, "They don't really know they're involved. This is something I've just sort of cooked up."

It was rumored that Strummer was having difficulty finding a record deal, but he denied this. "I haven't really started. I don't see any difficulty--well, I hope."

As previously rumored, Strummer will call the project Strummerville, a name he took from a British journalist who was writing about a camping trip Strummer took. "Some journalists were up to saying in a newspaper report that it was `so and so' hanging out at Strummerville," he said. "I thought it was a neat name. Really, it's just a party we have around a campfire."

Well, no matter what kind of party Strummer seems to have, the Clash remain the one band everyone wants to see reunite. Just at the beginning of this year, the Beastie Boys contacted the Clash to play the Tibet concert taking place this summer.

Three years ago, rumors were flying that the Clash were going to headline Lollapalooza, but Strummer says now, "That sort of went off without our knowledge. The ball had run away with itself before we even heard about it."

Although a reunion is not planned, Strummer gave the diplomatic answer "I don't know what the future brings."

Strummer is happy to report that he now gets along with the other members of the Clash and they do see each other fairly often because "our kids hang out."

Although Strummer may not know what the future brings, at least a trip to Strummerville can be counted on.

Copyright 1997 by the Daily Trojan. All rights reserved.??

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