Strummertime Is Here Again Pt 1
We recently reported that author Joe Swinford is to publish his very personnal account of his experiences growing up with The Clash ‘Searching For The Young Joe Rebel’ – As you will be aware it now nine years this week since Joe Strummer passed away, as such we are delighted to be able to exclusively bring you a couple of chapters from the book – those that deal with Joe in particular
‘Searching For The Young Joe Rebel’ is to be published in early 2012.
STRUMMERTIME IS HERE AGAIN (Part 1)
“I was burnt out by the intensity of five years with The Clash. Then my parents died and my kids were born, which was a real one-two. When I was ready to come back, the difficulty was hooking up with people to work with. When you’ve been in a band as successful as The Clash there’s a curtain around you. But I kept my energy.”Â
After The Clash split, Joe Strummer composed film soundtracks and acted in several low-key movies ”â including, Alex Cox’s, Sid And Nancy, Walker and Straight To Hell (Joe also penned the bulk of the score to American teen suicide flick, Permanent Record). Aside from his questionable acting ability in Rude Boy, Hell, was Joe’s first legitimate screen role. However, when released in 1987 it was universally slammed and Joe received a severe battering in reviews. Strummer’s somewhat self-conscious performance, proved beyond doubt, that, although he was a top-drawer performer and wordsmith, he was no thespian. Cynics even cruelly renamed the film, Straight To Video! Also, despite Strummer’s commendable efforts on the soundtrack to… Hell, the two tunes officially credited in his name, Evil Darling and Ambush At Mystery Rock, resemble little more than ‘knock-up’ jobs. Subsequently, the film and soundtrack sank without causing much of a stir.
Cox’s somewhat distorted version of events in Sid And Nancy, spawned more disparaging reviews. Even though Joe was rumoured to have been responsible for the bulk of the soundtrack, only Love Kills and Dum Dum Club carried Strummer’s name. These sessions proved significant, as Strummer was reunited with Mick Jones again following their collaboration on BAD’s Number 10 Upping St. Although un-credited, it’s rumoured, Jones provided guitar and backing vocals on Love Kills and Dum Dum Club. But Mick’s version remains in the vaults.
Sid And Nancy was littered with inaccuracies and as a result, reviews were poor. The actors portraying the Pistols were miscast and amateurish. Notwithstanding Gary Oldman’s noteworthy portrayal of Vicious, the film was savaged. Even Joe’s long time nemesis John Lydon attacked Strummer and Cox for their involvement in the film. (Strummer didn’t have anything to do with the script ”â he only worked on the soundtrack. So, Lydon would have been better checking the facts before opening his oversized mouth!
In mid 1988, Strummer was due to headline the anarchist backed Class War, Rock Against The Rich Tour. (Class War were actively involved in direct action in opposition to then UK Tory rule). Rumour has it, Class War’s Ian Bone approached Strummer in a Notting Hill watering hole one evening, and following a session on the booze, Joe was cajoled into fronting the tour.
My mate Alf and I were keen to check out one of the opening dates of the tour, at Bristol Beirkeller on Monday July 18TH. We blagged our way into the soundcheck, to witness Strummer put his band through their paces with repeated readings of Walker’s Tennessee Rain and London Calling’s Spanish Bombs. We met Joe before the gig and he was cool and friendly. Thankfully, the dodgy Cut The Crap mohawk was gone! Joe’s backing band, The Latino Rockabilly War, were lacking in the image stakes, and for someone who was an integral part of a high profile, image conscious band like The Clash, it was thought, Joe would have hired musicians who not only played well, but also fitted the bill in the threads department. I’m sure Joe had he’s reasons, but on this occasion, ability was preferred over image. In certain circumstances this isn’t a bad thing, however, in this instance, The Latino Rockabilly War looked inappropriate, alongside Strummer’s unmistakable cool. Stepping into Mick Jones’ shoes must be a daunting task (ask Nick Shepherd and Vince White), but bespectacled Latino’s guitarist Zander Schloss was on a hiding to nothing from the off. He wasn’t a bad guitarist, but endless over-played guitar fills, drew obvious comparisons to Mick’s work. Sadly, Zander’s playing was messy and overworked. Drummer Willie McNeil was OK, but rudimentary compared to Topper. Naming the band, The Latino Rockabilly War was appropriate, as it was indeed a collision of musical styles. But it must have been difficult for Joe to assemble a credible outfit equalling The Clash’s legacy.
