Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

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I was unmoved when the Clash broke up. Their last record as a fully-constituted band, Combat Rock, though a commercial success, and notwithstanding my recent re-assessment of it in light of a poignant memoir by Amanda Petrusich, was in my humble view, gravely disappointing. I know how I would have answered the question posed by its hit single, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

After Combat Rock, the Clash’s front man, Joe Strummer, jettisoned co-lead singer/songwriter Mick Jones and the band released its final record, the ironically-titled (if unintentionally so) Cut The Crap. That thoroughly lackluster album solidified my conviction that I no longer needed to bother with the Clash. So I am not surprised that Strummer’s post-Clash band, the Mescaleros, which released three albums between 1999 and 2003 (the last one after Strummer’s death in 2002), entirely escaped my ears. I was long past thinking Joe Strummer had anything more to add to the rock oeuvre.

I have some serious egg on my face. The Mescaleros’ body of work showcases Joe Strummer in top form. Strummer’s genius is unleashed on these three records, mixing the familiar reggae, ska, pop and punk elements that fueled the Clash (check out “Coma Girl,” below), but casting the music’s reach even further through the use of strings, horns and keyboards.

The music is decidedly less hard-edged than the Clash, more roots-based and less punk. The folksy “Johnny Appleseed” (below) off the band’s second record, Global a Go-Go, would be at home on a Mumford & Sons album.  The lyrics, however, remain hard-edged exploring the theme of economic class schism familiar to Clash fans.

Strummer was unconstrained with the Mescaleros. While it took the Clash only 1:56 to convey in “White Riot” the crippling powerlessness of the working class and to call for violent revolution, many of the Mescaleros’ arrangements clock in at well over five minutes, allowing the music to meander and find new rhythms and grooves. The band’s beautifully haunting version of the Celtic standard “Minstrel Boy” extends for over seventeen minutes.

But Strummer’s genius is perhaps most evident in the tune “Yalla Yalla” off the band’s first record, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. With this track, Strummer makes even techno sound edgy.

Holding all the different threads together is Strummer’s singular voice, which Petrusich beautifully describes as “viscous, wet, like if you tried to paint it onto a canvas it would require a thousand shades of blue.” Hearing the scratchy, hollering earnestness that powered the Clash’s best songs in an entirely fresh context is energizing, like seeing an old friend after many years.

The Mescaleros’ entire body of work was released in a single download-able package in 2012, dubbed Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years. It is a treasure trove for any self-respecting Clash fan (and for rock fans generally). In addition to every studio recording, the package includes live versions of nearly every Mescaleros song and numerous Clash tunes to boot including three with Mick Jones (“Bank Robber,” “White Riot” and “London’s Burning”). It is nearly five hours of music. That may seem overwhelming, but I recommend cuing it up and letting it roll unfettered behind your next party. It is compelling stuff.

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