Joe Strummer: 10 years gone
This campfire community slowly drew Strummer back to music. Belatedly discovering Ecstasy, he immersed himself in dance music. The dance scene had the same pull as punk, he said, “because as with punk, two mad geezers in a room could do it. It can be made by two nutters in a room for 200 quid. Like Karl Marx said, let the workers have the means of production and then we’ll see the world change. That’s why dance music is fucking great because anyone could get into it.”
I asked Strummer how long he took to get into the music. “About the time it takes to swallow a pill,” he laughed.
Always an undercurrent during his Clash days, world music also became a new passion for Strummer. Setting up camp at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath, he began meeting young musicians from across the globe, bonding with Richard Norris of techno outfit The Grid and Black Grape percussionist Pablo Cook. He collaborated on Black Grape’s Euro 1996 football anthem England’s Irie, then on Keith Allen’s collective comedy-rock project Fat Les.
In 1997, Strummer and Lucinda bought a farmhouse near Taunton in Somerset. Damien Hirst had a place less than an hour away and film-maker Julien Temple was living just around the corner. These middle-aged punk veterans became fast friends, with Strummer converting Temple to the delights of Glastonbury. “We were trying to get a rebel state going, a bit like the Confederacy,” Temple says. “Joe designed a flag with a skull and crossbones over the campfire.”
Moving to the country may have initially felt like retirement to Strummer, but this new pastoral hippie phase ultimately re-energised him. In 1998, he kicked off his public comeback with a world music show on the BBC World Service, London Calling, which was heard by 40 million people around the globe. Like Dylan in Woodstock, he was never really off duty, more like an exiled king waiting to be summoned back to his throne.
“Glastonbury and the whole campfire thing was so good for him,” recalls Lucinda Mellor, Joe’s widow. “He had been pottering around in his own studio and not associating with like-minded people. Suddenly going out to Real World studios opened up a new world to him. He met people who were involved in techno music or world music and he just got really enthusiastic and excited about everything again. He felt he had something to offer.”
As his musical comeback began to take shape, Strummer initially mooted forming a group with Richard Norris, Pablo Cook and Bez. “Me and Norris were trying to invent acid punk, but we were coming from opposite directions,” Strummer told me in 1999. “That was a real Clash. He was coming right out of acid house, and I’m coming right out of punk rock, and we hit head on. We made some brilliant tracks but the cultural collision was too much.”
Norris and Strummer eventually parted company, but not before they co-wrote a clutch of tracks that would later feature on the first Mescaleros album, most notably the mighty swaying ocean liner of dub-rock that was Yalla Yalla. Meanwhile, Strummer met Antony Genn, a sometime member of Pulp and Elastica, who he had first spotted dancing naked onstage at Glastonbury in 1995. In blunt terms,
Genn ordered the singer to put a new band together.