In the excitement leading up to the gig, Alf and I began drinking at 11a.m. Sadly, by the time Strummer took the stage; I was face down in the Beirkeller toilets acquainting myself with the workmanship of Armitage Shanks! So, I saw little of Strummer’s set and just made the last train home.
The following day, Alf and I were nursing hangovers in an Exeter pub, trying to think of ways to drum up cash to see Strummer in Merthyr Tydfil that night. We were flat broke, and had only loose change between us. We were desperate, and thought there must be someone idiotic enough to part with their hard earned cash. My father had recently retired from the abject misery that is the prison service, and received a bumper payout. We never got on, but he’d mellowed with financial stability, and surprisingly, he coughed up the much-needed funds. Suitably wedged up, Alf and I arrived in Merthyr early that evening, and contemplated a beverage, until we saw a group of Welsh head cases hanging around giving us the evil eye. We didn’t fancy any fisticuffs, so we hung around outside the venue. After a short while, a small balding man stuck his head round the door, who Alf recognised as one of Class War from the Bristol gig. He was panicking as they were short on security, so he asked, if we fancied working ”Ëfront of house’ for the night.
As show time neared, we took our respective places at either end of the front of the stage. There was tension in the air as the wait for Strummer gained momentum. Minor scuffles broke out, but a number of local security goons stepped in to curtail the aggro.
Strummer hit the stage, with his trusty Telecaster on his hip, and was on the money from the off. Ramshackle versions of, Somebody Got Murdered, Spanish Bombs, Armagedion Time, Police And Thieves, Junco Partner, I Fought The Law, Straight To Hell, London Calling and This Is England, and a smattering of solo work and reggae classics Ride Your Donkey and Love Of The Common People were delivered with energy and passion. However, the Latinos were faced with the unenviable task of convincing the Strummer faithful they were a credible alternative to The Clash. They did their best, but on this showing it could have been Joe Strummer and anyone.
Midway through This Is England, Alf became involved in an argument with an over-zealous drunken Welshman who was spitting at Strummer. Alf tried stopping this outdated pursuit (Strummer accidentally swallowed a well-aimed gob at a Clash gig back in ’78, resulting in hospitalisation with Hepatitis B), but the gob continued raining down. Suddenly, Alf was dragged over the stage barrier. But I was positioned at the other end of the stage, and powerless to go to his aid. Alf rolled around the floor trying to contain this Welsh maniac, until security intervened and threw the guy out. Alf was visibly shaken and retreated to the back of the venue with pint in hand (Alf told me later, the guy tried to rip his nose off. Fortunately, his features remained intact).
As the venue emptied, I helped to load the gear on the bus. Joe’s driver/roadie used to squat in Exeter, and recognised me from my days playing in Rat Patrol ”â and asked if I’d like to go back to the hotel for a beer. Alf was slumped against a wall, well ‘refreshed,’ and said he was going to get his head down in a shop doorway. I left Alf to sleep it off, and boarded the rickety tour bus. On arrival at the hotel, everybody split into little cliques, so I headed to the bar. Latino’s percussionist Roberto spotted my Clash tattoo, “You have Joe’s band on your arm you must have a drink with me my friend?”Â I plumped for Tia Maria, which I downed in one. Ugh!
A little later, while chatting to MC Welsh Ray, Strummer approached and asked if I’d like a drink. “I’ll have a pint of Heineken please Joe,”Â I replied nervously. ”Ë”ÂNo you won’t, you’ll have a pint of Stella,”Â Joe said sternly, plumping for the superior lager. I chatted to Joe well into the night. And it was great talking to THE MAN. However, when I mentioned Clash MK 2, Joe said emphatically, “I don’t wanna talk about it. I often think about those guys and hope I didn’t fuck their lives up.”Â Quickly changing topic, I asked Joe how much ganja was smoked during the Sandinsta! sessions. “More than you’ve ever seen in your life,”Â Joe replied with a smile. Big Audio Dynamite was discussed. But Strummer was puzzled why Mick didn’t play any Clash songs with his new outfit. Mick and Joe’s relationship was ”Ëfrosty’ at the time, so I quickly changed tact, and asked Joe why Paul Simonon wasn’t asked to play in the Latino’s; Joe paused, and said, “I wanted someone who could play!”Â
Joe generously purchased drinks for everyone, marking each purchase on his fag packet with a black marker pen, so he wasn’t ripped-off when presented with the bill the following morning.
