Regardless of how unhip I may be now (a matter for everyone to decide for themselves), it's nothing compared to how unhip I was growing up, especially when it came to music. The first 45rpm single I ever purchased was by Kiss, and the first full-length LP was by the Electric Light Orchestra; let us say no more about that. In particular, I didn't know anything about punk rock, and certainly didn't come close to appreciating the genius of the Clash. Sure, I knew Rock The Casbah from the video on MTV (although little did I suspect it would some day become a conservative rock anthem, the Clash being secret Republicans at heart). But I didn't at all understand the skill and passion with which the band blended hard-core punk sensibilities with a disparate palate of musical influences.
Which is just as well, as my lack of familiarity allowed me to fall in love with frontman Joe Strummer on the basis of his solo work with backing band The Mescaleros. After the Clash broke up in 1986, Strummer's output waned, while he appeared in a couple of films and contributed some soundtrack music. Then, starting in 1999, he released a series of three albums of astonishing range and beauty: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global a Go-Go, and Streetcore. The last of these, sadly, was posthumous, as Strummer died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2002. (I'm sure everyone else knows all this. Me, I never whould have discovered Strummer if Mondo Bongo hadn't been prominently featured on the soundtrack for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Thanks, Brad and Angelina!) Reviews of Strummer's solo work have been largely positive, but somewhat tempered by confusion due to a lack of obvious continuity with his punk roots. Personally, I think that if the albums are considered in their own right, rather than as "by the guy from the Clash" with all the preconceptions that implies, they are an amazing achievement. Strummer was always interested in different genres of music (and reggae was an important influence on the Clash), but here he mixes a mad panopoly of styles -- from punk to folk to reggae to rockabilly to Middle Eastern to Latin to African and on -- with equally eclectic instrumentation and colorful lyrics. (Where "colorful" should occasionally be taken to mean "surreal bordering on nonsensical," unless I was patrolling a Pachinko / Nude noodle model parlor / in the Nefarious zone is more transparent to you than it is to me.) Along with drums/bass/guitar, a Mescaleros song might feature violin, whistle, mandolin, organ, conga, bells, bodhran, udu, accordion, saxophone, dulcimer, and/or whatever else was lying around. While he could still rock with the best of them, Strummer could also step back with an acoustic tune like Bob Marley's Redemption Song (also recorded elsewhere in a duet with Johnny Cash). You can get a good idea of the playful energy, at once exuberant and reflective, of Strummer's later music from the lyrics to Bhindi Bhagee. It's a song about eclectic food choices, but there is an explicit parallel (which the lyrics are happy to spell out) with eclectic musical choices. Of course, if you listen to a bit, the energy is even more obvious.
Well, I was walking down the High Road And this guy stops me He'd just got in from New Zealand And he was looking for mushy peas I said, no, we hadn't really got 'em round here I said, but we do got Balti, Bhindi, strictly Hindi Dall, Halal and I'm walking down the road We got rocksoul, okra, bombay duck-ra Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without - with it or without Bagels soft or simply harder Exotic avocado or toxic empenada We got akee, lassi, Somali waccy baccy I'm sure back home you know what tikka's all about - what tikka's all about Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods You can get inspiration along the highroad Hommus, cous cous in the jus of octopus Pastrami and salami and lasagne on the go Welcome stranger, there's no danger Welcome to this humble neighborhood There's Balti, Bhindi, strictly Hindi Dall, Halal and I'm walking down the road Rocksoul, okra, bombay duck-ra Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without So anyway, I told him I was in a band He said, "Oh yeah, oh yeah - what's your music like?" I said, "It's um, um, well, it's kinda like You know, it's got a bit of, um, you know." Ragga, Bhangra, two-step Tanga Mini-cab radio, music on the go Um, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat There's a bunch of players and they're really letting go We got, Brit pop, hip hop, rockabilly, Lindy hop Gaelic heavy metal fans fighting in the road Ah, Sunday boozers for chewing gum users They got a crazy D.J. and she's really letting go Oh, welcome stranger Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods Well, I say, there's plenty of places to eat round here He say, "Oh yeah, I'm pretty choosy." You got Balti, Bhindi, strictly Hindi Dall, Halal, walking down the road Rocksoul, okra, bombay duck-ra Shrimp beansprout, comes with it or without Let's check it out Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods, neighborhoods Check out all that Por-da-sol, por-da-sol Walking down the highroad