It starts with the Clash. Of course it starts with the Clash. The righteous slogans, the snarl, the look, my God the look, with burning eyes and hungry faces, how it could not start there. When punk comes to you young, you live inside the first two Clash records, with their buzzing guitars and call for revolution, before London Calling drops some reggae into the warm mix and opens up your world. This is the only band that could possibly matter, and it’s led by a guy with fake teeth, a secret diplomat father and all the right words.
For all his success, it’s hard talking about Joe Strummer without talking about his death 10 years ago, how he was in the midst of another creative hot streak to rival the Clash’s first five records. Not to get all black-and-white, but I think there’s two ways to go about punk: Negative, self-destructive nihilism (anything from benign drunk punk to the Sex Pistols and beyond), which always struck me as stupid and small by arguing that nothing matters; and passionate, individualistic positivism which asserts that everything matters (Latterman, the Bouncing Souls, Jesse Michaels and the got-damn Clash). Anarchy is just a fire, directionless; the way Strummer called people to take up arms against their oppressors and better themselves was a fire with a purpose.
It’s because of his infectious fervor that my fandom does not end with Combat Rock. Instead, it begins. Hellcat Records has done well to keep Strummer’s final three releases, with the Mescaleros, in print, and they’ve even started dropping rarities this year. But in between the Clash and the Mescaleros, I have amassed a treasure of nuggets and near-misses. Never forget, between 1986 and 1999, Strummer was still a prolific songwriter. The world just wasn’t looking as closely.
All of this hype is to introduce the “England’s Irie” 12” from Black Grape, a club rock outfit led by once and future Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder. It’s terribly dated, trapped in English ’90s raver culture. But fandom makes a punk do funny things, because Strummer just so happens to have a songwriting credit on this track, and appears on backup vocals as well.
“England’s Irie” admittedly has a couple of neat hooks squeezed into its soccer hooliganistic lyrics. But in its original format, it feels like a couple of song snippets smashed together. It’s goofy fun, but it gets old. Richard Norris’ “Pass the Durazac” remix streamlines the tune into more of a dance track, dropping the hoaky rapping in favor of pushing Strummer’s bark higher up in the mix. Hein Hoven pulls a similar trick with his “Mel’s L.A. Irie” mix on the B-side, again emphasizing Strummer, the only guy in the group who can actually sing, and slathering it over a tribal beat.
I’m not going to act like “England’s Irie” is essential Strummer listening. Everyone should grab the first five Clash records, then the three Mescalero’s records, then Strummer’s soundtracks for Straight to Hell and Walker, then his solo record Earthquake Weather. But if you’re like me, you can’t accept that there will be no new Strummer songs, so you dig. That’s why I’ve got multiple releases from the Clash Mark Two, Strummer’s ill advised attempt to keep the band name going after Mick Jones left (although, in all honesty, I totally love my “This is England” single and my bootleg of the band’s critically acclaimed, commercially underwhelming busker tour, entitled Acoustic Riot). That’s why I own a bootleg featuring an alternate mix of “Burning Lights” along with the actual “Burning Lights” single.
In life and death, Strummer was and is incorruptible (well, minus the womanizing…). He is punk rock’s great conscience, reminding us that we all be something bigger. People look to preachers for big life advice; mine just happened to wield a guitar.