Saturday, November 29, 2008

Joe Strummer. The Future Is Unwritten

Julian Temples Sex Pistols film The Filth And The Fury is one of the best Music films. It snatched the Pistols story back from his own highjacked Great Rock N Roll Swindle which Malcolm McClaren had turned into his own revisionist comedy.

Temple's film about Joe Strummer manages to be an affectionate and honest film about a contradictory, difficult man who was one of the best front men in one of the best bands. And like the Pistols, the myth of the Clash is as big as the music. And just as important. As a fan you buy the records. But for inspiration you buy into the myth.

The opening sequence is terrific. Strummer is in the studio singing an unaccompanied vocal to White Riot. The backing track drops in, powerful, ragged and naïve. But instead of the expected clips of The Clash careering round the stage or stock footage of urban chaos what you actually get is a young John Mellor kicking leaves in the garden with his diplomat dad.

The Future Is Unwritten is the story of the contradictions and the story of Strummer before and after The Clash. It is told through brilliantly edited archive footage and the recollections of those who knew him gathered up in camp fire interviews. During the 90's building campfires had became symbolic for Strummer allowing him to gather friends and new people around him. Temple carried out new interviews around campfires to allow contradictory reminiscences to sit side by side with the image of Strummer. And Strummer really did build his own image. Not only with the name changes (from John Mellor, to Woody to Strummer) but he also was naturally left handed but played guitar right handed because he thought it looked better.

Strummer described himself as being one of the boarding school bullies, but the school friends gathered round the camp fire remember him as a boy who stayed out of trouble because he knew how to handle people.

His ex girlfriend described him as a boys own adventurer who would "Sleep under the starts when it was totally unnecessary." Another ex, the more pragmatic Palmolive from The Slits describes looking out the window and wondering who the wino sleeping in the garden was….and then seeing the pointy shoes and realising it must be Joe.

He inspired great affection and loyalty among people, but he was ruthless about firing band members and distancing himself from his Pub Rock band the 101ers and his early 70's squat buddies. When he bumped into them they said it was like the shutters had come down. It was almost impossible for him to get out of character. The next chapter had started. .

An early Clash interview showed him projecting the image of a man of few words and fewer syllables. He answers a question about morality with "I'd never steal money from a friend…" There's a long pause, but you just know, that he's always known exactly what he was going to say…but just wants the camera to get that moment. "….But I'd steal his girlfriend".

There's no playfulness about it. This was strictly sullen era Clash. And away from the camera, Strummer was certainly partial to girlfriend poaching as Topper Headon testifies. But if Strummer was living the part of the Punk Rock mumbler, it was a 24 hour business. When he first joined the band Topper felt that they were trying to intimidate him with an early band meeting punctuated only by the sounds of Simonon spitting on the electric fire through the gap in his front teeth. He says Strummer didn't actually drop the act with him and talk honestly until Strummer and Headon were in an American jail cell together charged with stealing motel pillows.

But Strummer really could talk. His images and enthusiasm for the world came tumbling out in the clips, in quotes from the broadcasts he did for the BBC World Service and in his own description of Punk Rock history.

"The Pistols had to come in and blow everything away. They were the stun grenade into the room before the door kicked in. They came out of nowhere and they came to support us one night at the Nashville Rooms"

There's a great sequence of a recent Mick Jones interview (less hats, less hair) where he's looking out of his gran's Ladbrooke Grove tower block flat. You can see the lights of the city and the Westway snaking through it. Jones looks out and says "There's the roar of a city. It does sound like our music"

The end of the Clash is pure soap opera. As Topper's song Rock The Casbah becomes a hit, Topper is out of the band, replaced by original stand in drummer Terry Chimes for a tour of American enormodomes with the likes of The Who.

On one hand Strummer had got everything he could have hoped for as music fan who never really was Bored Of The USA but he also felt squeezed and compromised. A thoroughly unhappy looking Strummer and Jones sporting full Combat Rock regalia and wearing hats that span military campaigns from The American Civil War to Korea say the music industry is "No worse than any other prostitution business"

The film cuts between a full colour stadium version of Career Opportunities to a black and white early version. It's as if they won the caravan on Bullseye but would have been happier with the toaster.

As Should I Stay Or Should I Go plays (Oh the irony-Mick Jones's witless song about ex girlfriend and Meatloaf duetter Ellen Foley, where he ponders, quite literally, whether he should stay or indeed go) Strummer sums up the bands career.

"The success goes to your head pitfall. The ego trap pitfall. You think you're geniuses. You become drug addicts. You make indulgent records. You overdub the sound of ants biting through a wooden beam. All these things we've gone through, each and every one of them. And that's why we've come out a depleted force."

"We turned into the people we'd tried to destroy"

The film is still really interesting after the demise of the Clash, when Strummer was essentially lost. One afternoon he decided to cut down on his drinking but then that evening agreed to stand in for Shane MacGowan on a Pogues tour. I'm glad he did, if only for the version of Straight to Hell I saw them do at Aston Villa leisure Centre.

He made soundtracks and recruited musicians on a whim for his Latino Rockabilly War and Mescaleros projects.

The first time Strummer saw future Mescalero Antony Genn was when Genn was the Glastonbury streaker during Elastica's set in the mid 90's

He thought he'd found his ideal drummer. He hadn't heard him play but he liked his name. "He's got to be good. His name is Ramone Baharandra"

Anthony Kiedis thought that it was odd for Strummer to try to recruit ex Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer Jack Irons who was in a mental institution at the time. "It'll be Ok. We'll get him a ride to and fro, he'll come into the studio, he'll have a job and we'll make this record"

After he'd made Earthquake Weather he really needed all the industry support he could muster. However on the day of the play back when the studio execs were due to come and listen to it, he didn't show up to the meeting. He'd left a note pinned to his front door. "I've gone to the desert"

Fittingly the last gig Strummer played was a benefit for striking firemen. Mick Jones got up and played too. The closest there was to a Clash reunion. Strummer died shortly afterwards at home after walking the dog. Cause of death was an undetected and congenital heart defect that could have killed him at any time in the preceding years.

The film does a fine job of telling Strummers story and allowing him to be both a very fallible human being but also Punk Rock hero. There are 2 good quotes from the extra interview footage that comes with the DVD. One is from Mickey Gallagher who felt that he and fellow Blockhead Norman Watt Roy should have had a credit for their work on the Magnificent 7. Strummer had made all the right noises but ultimately nothing had happened. (Before we all get too judgemental remember that The Clash actually took a royalty cut to subsidise the low price of Sandinista). Gallagher said "Joe Strummer was a hero but John Mellor was a coward"

The nicer quote though is a story about what happened when Strummer spotted Monica Lewinsky in a nightclub. It shows both his ability to both say the right thing but also the unexpected thing. As soon as Strummer saw her he told his friends he had to go and say something to her. They were worried about what he could possibly say. He bounded up to her; she looked nervous and didn't know who he was. "I'm Joe Strummer. But you're Punk Rock"