Joe Strummer - Assembly (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Joe Strummer

Assembly (2021)

Dark Horse

Is the new Joe Strummer compilation, Assembly, necessary? No. Does this collection reveal a hereto unseen side of Joe? No. Does the material differ significantly differ that much from the Strummer 101 compilation, released just two years ago? No. Is Assembly a snappy little summary of Joe’s post-Clash work? Yes.

The mere existence of Assembly is a bit odd in that Strummer 101 was slated to be the first serious solo-Joe compilation, with later editions digging even deeper into the archives. But, instead of getting Strummer 201 a few years later, we just get a pared down version of that release with a few tracks swapped in and out. Paul Hicks, who has done a lot of work remastering and cleaning up the Beatles/McCartney/Lennon discography does a fine job of giving these tunes a crisp edge- though, aside from the stuff recorded in the ‘80s, all of these songs sounded pretty good to beging with. Jakob Dylan adds liner notes, but, so what?

That being said, without being too cynical, these tracks show that Joe had some fuel left in him after he left the Clash, even if his late ‘80s and early ‘90s wilderness years suggested he was out of gas. His strongest material certainly comes near the end of his life, tragically cut short. You all know :coma Girl” and “Johnny Appleseed,” but on those tracks, Joe takes his folk roots back to its roots, with a little bit of college/art-rock seasoning. Every once in a while, punk fire sparks up, like on “Get Down Moses,” but more than anything else, these tracks show that Strummer solo was equally drawn back to his Woody Guthrie roots as he was searching for something to give him some juice. For the most part, that means he wound up assembling a mélange of “world music,” twisting African poly-rhythm around a reggae-ish beat or country honk. A little jazz and Celtic hop appears here or there, giving Strummer’s music a real passport feel.

If you were resolutely pro-Joe, you could say he was finding interesting pieces from across the globe and making something new and groovy from that – and yes, most of these tracks are very groovy. If you were being less charitable, you’d argue that post-Clash, Joe never really found his footing again and was just aimlessly wandering around and picking up whatever style were laying around. That is, if the dude would just commit to full-on reggae, or full on post-punk, or even full-on folk, these tracks would each have more character, but instead, kind of sound like CoffeehouseXM.

I’m in both camps. Tracks like “Sleepwalk” and “Yalla Yalla” kind of sound like everyone taking it easy, and not in a good way. The 80s stuff sounds not only unfocused, but underwritten and the 80s production is a tough pill. “Love Kills,” frankly, is kind of a mess. Maybe it would have been better if the canned sounds weren’t beating down the power every second. But on the other hand, when Strummer and the Mescaleros solidified, they approached, and sometimes hit, greatness. The surrealist rnats of “Coma Girl” and “Get Down Moses” lend themselves to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed storytelling due to Strummer’s detail (and purposeful lack thereof) as well as the simplicity of the music. That is, when we only have, say four instruments on a song instead of everyone jamming all the time, it leaves from for an actual song, instead of just people playing. It’s not a coincidence that Strummer’s compositions and lyrics are simpler, more effective, and catchier here.

Still, you can’t ignore the fact that of the three rarities here, each are live takes of tracks either written by the Clash or performed by the Clash. (As great as “junco partner” is, do we need another version?) These additions alone seems to be somewhat of an apology- sure, Joe wasn’t fired up on his solo tracks, but he REALLY kicked it out live… which he did, and is kind of one of the things that makes his solo output somewhat frustrating. He could have blasted out another “London Calling” or “White Riot,” but chose not to. You could argue that this alone shows the man had integrity- instead og giving the fans what they wanted, he did what he wanted, instead. Though, it is frustrating that sometimes Joe doing what Joe wanted devolved into a bunch of rambled lyrics while people thwack away at whatever instruments were nearby. Then again, sometimes, as with “Coma girl,” sometimes it abstract, lyricism with forceful melody and lyrics that you can never quite get to the bottom of.

The fact is, because Joe was joe and because the Clash recorded some of the greatest music ever, Strummer tends to get a free pass for his solo work. Assembly shows that while Strummer solo may have more nuance or more room for interpretation, the raw power of his early work had been washed over with music that, was frankly, quieter. Assembly does answer more questions, though. First, it does appear that there are no long lost Strummer gems and what we got is about all we’re going to get. Second, it also proves that Strummer solo can stand on its own, even if that stance will always be in the shadow of an earlier band…