At the peak of its popularity, The Clash was dubbed "the only band that matters," mixing its steely punk with heavy doses of reggae, Earl Grey-soul and heavily politicized lyrics. Though the quartet was only around for five years, it left a legacy that can be still heard on the radio and seen on MTV today.
More than any other group, The Clash godfathered today's pop-punk movement, etching out a veritable blueprint that everyone from Green Day to Blink-182 has followed with fastidious attention to detail.
Unfortunately, just as the band broke big -- with 1982's "Combat Rock" -- things began to fall apart. Drummer Topper Headon had already split, with guitarist Mick Jones following soon after, leaving Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon to forge ahead on The Clash's 1985 last-gasp effort, "Cut the Crap."
Following The Clash's demise, Strummer spent the better part of a decade hibernating -- doing sporadic film cameos, one-off guest appearances and the occasional soundtrack number, avoiding the spotlight by any means necessary.
Thus, many were surprised -- and some were skeptical -- when the singer reappeared on the music scene in 1999 with "Rock Art & the X-Ray Style," his first record since 1989's lukewarm "Earthquake Weather." Strummer quickly set about proving the naysayers wrong, re-igniting his career in the process.
Backed by a crack band, The Mescaleros (Martin Slattery, Scott Shields, Pablo Cook, Richard Flack, Tymon Dogg, all of whom take turns playing a garden variety of instruments), Strummer toured the globe to rave reviews, winning over critics, most of whom were still in diapers when The Clash ruled supreme.
Now, Strummer and his Mescaleros have returned with the one-two punch of "Global A Go-Go," released last month to minimal fanfare, slight sales and rave reviews. Combining beat-heavy reggae, stuttering acoustic folk and the singer's patented nasally rasp, "Global" is a surprisingly sprite record coming from an artist that was considered all but washed up a few years ago.
The Mescaleros are a real band, according to Strummer, who describes his new album as "a trumpet call out into the wilderness" and insists that he has no plans to retreat anytime soon. The band is having a ball playing promotional gigs and late-night talk shows, with a world tour lined up for the fall.
Strummer phones one afternoon from the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, a rock hotel if ever there was one.
"It's more sedate than that really," Strummer says. "Across the street is a hotel called The Standard. Now THAT'S a rock 'n' roll hotel. When you go in the lobby, there's a semi-naked girl lying in a glass case. And on the reception desk, where you normally book in, there's a pair of decks with a guy spinning drum and bass. Over here, it's kind of the opposite."
It sounds like you had fun making "Global A Go Go."
"It's a very strange record. It kind of started by accident. I only booked five days to try to get into the swing of things. But things started to really roll. It's a very dangerous game to compose in the studio, in a spontaneous way. Disaster can strike at any moment and you'd be left with a huge bill and a pile of junk. But it was going so good, we just kept doing it until we finished the record. We didn't have a plan or anything. It's one of the best sessions that I've tended, that I can remember. It's kind of similar to 'Sandinista' in that freewheeling vibe of it. On 'Sandinista,' we finished a U.S. tour, and we were kicking our heels in New York, and just blanked time into Electric Ladyland and started to just see what we could do. The pressure was off and we began to put a record together, again without having any plan or knowing what was going to happen. But like I say, it's dangerous behavior."
Why did it take you so long to start recording again?
"I was totally burnt out, and when you're burnt out, you're only gonna make a crappy record. It's gonna be fractured or gibberish you're gonna come up with when you're burnt out. So I figured it was probably good not to make any records until I could think coherently. After about 11 years I began to put it back together. The Clash did 16 sides of long-playing vinyl and played 500 gigs in the space of five years. Contrast that with today, where quite often a group will take five years between its first album and its second album. So it's incredibly compacted, intense living. It's kind of like you had your say. That's a lot of songs, a lot of lyrics, a lot of gigs. I felt I'd had my say. And there was a feeling also to get off the scene to allow somebody else in. You don't want to hog it all."
