Joe Strummer: 10 years gone
“That was the call I’d been waiting for, because I’d had a loss of confidence,” Strummer confessed to me. “It’s hard because it’s like a car that hasn’t run for years. You think it’s never going to run, as you stand around there kicking the wheels. But with a bit of goosing and some gasoline in the carburettor… I just needed someone to pull my sleeve and say: come on!”
Strummer enlisted Genn as his co-producer, co-writer and guitarist. No stranger to booze and drugs himself, the singer initially worked around Genn’s serious heroin addiction. Together they recruited a band including guitarist Martin Slattery, bass player Scott Shields and drummer Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard. The group was still nameless. Damien Hirst suggested “Sausage”. Strummer briefly favoured “Machine”, then “Hand Of God”, then settled on “The Mescaleros”, after a Native American Apache tribe.
Recorded in a boozy, flag-draped “spliff bunker” in North London, the first Mescaleros album was completed in early 1999. Strummer then began the dispiriting business of shopping it to British record companies. Reaction was lukewarm. Even avowed Clash fans like Creation boss Alan McGee turned the former punk legend down. In the end, it was the US label Hellcat, run by Tim Armstrong of arena-punk veterans Rancid, who gave Strummer his break with a generous one-album deal worth $250,000. In Britain the album was licensed by Mercury after recording. “Nobody would sign me in Europe,” Strummer told me glumly.
“I understand why because a record executive doesn’t really want to stick his neck out in this day and age. I’d been out of fashion, and this is a pretty brutal island. The press are pretty harsh.”
The Mescaleros played their first gig in June 1999 at the Leadmill in Genn’s native Sheffield. Reviews were generally positive, partly reflecting the huge legacy of goodwill towards Strummer, who dropped several Clash songs into the set.
The band’s debut album, Rock Art And The X-Ray Style, was finally released in October. Inside the pink cave-painting sleeve design by Damien Hirst were Clash‑style rockers like Tony Adams, alongside more adventurous worldbeat experiments like Yalla Yalla and the blissful Willesden To Cricklewood. Reviews were mixed, but mostly encouraging. As The Mescaleros toured Europe, America, Japan and Australia, the album went on to sell a respectable 150,000 copies.