'Joe Strummer 001' Is a Welcome Roadmap to The Clash Singer's Uneven Solo Music Career

Michel Linssen/Redferns
Joe Strummer performs live on stage in the Netherlands in 1990. 

Joe Strummer isn’t someone you think about having a driver’s license. As leader of The Clash, the most righteous and heroic British guitar band of his generation, Joe was a rebel street poet, the punk rock Woody Guthrie, a guy you believed in despite your rampaging cynicism. His rap was, “I’m so bored with the U-S-A,” not “the D-M-V.”

And yet there’s his California license photo on the front of Joe Strummer 001, the fascinating new box set compiling Joe’s post-Clash solo output. (There are also two tracks by his pre-Clash band the 101ers.) The super-deluxe edition comes with a replica of that 1991 license, on which we see printed Joe’s real name, John Graham Mellor. His photo is maybe a little cooler than yours, but the guy looking into the camera is a regular old 5’8”, 150-pound motorist who probably waited all afternoon to get his picture taken.

The music found on Strummer 001 does even more to humanize the Clash legend, who died in 2002 from an undiagnosed heart condition. That’s especially true for the stuff Joe recorded from 1986, the beginning of the solo career he never wanted, to 1999, when he put together the Mescaleros and got back to the business of making great albums. For most of these interim years, Strummer was creatively adrift, bouncing from one obscure movie soundtrack to the next and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that don’t lead anywhere. For a while he dropped off the map altogether.

In The Clash, Joe always so sounded certain, even when he was asking questions instead of offering answers. His super power was sniffing out injustice around the world (Nicaragua, Iran, Vietnam) and sharing his findings with young fans more attuned to Rolling Stone than Newsweek. As a reluctant solo artist who’d tried to get Clash guitarist Mick Jones to reunite the band in 1985, Strummer didn’t have that assuredness. So instead of singing about concrete things, he let his multicultural curiosity inform the Beat-style word collages that characterized much of his latter-day work.

This approach can be heard on the Strummer 001 highlight “Trash City,” a mad bongo-boosted garage rave-up about eating hot dogs on Party Avenue with your girl from Kalamazoo. It was originally released on the soundtrack to 1988’s Permanent Record, a Keanu Reeves movie nobody’s ever seen, and it’s been accurately described as the “last great Clash song.”

The downside to Strummer’s eat-the-world, spit-it-back songwriting style is evident on Earthquake Weather, his debut solo album from 1989. Only one song, a cover of the reggae oldie “Ride Your Donkey,” is included on Strummer 001, and that’s for the best. (“Gangsterville” might have also warranted inclusion.) Word-soggy and melody-light, with wanky guitar bits and vocals buried low in the mix by an unconfident Strummer, Earthquake Weather is a reminder of how much Joe needed Mick. But he was still writing great songs around this time.

“Burning Lights,” from the soundtrack to 1990’s I Hired a Contract Killer, is seemingly written in character but telling of Strummer’s mental state. “Some dreams are made for children,” Joe sings with his trademark raggedness over palm-muted guitars. “But most grow old with us.” Later in the song he looks in the mirror and dubs himself “the last of the buffalo,” which is how the former punk icon must’ve felt staring down the barrel of 40. Strummer enlisted Celtic-punk heroes The Pogues to back him on “Afro Cuban Bebop,” another Contract Killer gem included on the box set. It’s a snappy bongo-jazz celebration of love, music, nightlife, and American cars—Strummer staples, all.

Joe’s steadiest collaborator during his shakiest years was filmmaker Alex Cox. Strummer 001 includes Joe’s debut solo single, “Love Kills,” the theme from Cox’s 1986 film Sid & Nancy. Over big Clash-style guitars and roaring harmonica, Joe traces the story of doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious with just the right amount of irreverence and empathy.

The following year, Strummer worked closely with Cox on Walker. The movie embellishes the already-insane true story of William Walker, an American southerner who raised a mercenary army and declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1857. There were obvious parallels to President Reagan’s support of the Contras in that nation, and yet Strummer’s rambling country-folk tune “Tennessee Rain” finds something almost poetic about Walker’s misguided imperialist dreams.

“Tennessee Rain” is the only song on Strummer 001 from the remarkable Latin-jazz-meets-spaghetti-Western score that Joe—a musician of limited technical proficiency—somehow composed for Walker. We also get a few nuggets from Joe’s unreleased soundtrack to 1993’s When Pigs Fly, including the sweet sax-dusted title track, one of the purest love songs he ever wrote.

Walker and to a lesser extent When Pigs Fly should’ve felt like artistic wins, and yet by 1993, midway through his self-described “wilderness years,” Strummer knew he was treading water. He was also stuck in a contractual dispute with Sony that would take years to resolve. The most revelatory song on Strummer 001 is the previously unreleased 1993 tune “The Cool Impossible.” Over jazzy late-night piano licks and upright bass, Joe tells his life story to anyone left in the bar: “I know about a man who lost it all.”

Strummer won some of it back with the Mescaleros, who backed him on three terrific albums between 1999 and 2003. Way back in 1989, Joe told The Los Angeles Times that Paul Simon’s Graceland cut “That Was Your Mother” marked a “new plateau” in rock ‘n’ roll: a song for grown-ups that’s not totally lame. The Meskys allowed Joe to make precisely this type of music. “You’d think that God wouldn’t be so hard / when you see all the little children running / running in the backyard,” Strummer sings on “X-Ray Style.” He’s every bit as tender on “Johnny Appleseed” and “Yalla Yalla,” forward-looking rock songs penned by a middle-aged dad who wants a better world for his children.

The truest representation of Joe on Strummer 001 might actually be “It’s a Rockin’ World,” the one-off he recorded in 1998 for Chef Aid: The South Park Album, of all things. It’s a ‘50s-style piano-basher with a roots-reggae breakdown and heaps of cheeseball optimism. This was Joe’s brand: He loved the absurdity and variety of the world enough to believe humanity just might save itself.

The most skippable songs on Strummer 001 are the handful of unreleased tracks Joe recorded with Mick in the ‘80s. The blues exercise “Crying on 23rd” and honky-tonk murder lark “2 Bullets” (featuring vocals by Clash associate Pearl Harbour) are Sid & Nancy outtakes that barely scan as Strummer/Jones outings. “US North,” featuring Mick on lead vocals, sounds like a leftover from No. 10 Upping Street, the album that Strummer co-wrote and co-produced for Jones’ post-Clash outfit Big Audio Dynamite. It’s basically one riff and melody for 10 minutes: enjoyable enough but hardly essential.

While it’s possible Strummer and Jones would’ve recaptured the magic had they rebooted The Clash, none of the unearthed collaborations on Strummer 001 make you long for that alternate reality. In presenting Joe’s musical life story with the Clash bits chopped out, this box set challenges you to forget about “the only band that matters” and fully engage with all of Strummer’s music that didn’t change people lives—at least not the way “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” or “London Calling” did. It’s not such a tall order.

In his solo years, Joe had a driver’s license but nothing resembling a roadmap. Strummer 001 lets you ride shotgun while he navigates detours and traffic jams en route to one final stretch of open highway.