Do you think the young punk bands that came in your wake ignored the political side of things?
"You can't transport time to time. I don't think you can contrast the shape of the world then to the shape of the world now and do any kind of parallel. When you think back to 1968, the world was in a real turmoil then and you can contrast that with today and you're gonna get a different picture. I think these guys are writing poetry of their times. They're writing poetry of the way the world is, not the way we want them to write poetry or whatever. And I work with 'em. In the last two years I must have done shows with ... Well, let's see: Offspring, Sick of it All, Silverchair, Green Day, Blink-182, Bloodhound Gang. I've played festivals with all those groups. So I've got to see 'em up close and I'm very impressed by what I see. They're fantastic players and also offstage they're brilliant company, good conversation. You can tell a lot about a person just hanging out with them, and I found them to be fantastic all around."
What do you think is the most important political issue right now?
"The most interesting debate going on is the anti-globalization debate. It's so complex, it touches on everything. The rage that people are displaying is the feeling of total helplessness. You can't affect anything or you're not consulted or you don't even know who these people are who are making the laws. The truth has dawned on everybody that corporations buy governments and politics is basically advertising. This is the first generation that's had that blatantly displayed in front of them. It's never been so blatant as it is now. So I'm kind of pleased 'cause it gets it all out in the open. It's like the racing guy gives Tony Blair a million pounds and, hey presto -- suddenly tobacco advertising is still gonna be allowed on the racing cars. Bang bang! Just brazen in your face. It goes on around the world, so we may as well wake up and face it, try to figure our where goes democracy now when it can be bought like that. That's a good thing to have to face. We might as well have the senator for Texaco. If we're gonna go that way, let's get it all out in the open. With your latest guy and the oil companies it couldn't be more plain."
Did popularity kill The Clash?
"No, I think it was um ... Well, yeah, but I just define it slightly differently in that success probably killed it. The more I think about it, I can see that when we were struggling ... You start a group and it's a long struggle to get somewhere and you don't really know where, it's never really defined. But behind it there's a feeling, 'Yeah, we're gonna make it. We're struggling.' And when 'Rock the Casbah' went top-five, I think that blew us apart. There's a lot of unity in struggle, it holds you together -- you're together, struggling like going up some imaginary mountainside. And when you get to the top unexpectedly, it blows you apart because you lose that unified, struggling feeling."
Have you been offered a lot of money to do a reunion tour?
"Yeah, I suppose so. But that's not the way you'd reform a group. These are offers from promoters -- a promoter offers a certain amount and he's got a tour in mind. So you get back together, you do the tour, and you get paid and he gets paid. That's the setup. We wouldn't ... you know ... The Clash are a bunch of crazy people; we're insane and we're proud to be like that. You have to take that on board to start with. So we wouldn't countenance anything like that -- some stranger offering us money to get back together just to do a tour. What's that gonna prove? So if we ever got back together, I'll tell you the way it would be: We'd get back together by ourselves, start writing some tunes. Just like any other group, you know? Write some tunes, rehearse 'em up, get in the studio, make a good recording of them, then rehearse and get out on the road and get your act together and see what you can do -- just fighting for it tooth and nail like any other group. We wouldn't get back together for some stranger's checkbook. I mean, how would the music sound? It just would suck."
Then why did you allow "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" to be used in a Levi's commercial?
"We look at it like: Hell if we use the product and it's gonna be a hip advert ... That kind of comes into it as well. It's not gonna be a downer to watch. You can give advertising ... it can reach the level of art, when you see a good advertisement compared to a bad one. I wouldn't deny those guys access to the word 'art' at all. So if it's gonna be artistic or entertain people and it's stuff that we ourselves use -- say like whiskey or jeans or something -- then I don't see why we shouldn't do it. However, we turned down a lot, let me tell. Every month we'd turn down stuff like cosmetics or Coors Light, endless lists of stuff we turned down just because we think it sucks."
- Assistant Mag editor Geoff Harkness can be reached at 832-7178.