Album Review: Joe Strummer – Assembly


Joe Strummer Assembly 1

All artists who make some form of impact in music are revered after they pass away, as is right.

From Buddy Holly to Bunny Wailer, all have been survived through their music, but there are a select few whose legends, deeds and significance take on greater appreciation the longer time goes on.

Joe Strummer is one such case: forever immortalised at Glastonbury (with a specific area named in his honour), the former frontman of The Clash’s legacy only gets stronger with the passing of time.

Albeit more in the United States than in the UK: last year, his legacy was the theme of a global livestream which included performances from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello and Josh Homme (in support of a National Independent Venue Association campaign to save venues), underlining his importance to that generation of musicians.

On the other side of the pond, his work with The Clash (undoubtedly a seminal band) is the key metric in discussing his influence. Assembly attempts to rectify that perception, focusing on Strummer’s output in the latter stages of his life, mainly as leader of The Mescaleros.

After the breakup of The Clash, Strummer turned his hand to projects which were largely ignored by the music press; included here is Love Kills (from the 1986 biopic Sid And Nancy) which features all the hallmarks of 1980s rock – whip-snap drums, the bass lower in the mix, along with an echoed production which was rife throughout the era.

A few years later, Strummer released his debut solo album which sank without trace, although the tender, flamenco-fused Sleepwalk (the only track included) suggests it may be worth a re-evaluation.

Burned by the reaction to the album, Strummer went another decade without releasing an album and so, logically, Assembly largely consists of his work with The Mescaleros. The strutting, ska-opus Tony Adams demonstrates Strummer’s continued ability to fuse musical styles along with the polka-waltz of X-Ray Style.

Forbidden City is all swaggering guitar and righteous vocals in classic Strummer style, in contrast to the excellently atmospheric Yalla Yalla which may, once again, sound exactly of its time (1999) but feels like the dawning of summer sun, complete with William Orbit-style ambience.

Presumably derided at the time (for some reason, artists modernising their style is a big no-no), with over twenty years’ distance it now invokes a warm nostalgia for the era. Sublime.

The second Mescaleros album is represented by three songs: Johnny Appleseed subtly awakens from a repeated acoustic refrain to a jaunty, fiddle-led jig, while Mondo Bongo is sombre and mournful in tone but offset by some excellent wordplay. Meanwhile, At The Border, Guy is a lolloping head-nodder but stretched out to an unnecessary degree.

The four tracks from Strummer’s posthumous album Streetcore prove he was in fine fettle before his passing; Coma Girl is the sort of urgent, driving highway rock on which he made his name, while the crashing, brass-led Get Down Moses fulfils the same function but channels the ska sounds so prominent in his former band’s work.

The Johnny Cash-inspired Long Shadow is contemplative, and Strummer’s version of Redemption Song is given even further gravitas and induces goosebumps, although whichever version of the song you hear garners that response.

For the completists there are live versions of Rudie Can’t Fail and I Fought The Law, both examples of Strummer not losing any edge in their faithfully accurate interpretations. For the dedicated fan, an unheard, sparse version of Junco Partner is the main attraction.

In these fractured political times, with uncertainty perpetually in the air, we could all do with Joe Strummer. Assembly is a stark reminder of that, and a welcome opportunity for a re-evaluation of the great man’s later canon.

Richard Bowes
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