Collecting vinyl is a bitch. Setting aside the exorbitant cost for rare releases and the frustrating, relatively new trend of releasing as many alternate colors as possible for no reason, it’s just a pain to move. I used to extol the beauty of vinyl’s physicality; having just moved to a new house, I finally faced the unavoidable: It’s pretty damn heavy in mass quantities. Yet, like a guilty Catholic who keeps showing up to mass, I continue to collect records. One item I particularly treasure is the I Hired a Contract Killer seven-inch by Joe Strummer.
Credited to "Joe Strummer and the Astro-Physicians" (who were actually just members of the Pogues), I Hired a Contract Killer was a two-song mini-soundtrack for the black comedy of the same name. According to Chris Salewicz, who wrote the quite excellent biography Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, only 200 copies were pressed. Given that it came out in the middle of Strummer’s “wilderness period,” which essentially lasted from the Clash’s Cut the Crap until the triumphant comeback record Rock Art and the X-Ray Style with the Mescaleros, that actually sounds like a reasonable number. Strummer’s artistic confidence and commercial drawing power was low at the time. While he would go on to great success with Rock Art and the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack, the guy wasn’t getting much attention in 1990.
“Burning Lights” is the first song. It’s relatively obscure for a Strummer track, in that it isn’t as well known as, say, “White Riot,” although it seems to have earned a cult following among Strummer diehards. It sure doesn’t sound like “White Riot” either, driven instead by a mournful restlessness in the lyrics and guided by just guitar, bongos and vox. It is beautiful in its sincerity and simplicity. Line after line displays Strummer’s feelings of isolation at the time. While there is a thread of a plot about an outlaw woven throughout, lines like “You are the last of the buffalo” must have surely carried some weight for an original punk rocker in 1990.
“Afro-Cuban Be-Bop” sounds like a really sad version of a Mescaleros tune. Lyrically, it goes off on a tangent about loving music, a la “Bhindi Bhagee” or “Techno D-Day.” But it’s again anchored by guitar, bongos and vox, although some haunting saxophone and flute parts float by as well. Like “Burning Lights,” it’s sparsely arranged, but this just proves that Strummer didn’t need much musical adornment to get by.
“Afro-Cuban Be-Bop” is a fine tune, but “Burning Lights” is arguably one of the best Strummer songs of all time, and the main reason why I sought out I Hired a Contract Killer. It wasn’t easy either; the seven-inch only showed up on eBay once every few months. The first two times I bid on copies, they went for more than $200. But one day I got lucky (or maybe it was just the recession) and managed to be the lone bidder on this particular 45. Moving my records soured me on vinyl for a time, but I’m still glad to have such a find. I've noticed a few more copies pop up for bidding since then, although I hope some sort of Strummer rarities compilation comes out in the future. I have to believe the guy left behind more worthwhile demos and odds 'n' ends. For those who don’t want to hunt, feel free to watch the video for “Burning Lights” here.