In late September, Ignition Records released a box set featuring the work of former Clash co-front-man, Joe Strummer, titled Joe Strummer 001. It's the first compilation spanning his career pre- and post-Clash, and features demos, outtakes and even a song he and former bandmate Mick Jones were working on in the years before his passing. Joe Strummer 001 features 32 tracks and includes favorites from his recordings with the 101ers, The Mescaleros, his solo albums, soundtrack work plus 12 previously unreleased songs.
This CD/LP/Digital release is an incredible document that is more than just songs: it's photos, writing, art, etc., lovingly curated by artist Robert Gordon McHarg III, Grammy Award-winning producer Peter J. Moore and, most importantly, his widow, Lucinda, formerly Mellor/Strummer, who now goes by her maiden name Tait. Lucinda joined us from her home in England via Skype and shared the story behind finding Joe's work and finding the appropriate way to share it with the world.
KEXP: I feel like the first thing I should say is: Thank you! Thank you for putting the time and effort into sharing this with those of us who are of a certain vintage and have been fans of The Clash for forever! It's really an amazing thing you've done here.
Lucinda Tait: Thank you. Well, it started off as a labor of love, but then it just became a passion, really, because there was so much there that we had to get it out and we had to share. And it kind of took over my life for a bit.
Why did you think that you had to get this stuff out and that you had to share it?
Because there were tunes there which just seemed to resonate so strongly. Either that Joe had written and they hadn't been published, but I knew that he loved them, or that I hadn't heard them before and I kind of thought, "Wow! This is just so beautiful and so honest!" And it's that lovely raw sound that Joe used to like before it kind of got mixed and added to, do you know what I mean? Like the track "London is Burning." When we found that, that was the track that Joe was working on when he died, and then it ended up as another great track on Streetcore, but it was added too. Whereas when I heard this it was like, "Wow! This is what Joe was working on. This is the sound that he was happy with." And I wanted to get it out.
So, he really enjoyed the sound of the demos he was making?
Yeah, I think a lot of his work was pretty raw and stripped back. And I think what The Mescaleros gave him was many more very talented musicians who added saxophone and other guitars and all the rest of it. But he spent so long working in the studio here that the abiding memory I have of him is just him, and his guitar, and his voice, and that was it. I don't know, maybe it's just personal. It's just the sound that I remember so strongly from him.
Yeah! I think that's nice. I'm curious, what was a regular day like for the two of you?
Well, we live in a pretty rural area in Somerset. It's west Somerset, so it's kind of on the border of Devon and Exmoor, and the countryside is wild and beautiful and untamed. And Joe liked to walk and he loved his dogs. So he would get up fairly late because he went to bed fairly late — or he went to bed early, whichever way you look at it. But he would get up around about 11 or 12 o'clock in the morning, and after a cup of tea and a read of the papers, he liked to walk the dogs, and then he would spend hours in the studio. Tinkering, sitting on his typewriter, you'd hear this tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Or he would read voraciously. There was always a tome somewhere in the kitchen table or by his bed that he'd be reading. Or he would be planning. Endless plans and schemes, whether it was Glastonbury, or a tour, or a studio session, or somebody he wanted to meet, some musician he wanted to contact. There were lots of writings and faxes that would be — he normally asked me to send more of these endless faxes to people — and lyrics being swapped with people. That kind of thing. But he loved the pub as well. And he loved nothing better than a good long lunch and a lazy afternoon in the pub, weather depending.
Was he reading things to fuel his art or for his own personal passion? What was he reading and why was he reading it?
Biographies. Mainly biographies. He didn't read novels. It was for knowledge. He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I mean he was extraordinary. He could quote everything from the Bible and the Koran to — I mean, the house is just littered with biographies from an extraordinary mix of people, whether it was musicians or people that he admired, to generals, anything about the world wars he was fascinated with. He was fascinated by anything to do with Africa, exploration, tribes. He wanted to know about Indian tribes, African tribes. History, he devoured history. He was extraordinary. It was like being in school sometimes when you'd sit and listen to him. And his thirst for knowledge was never-ending.
His BBC radio show seemed to reflect that, as did the music he was creating. Did all this fuel his art?
Definitely. He was just a sponge to what went around him, and I think he just surrounded himself with people who interested him, and who had something to offer him, and something he could learn from. He wasn't an idler, he didn't waste his time. Something always seemed to come out of it. We were in L.A. once and we spent too long at the farmer's market, and we came out and the car had been towed. And he had to go somewhere quite important after that, and the car had been towed, but he made the whole thing fun. He made the taxi driver laugh on the way to the car impound, and then he got a song out of it at the end about being towed — I can't remember which song it was — but he got something out of it. There was always a bright side to everything. It was just wonderful to be with someone like that.
There's so much talk about this release: What did it feel like when you started pulling these cassettes and reel-to-reels out to hear his voice in these unrehearsed demos? What was in your heart, in your head, when you heard this stuff?
Some of them I just got so excited about, and some of them it was like, "Oh that's such a shame!" It sounded so fuzzy and crackly because it's been sitting in a plastic box for twenty-five years. And it's just on a battered cassette. But when this amazing guy, Peter Moores, kind of had a little listen to it and cleaned it up, that was especially exciting as well. I think what was interesting was finding lyrics, finding bits of paper and lyrics that I'd never seen before, and then later finding a cassette with the same title written on it, and saying, "Hey! That's what that is!" And then discovering perhaps that song — you know, not all of them are good, some of them are just Joe sitting in the studio bashing out a few lyrics and tinkling along and seeing what works — but then you might find that verse or that line in another song completely. So it was almost like a voyage of discovery. It was like stepping into his shoes for a little bit, I guess. Finding things it felt very personal, very intimate.
