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Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros "The Hellcat Years" Reviewed

The only musician to ever give Lennon a run  for his money in rock and roll Sainthood, is Joe Strummer. Lennon was murdered and reached Sainthood at 40, They didn't get to Strummer so he died of heart disease and made it to St. Joeness ten years older than Lennon. Both of them fronted the greatest rock and roll band in the world, both were politically active men of peace. Both had post-greatest rock band careers with varying degrees of success (it is hard to remember how much Wall And Bridges was a comeback album).

Strummer's post-Clash career was disastrous. For a mainstream rock and roll man, used to smash hit songs, the steady downgrading post-Combat Rock was upsetting enough, but the corresponding decline in his gifts were equally compelling a reason to be worried. Strummer could survive without hit singles, but could he survive with mediocrity?

Ten years into Strummer's post-Clash career, there was a movie soundtrack, a solid Clash-y solo album, and a couple of songs floating away. But his work seemed to be lacking in concentration. He slowed the beats, lost the melody, and let his music drag. A mix of dub beats and Americana, only his vocals saved him for disaster.

Financially, nothing saved him. While Big Audio Dynamite blew up big, Strummer sputtered in post Cut The Crap ignominy.

Then Strummer got lucky. he cut a killer, track, , fourth song on the newly released Strummer and the Mescal compilation album The Hellcat Years,  in celebration of  what would have been  Joe's 60th Birthday. "Techno D Day" was a  prescient heavy beats rocker with one of his best lines ever, "This is all about free speech".  It feels like it should  have been  "Yalla Yalla", a soundtrack song,  that opened the door for the first, Anthony Genn inspired Mescalero album. But it was the superior, "TDD" -a masterful piece of excitement. Unfortunately, the rest of the Mescal first album is not up to this standard. 

As a fan, I wonder why Strummer didn't dumb down. Why instead of throwing so much into every song, he wouldn't let them breath. It wouldn't really have saved these slow, heavy tracks, but it wouldn't have hurt some of the fleeter footed numbers. . It is really easy: the man who wrote "the truth is only known guttersnipe" was too often stuck in dribbling verbiage like "Raining on roofs, raining on drums, love buys a six-pack and gives it to the bums." I have no idea what Joe was  talking about. It is overwritten nonsense by a man who described a whole generation with "I can't think of a better way to spend the night than speeding around underneath the yellow lights".

Anyway, both "Yalla Yalla" and "Techno D-Day" were highlights of the 50 minute, Strummer-Gen Rock Art And The X-Ray Style first album. It has one great song, one good song, two OK songs, and a lot of fiddling around and sonic tastefulness. 

The follow up, Global A GoGo, loses Anthony Genn, gains the great Tymon Dogg who hijacks the album. The opener "Johnny Appleseed" is one of two greatest post-Clash moments and really, one of Strummer's finest moments period, a folk myth of towering power and beauty and again, as so often happens with Strummer, when he gets the bumper sticker right the rest of the song kicks in perfect. Here it is: "If you want the honey you don't go killing all the bees". Exactly. While considered a return to form at the time, that "Minstrel Boy" -18 minutes of jam, has got to go. "Bhindi Bhagee" sounds fabulous, but I didn't like the metaphor at all. If he had rethought the lyric, it would have been a masterpiece with its Middle Eastern flavored godknowswhat, sounds like an Aoud, in the background. Maybe the mandolin.

All the songs are just too busy and it is a real problem for me that Strummer won't knock it off and get down to what he does best. Maybe he thinks it would have been a sell out to play rock and roll, but again, Strummer works against his skills.

The first track off the post-humous Streetcore (though it was nearly finished) is the simply perfect "Coma Girl". People think that Strummer had finally managed to integrate his Clash work into his post Clash work with Streetcore, but they were just mourning him. . Joe hadn't but he had gotten closer. "Coma Girl" was his very best personal song perhaps ever. Written for his daughter about the fireside singalongs at Glastonbury, it is a flawless creation and along with "Johnny Appleseed" is a dream of an alternative Strummer story. "Redemption Song" (Produced by Rick Rubin!) is a little out of place, and at times the album  is as unfocused as the two earlier Mescaleros albums. But even if it isn't perfect, at least "Before I Grow Too Old"("Silver And Gold)  is a perfect farethewell.

On The Hellcat Years, this is followed by 8 B-Sides, all of which are pretty good, and the "Armageddon Time" and "Blitzkreig Bop" are the best of a significantly fine bunch of tracks, covers and lives mostly. Then an obscure cut off a Hellcat comp, and finally the entire Acton Town Hall concert to support striking  Firefighters with Mick Jones joining Joe on stage for three songs during the encore. 

I only saw the Mescaleros's live once and thought they were excellent, that was Roseland in 1999. The live set that ends the Hellcat Years was its equal, even better. Also, it was a little later so he played "Johnny Appleseed" and followed it with "Coma Girl" (the latter wasn't even recorded at the time)  and you gotta think… I do think, that is pretty incredible. The last three tracks were with an almost Clash reunion ending with "London Burning"and a month later Strummer was dead. It isn't just, not even only, nostalgia listening to it: The live recording is better than the records. 

I wasn't much of a post-Clash Strummer fan (Helen Bach is a huge fan and I hope she decides to review the Box Set herself) but I think I underestimate his solo stuff. The recording didn't help, the sprawl didn't help, but here and there you'll find songs as great as rock and roll ever gets.

As a poet. Strummer isn't (wasn't) as clever as he thought he was (I bet he would have killed the "Desolation Road" line in "Coma Girl" if he had lived longer) , though as a polemist he is without precedent. As a songwriter, he is unfocused and is often a bore on record. Overwriting and over arranging, his world music lacks so much that made the Clash great. He was  a great  singer,  a great great live performer and a great man.  And now he is St. Joe. 

Rock Art And The X-Ray Style – Grade: B-

Global A GoGo – Grade: B

Streetcore – Grade: B+

The B-Sides: Grade: A-

Live At Acton: Grade: A+

The Hellcat Years: Grade: A

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