The Zips release ‘Road to Strummerville’ – Interview with John McNeil
Legendary Punk band The Zips were recently given the go ahead to release a Joe Strummer tribute single to raise money for the Strummerville Foundation. On the anniversary of Joe’s death (22nd Dec) Louder Than War speak to The Zips John McNeil about the single & about Joe Strummer himself.
Initially written by John (McNeil) four years ago, and performed at solo acoustic gigs, ‘Road to Strummerville’ was something John hadn’t really thought about for the band because it was “arranged for acoustic guitar…a wee ballad thing” but when his band-mates suggested they record it, it became something else. “We decided to have a go at it in rehearsal and see what we would come up with, they’ve always been a big influence, well certainly on me…the rest of the band are a bit younger than me…” he joked, “It was quite good fun as we decided we would make the music become a homage to the Clash as well [but] without ripping the Clash off too much, to take the song and try [to] get a feel for it”. This band achieve this and more, the song is an impressive tribute that manages to recall the Clash without being pastiche, maintaining an affectionate nod to Joe while still sounding inherently like the Zips.
Elaborating on how much of an influence Joe was, John recalled his first encounter with the Clash. “The first time I heard them would have been on the John Peel show, or there was a local punk radio show on radio Clyde about that time, on a Wednesday, obviously pre-internet people forget that there was no access to it, and especially, Glasgow at the time was real anti-punk city, so it was difficult to go into record shops and hear it as well, there were a couple of independent stores stocking it, but you were reading about â¦ I was reading about it almost from the start in Melody Maker and I was intrigued about it, because the gist of what they were saying was that it was back to square one again â¦ really basic, like what I started listening to when I was a young boy, like the Who, and the Stones when they were a bit more rough and ready, and I was desperate to hear the music”. When John did finally hear the Clash’s music after reading about it for so long, the band far out seeded his expectations and he has been a life long fan since.
He first saw the Clash at the Apollo in Glasgow, “twice at the Apollo and then I saw the last tour, when they were doing the busking tour, and they played the Barrowlands with that line up, and then obviously I saw the Mescaleros once Joe got that together.” Having been at two shows at the Apollo with original line up, I asked John how the gig at the Barrowlands compared. “It was just sad, the crowd obviously lifted when they played things like ‘White Riot’ and that, but it just felt out â¦ that they had two guitarists doing what Mick Jones used to do”. John’s feelings about the Clash mark 2 are shared by many, and the aftermath of what was deemed a Joe and Mick reconciled quite quickly, and Joe co-wrote, and co-produced Mick’s follow up band, their 2nd album, Big Audio Dynamite’s ‘No.10 Upping St.’Â He went on to produce, and tour with Pogues, worked on severalÂ soundtracks, and even turned his hand to acting for a period. Â But it wasn’t until the late nineties, that he found a home on a par withÂ theÂ Clash.
John stayed connected to what Joe was doing through his “wilderness years”, but had lost touch a little by the time Joe was first putting the Mescaleros together. “I missed them the first time they (Mescaleros) came to Glasgow but I saw them the second and third time.” I think I missed the first time because they were being a bit overlooked, he had put this new band together, trying new music but no one was really picking up on it.” Having seen the Clash without Mick and Topper, John outlined what it was for him that worked for Joe and The Mescaleros, “This thing about being able to absorb styles and influences and make it his own, a lot of bands try to take genres, and it never looks right, it feels like it’s just stuck on the tops as opposed to feeling like part of the music”. The Zips front man went on to speak enthusiastically about Joe’s passion, “He would not be involved in any style of music if he didn’t totally love it to death himself, and that’s where the passion comes out, and you know its for real because he’s totally involved in it.”
We went on to talk about how happy he seemed through his period with the Mescaleros, handing out flyers on the street explaining to young people who he was and even having to explain who he was to a dj over an intercom in an Atlantic city radio station. It was this interaction with people that John believes was the real winning factor in Joe’s character, “that total human element… part of the song is inspired by the number of people I bumped into who had met Joe Strummer. Total odd ball characters, and I must admit I never met him, and I’d been to all these shows, and…probably the Mescalero thing at King Tuts…it would have been pretty easy to hang out back stage later on and met up with him. I always kind of held back, I regret it now obviously, but it’s amazing the amount of people who I’ve bumped into, and it’s always yeah, I meet Joe Strummer and that, and it’s always the same story…what a nice guy…they hardly got a chance to talk to him about him because he wanted to know about them, he just wanted to know about people’s lives, and whether it was that things about you know writers and that…they need to absorb peoples stories for it to come out in their writing” “but he really engaged with people by wanting to know about them”. John also suggested that ability to talk about others might be viewed differently “You could look at it as a defense mechanism because it prevented them from asking to many questions of him.” However, that it in no way diminishes the effect it had on those who met him, and his desire to engage with them.
The Strummerville Foundation have given the band their blessing, and all the proceeds are going directly to the foundation. When asked how difficult it was to get their approval, and what exactly it meant. John said, “I always find it quite tricky with these things. We’ve done a couple in the past. We did a single for the make poverty history campaign and we just did a rough demo and sent it to them” and they said “Yeah, great, ok, we quite like that, so when are you going to record it â¦ you know when you’re dealing with charities, the point is … they’ve got no money, so basically you have to do everything up front. We knew this time around there was no point just sending them a rough demo, so we said let’s just get to studio and do it”. They did, Strummerville liked what they heard, and this special download single is now the outcome.
When speaking about Joe’s enduring appeal, John spoke with surprise about how is stock has risen in the years since his death, “It’s all the more amazing when you consider that he was in that troft… if you like, in terms of popularity, the Mescaleros had a real good cult following but there was still a lot of people who hadn’t picked up on it at that stage, and I just find it surprising.” He does believe that “the whole Strummerville thing really works to keep the spirit of Joe alive”.
It may also be that sometimes, sadly, it takes someone’s death for people to take complete stock of their output. His time in the Clash will live on indefinitely, but so too will the man. Whether it is when we reappraise what was quite a busy period for his so called “wilderness years”, or mourn the fact that we didn’t get to sit around one of those well documented Glastonbury campfires, or ultimately how it makes us smile when we remember how for an all too brief a period he returned to stage and reclaimed his title as “Punkrock Warlord.”
‘Road to Strummerville’ is available to download now from the widget on the right or from from www.cdbaby.com and other digital sites.
All words by Ray Burke. More of Ray’sÂ Louder Than War writing can be found at his author archive here