What songs did you enjoy discovering? If you don't mind picking a specific song or two that you didn't feel like they got a push by Joe, or by a label that you felt deserved the attention?
Well, there were a lot, but I love the acoustic "Letsgetabitarockin'" from 1975 which was just recorded —
I think it sounds great as well!
Doesn't it? Yeah! I love that. I love the songs that he did for Sara Driver's film When Pigs Fly. They were made just before I met Joe actually. They just seemed so happy, and full of promise, and fun. And he told me what a great time he had with Sara and [the film's executive producer] Jim Jarmusch in the studio in Wales, and I think that comes out in the song as well. And then "Two Bullets" was a little find. That's Pearl Harbour singing a song that Joe wrote that didn't make it into the Sid & Nancy film. But again, that's just a great song, and I hadn't heard that before. "Blues on the River" I'd never heard before. And then there's the one "Before We Go Forward," which was a bonus track. I don't know whether you've heard that one. That's just in the box set.
I haven't heard that one yet, no.
Have you heard "U.S. North"? With Mick Jones?
I did! I enjoyed that one. What was interesting to me was that it seemed like they were letting it breathe for a long time to then edit it down.
It needs a bit of an editing, yeah. But it's what Mick gave us, so it's like, okay Mick, thank you.
What did Joe add to that?
It's Joe's vocals on it, and I think he wrote it with Mick.
Oh! I couldn't really hear Joe, I could only hear Mick. I guess I wasn't listening closely enough.
No, he's on it too. It's Joe and Mick singing. So I guess it was for Big Audio Dynamite. Well, it was for a movie titled Candy Mountain, but it was during the Big Audio Dynamite era.
Forgive me, is this the first time it's been unearthed?
Yes, Mick gave it to us, which was very kind. We've sort of been in collaboration with Mick, mainly Mick about all of this because he's the keeper of the music, if you like. And he said, "Hey, would you like this to add to the album?" So yeah, we hadn't heard it before.
That's tremendous. That's nice to hear. I know this question is inevitable, and I guess you've talked about this a lot, but after connecting with Mick again, what is your feeling about whether the guys would have gotten back together as a full band, or as some version of the band to record more music?
I'm not sure. Because there was talk about The Clash reforming and everybody was kind of up for it, but not overwhelmingly so. And there were major barriers in place, and Topper certainly didn't want to do it, and Joe said he wouldn't do the Clash without Topper. And then Joe wanted one manager and Mick wanted another manager. And also Paul was painting and wanted to develop his talents in that direction, and I think he was enjoying not being in a band and exploring his creativity in a different format.
And he's a really good painter, too!
So I don't necessarily think the Clash would have reformed, but what I do know is that Joe was writing lyrics and Mick was sending music at the very end of Joe's life, so it may well have been that they would have collaborated in some form, and who knows where that would have gone. But they have such mutual respect and love for each other. I'm sure something would have come of it, whether the Clash would have reformed I really don't know.
And there was clearly a rough patch at the end of The Clash —
I know I'm understating that, but were they friends again in the later years? What was their relationship like?
Yeah! They were friends. And of course Mick's daughter, Lauren, was best friends with Joe's daughters, Jazz and Lola, so there was always that bond between the families. And we used to go round to Mick's and drink tea, and watch telly, and yeah, they were friends. Paul perhaps more so at the time because, again, the children were friends and we used to go on holiday with Paul and his wife. So maybe there was more of a camaraderie there. And we were in touch with Topper as well, so we were all still connected.
That's nice to hear. What do you think Joe would say about this release?
I hope he would be really happy. That's all I can say, really. I hope he would be happy. I think. I think he would be pleased — certainly about the songs that he really liked that didn't get much attention but deserved it. Like the stuff he did for Walker. We only put "Tennessee Rain" on, but that whole Walker album is really amazing. And, again, the stuff with Sara Driver I think is great. And "London is Burning" was the song that he was working on when he died, and I think he would have liked for that one to have been heard as well. And the rest of the stuff, I mean, I love it!
I just played "15th Brigade" over and over again and I think it's fantastic! And I never heard this song before. If it was released elsewhere I missed it entirely. What did Joe love about you?
I was never a Clash fan, so when I met him I was not anything to do with the music business, and there was no agenda there between us. We were just two people who met and fell in love and started a life together, and the music aspect didn't kick in until about two years after we'd started to be with each other. And I think that was nice because we built a strong foundation based on the same values and raising kids. Enjoying country life, and dipping into cities, and having fun, and seeing friends. But we had a very strong emotional bond without that kind of, you know, high fructose rock'n'roll side to anything. There was none of that at all, which I think he liked. And I didn't ever say, "Remember when?" or ask him about the old days, because it didn't really mean anything to me. It's been a big learning — this whole archiving of Joe's work — has been a huge learning curve for me, because he didn't really discuss this. He said, "The past is like treacle." He didn't ever sit and talk about the past constantly, he lived in the day, and that was that.
I've read that you still talk to him, which I just think is a beautiful thing. What are those conversations like?
Just sometimes I just want to tell him something — silly things — like, "Did you see that?" or "What do you think?" Or "What should I do?" Lots of questions like that, and sometimes I just chat away in my head if I'm walking the dogs, just chat. I don't know. It just gives me comfort.
How does he answer?
He doesn't necessarily answer, but I think it just gives me comfort.
Joe Strummer 001 is available now via Ignition Records. The next International Clash Day is February 7th, 2019.
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