Joe Strummer - Walker (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Joe Strummer

Walker (1987)


Though he passed away seven years ago from a congenital heart defect, Joe Strummer's death continues to resonate with me. If Streetcore was any indication, the man still had more songs to write and sing, and it drives me crazy that, one day, I'll have heard his entire output and there won't be any more surprises. Until then, though, I've been doing my best to color in the margins. The first five Clash albums are all essential listening, as is B-sides collection Super Black Market Clash. I'm waiting for the day I finally cave and buy Cut the Crap, an album so bad that most people don't even know or acknowledge its existence. There are the three albums Strummer cut with the Mescaleros, which I think are just as good as the Clash's output. There are Earthquake Weather and assorted singles like "Love Kills," "The Harder They Come" and "It's a Rockin' World." My quest to stay in touch with Strummer has since led me to Walker, a pretty good Latin music soundtrack he composed for Repo Man director Alex Cox's 1987 film of the same name.

Walker, the movie, is an intentionally historically inaccurate biopic about William Walker (played by Ed Harris), an American who declared himself President of Nicaragua pretty much because he had enough money and firepower to do so. Strummer played a supporting role in the picture, perhaps thanks to his involvement with Cox in Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, and composed the soundtrack.

The album is an interesting listen for Strummer fans in that it downplays most of Strummer's strengths. There's no reggae, and Strummer sings for only a few of the 14 tunes. Rather, he trusted his assembled studio musicians and, with the help of violinist Dick Bright, provided rough sketches for the group to draw from. Once he handed over the demos, according to Chris Salewicz's excellent book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, ol' Joe would head out for breakfast in the afternoon while the band added touches to his foundation. The result is a record that, while not as immediate as, say, London Calling, is still appealing.

Walker is a much quieter record than the punk legend's other albums. It's mostly acoustic. It utilizes a lot of mandolin, banjo and brass instruments. It's free from the sterile '80s production that hampered Cut the Crap and, to a lesser extent, Earthquake Weather. The first half plays out like an extended Latino jam, ideal for warmer weather. Starting with track eight, "The Unknown Immortal," though, the band starts to change direction. For starters, Strummer actually approaches the mic on that song. Later, on "The Brooding Side of Madness," the group veers closer to orchestral music, with percussionist Stephen Mitchell pounding out a military marching rhythm. Folksy campfire sing-along "Tennessee Rain" brings Strummer back on vox, and it's arguably the most inviting of the songs.

Walker is a modest success. It was conceived to be chopped up and used by Cox however he saw fit, so the music is accordingly straightforward. It's perhaps best suited for the already converted, as there are at least 10 Strummer-related albums worth checking out prior to this, but it's still a good album and should appeal to folk music fans. If nothing else, it's the sound of Strummer finding his voice again.