Best Of '99: Joe Strummer Revives Clash Songs Onstage

Launching first U.S. tour in decade, punk pioneer also plays tunes from upcoming solo album.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, June 30.]

WASHINGTON, D.C. — London came calling again Tuesday night

as ex-Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer kicked off his first U.S. tour

in 10 years with an impassioned performance of Clash classics and tunes

from his upcoming second solo album.

A sold-out crowd of colorful young punks and graying elder punks was

equally enthusiastic about new material from Strummer's X-Ray Style

and Clash tunes such as "London Calling" (RealAudio

excerpt), as revived by Strummer and his band, the Mescaleros.

"This is as close to the Clash as I'm ever going to get," 18-year-old

Kandi Walker of Bethesda, Md., said. "I was too young to see them back

in the early '80s, so this is my chance to see Joe in action."

The Clash, one of the original wave of British punk bands and one of the

most influential, broke up in 1986, after releasing the poorly received

Cut the Crap a year earlier. Strummer (born John Graham Mellor)

has since done some movie scoring, played briefly with the folk-punk

band the Pogues and released a solo album, Earthquake Weather, in

1989. He has been quiet for much of the '90s, partly because of a

contract dispute with Sony Music.

The dispute has been settled, and the 46-year-old rocker is slated to

release X-Ray Style on Hellcat/Epitaph Records in the fall.

"Heyyy ... Washington, D.C.," Strummer said as he strolled up to the

mic shortly after 10 p.m., in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his cowboy

swagger and jet-black hair and sideburns unchanged from his Clash days.

"This is the home of Bo Diddley. We're gonna go check out his home where

he grew up, if we can find it."

Actually, Diddley, the rock pioneer who opened several U.S. shows for

the Clash in 1979, was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago. But

if Strummer didn't quite have his geography straight, he seemed to still

have his punk-rock mojo in order.

Stomping his black work boots and counting off the beat, he strapped on

his guitar and jumped straight into a new song, "Diggin' the New," which

showcased the Mescaleros' pronounced enthusiasm. Strummer's voice, though

a little rougher for the wear, still pierced the air with its trademark

shrieks and howls. His hands moved often to his face, fingers outstretched

and grabbing his skull as if he had been hit in the forehead with a

mallet.

In all, he played nine songs from the Clash catalog — including

such classics as "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" and songs the

Clash covered, including Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" and the

Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law" — as well as five new tunes.

Fans rushed the stage as the first few power chords to "London Calling"

blared from the amplifiers. "I've waited 15 years to hear this live,"

one older fan shouted to the amused teenager at his side.

The Mescaleros — guitarist Martin Slattery (ex-Black Grape), bassist

Scott Shields, keyboardist Anthony Genn, drummer Smiley and percussionist

Pablo Cook — took to such old Clash favorites as "Straight to Hell"

and "Bankrobber" as if they were their own. "Tommy Gun" was a barrage of

noise and feedback harking back to punk days of yore.

Cook even stood up on his bongos at one point and dove onto the stage,

crashing into the rest of the band, adding a sense of the chaos the Clash

brought to British nightclubs in the 1970s. The only disappointment for

fans was that the Mescaleros' rendition of the Clash's biggest pop hit, 1982's "Rock the Casbah" (RealAudio

excerpt of Clash version), didn't quite capture the original's

fusion of punk and disco.

The Mescaleros, all young British lads who were probably in grade school

when the Clash broke up in 1986, seemed to shine brightest on songs from

Strummer's forthcoming album. "Tony Adams," which is "about an obscure

soccer player from England," Strummer explained, the upcoming single

"Yalla-Yalla" and the title cut, with its slow, passionate rhythms and

bombastic bongo playing, all were warmly received.

After ending the hour-and-a-half set with "I Fought the Law" and "Brand

New Cadillac," Strummer returned by himself for the first of two encores,

playing an acoustic rendition of "Junco Partner" — a traditional

song the Clash recorded for Sandinista (1980) — before being

rejoined by the band for the new "Techno D-Day" and finishing off the

night with "Bankrobber."

"The Clash influenced everyone," Mark Moore, 32, said after the show.

"They weren't just punk. They were blues and jazz and reggae and country,

all types of sounds rolled into one ... I just can't believe we were

able to hear some of the old songs tonight."

"I sell lots of old Clash albums to kids wanting to start up a band,"

Moore said. "They ask me, 'Where should I start?' and I hand them a copy

of London Calling. 'It's all right there, kid.' "

While Strummer's former bandmates Mick Jones and Paul Simonon are

gathering tapes for an upcoming Clash live album, there is no talk of a

Clash reunion. Strummer is scheduled to play in New York on Wednesday

night (June 30) and wrap up the tour next week in Los Angeles.