As the crew and support bands drifted off to bed, Strummer pulled a battered acoustic guitar from a case and entertained those still conscious with snippets of old rock ‘n’ roll classics. However, he couldn’t remember the words to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons. But as The Clash used the song as intro music in the early 80s, I knew the tune well, and accompanied Joe on vocals. As the morning sun rose, Strummer slung his guitar over his shoulder and said he was off to bed. Before he left, Joe said I could sleep on the bus if I was stuck for a place to crash. But, it was now 6.00 a.m. so I declined his offer and legged it to catch the train home to Exeter. I said my farewells, and Joe reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and handed me his Access All Areas pass, “Here’s something for you. See you in Exeter on Thursday.”Â I rang Alf when I arrived home and he told me he’d spent the night huddled in a shop doorway, but the police showed up, and mistakenly thought he was a vagrant and moved him on! He should have come with me he would have loved it.
The following Thursday, Strummer rolled into Exeter to play St. George’s Hall. I was asked to perform security duties again, but on this occasion I was designated stage door security, as there was no way I was doing ”Ëfront of house’ on my home turf as there’s always someone who wants to have a pop.
To secure a support slot on the tour, bands had to submit a tape to the organizers. Those selected would support Strummer at a gig nearest their home town. We sent in a Rat Patrol demo in the hope of securing the Exeter support, but according to the Class War boys, we made it down to the last two, but local cider punks, Vibe Tribe pipped us at the post, because apparently, we sounded too much like The Clash!
The Exeter gig was a sell-out, and word quickly spread I was working dressing room security. Every ligger, hanger-on and chancer, who wouldn’t normally give me the time of day, hassled me for backstage access. However, I didn’t bother with these people ”â as the dressing room would have been over run with half of Exeter.
Strummer went down a storm, but I was still pestered after the show, by those hoping to gain entry to Joe’s dressing room. I kept my cool, and only let Joe’s close friends and associates through, before allowing fans backstage. Unfortunately, a couple slipped the net, only to be confronted by Joe in his underpants! Joe quickly pulled on his black Levi’s to hide his embarrassment, and the waiting fans were ushered through.
Former Rat Patrol guitarist, Dave Goodes, was backstage, and asked Joe if he could have a bash on his trusty Telecaster. Joe nodded in agreement – but Goodes tuneless stab at Spanish Bombs was dire! One guy that appeared backstage un-noticed was Andy Hawes. Strummer had whacked Hawes with a mic stand at the Exeter Clash gig back in ’78. Hawes probed Joe about the incident, but Strummer couldn’t recollect events. This hassle was noticeably unsettling Joe, so to prevent any aggravation, Hawes was asked to leave (Hawes is no longer with us; he was run over by a taxi!).
I caught one more show on that particular tour, at Poole Art’s Centre the following Saturday (which was the location of Alf’s infamous run-in with the law back in 1980). I met Strummer in the car park before the gig – enjoying a spliff with Alex Cox and Pogues manager Frank Murray. However, during the show, a bunch of New Age Travellers hurled abuse at Joe, and tried to disrupt the gig. Strummer swiftly brought proceedings to a halt and dedicated aged 101ers classic Keys To Your Heart to our crustie chums – “This is for those of you that think violence is funny.”Â Joe’s remarks didn’t go down well with the crusty contingent, and they pulled over the colossal PA stack. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But, a member of Class War told me later the New Age mob believed Strummer was an unsuitable representative for the Class War movement. Who did they think was appropriate?
In 1989 Strummer released his first legitimate solo album, Earthquake Weather. Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Jewellers And Bums, Leopardskin Limousines, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit and Island Hopping, are all fantastic songs. But Joe’s vocals are buried deep in the mix (Strummer told me some years later this was because of ‘insecurities’). Joe still maintained a fervent, loyal following, but surprisingly, the album didn’t sell.
Following the Rock Against The Rich dates, Joe sacked Willie McNeil and Jim Donica, replacing them with Chilli Peppers sticks man Jack Irons and slap bassist Lonnie Marshall. I saw them play Bristol Studio in October 1989, and Joe added seldom-aired Clash gems City Of The Dead and What’s My Name, to the set, and it was an excellent show, but the venue was only half-full. But Joe remembered me from the Rock Against The Rich outing. But it would be ten years before our paths crossed again.
Pt 2 to follow