Remembering Joe Strummer, with Lucinda Mellor and Robert Gordon McHarg III

 

All-Round Inspiration: Joe Strummer, Polaroid style (Photo: Bob Gruen)

To mark late September 2018’s release of a box-set tribute to Clash frontman, punk pioneer, singer/songwriter, activist and all-round inspiration Joe Strummer, who died in late 2002, WriteWyattUK  tracked down the project’s main drivers – artist Robert Gordon McHarg III and Joe’s widow, Lucinda Mellor. But first, a little pre-amble. 

Later this month, Ignition Records issue new LP/CD/digital boxset project, Joe Strummer 001, the first compilation spanning Strummer’s career outside The Clash,  including various rarities and fan favourites from recordings with the 101’ers and The Mescaleros, his solo LPs and soundtrack work, plus an LP of unreleased songs.

All formats include tracks that have never appeared before, as well as new remasters, and the album of unreleased material includes an early ‘This Is England’ demo (‘Czechoslovak Song/Where Is England’), a solo ‘Letsagetabitarockin’’ demo recorded in Elgin Avenue in 1975, outtakes from Sid & Nancy featuring Joe’s main Clash collaborator Mick Jones, and unreleased songs ‘Rose Of Erin,’ biographical/mythical recording ‘The Cool Impossible’, and ‘London Is Burning’, one of the last he recorded.

Arguably the most charismatic and passionate frontman to emerge from the punk rock explosion of the late ‘70s, it was discovered after Joe’s untimely death in December 2002 that he’d been quite an archivist of his own work, with barns full of writings and tapes stored in his back garden. In fact, there are now more than 20,000 items in the Joe Strummer Archive, the archiving of material and compiling of Joe Strummer 001 overseen by his widow, Lucinda Mellor, and artist Robert Gordon McHarg III.

All the tracks for the box-set were restored and mastered by Grammy Award winner Peter J. Moore at the E. Room in Toronto, Canada. And going through cassettes and recording tapes it was discovered that Joe was also rather frugal and keen on hiding tracks. On cassettes he would leave 20 minutes between songs, and on one-inch eight-track recordings hidden tracks were discovered superimposed on to each other. For example, tracks one to four were taken by one song and tracks five to eight by two other songs, initially thought when played back to be caused by tape denigration until Moore stepped in and separated one song from another.

The box-set has the same content as the CD set and is pressed on audiophile quality 180g vinyl, while an accompanying book included with the deluxe CD set features rarely seen and previously unpublished memorabilia from Joe’s personal collection as well as historical press reviews and technical notes about the albums. The cover of all formats is taken from Joe’s 1990 Californian driving licence.

The project was curated by long-time friend of Joe Strummer, Canada-born artist Robert Gordon McHarg III, who previously worked on The Clash’s Sound System box-set with Paul Simonon, and also curated the Black Market Clash exhibition. Gordon explained, “The idea behind the book is that it’s an A4 notebook done as if Joe had designed it himself, telling his story. Hopefully it’s an insight into his workings and includes hand-written lyrics with personal notes and scribbles.”

To mark the occasion, I asked Gordon and Joe’s widow Lucinda Mellor their thoughts on the project and Strummer’s enduring legacy, 16 years after his departure. My questions follow in italics, followed by answers from Gordon, Luce, or both.

A lot of hard work went into this collection, as with all your labour compiling Joe’s archive. Was this project at the drawing board stage for a long time?

Gordon: “Joe did all the hard work; we’ve laboured. Finding a way to share the archive has taken time.”

Luce: “No not really, as we were concerned primarily with the written work he left behind, having no idea of the wealth of recording material buried in the boxes and bags.”

The first thing I heard from this box-set was part of a different treatment of ‘London’s Burning’/’Burnin’ Streets’, just one shining example showcasing the versatility of so many great tracks in his back-catalogue. I gather that Joe was one for ‘hidden tracks’ tucked away on tapes. Was there a fear that some of those old tapes would snap and be lost forever after all this time?

Gordon: “Preserving all of Joe’s archive has been a challenge. ‘London Is Burning’ was Pockets’ ((another old friend of Joe) contribution to JS001.”

Luce: “Yes, this was real fear, and for this reason Gordon sought out the amazing Peter Moore in Canada, a master at repairing these precious old tapes.”

Was there much gnashing of teeth, scratching of heads and arguments for arguments’ sake over the track-listing? I guess it would seem fairly apt to Joe’s memory if that was the case.

Gordon: “Absolutely. It took months. I worked on around seven variations. Having archived so many of Joe’s set-lists, it was imperative to try and channel that dedication into trying to get it right.”

Luce: “There was a little bit, as the question of why these gems never found the light of day was always prominent in our selection, and also personal preferences are subjective.”

True Icon: Joe Strummer in 1989 (Photo: Bob Gruen)

Were there occasional conversations in compiling this box-set when you felt the need to ask Joe’s opinion on something?

Gordon: “Occasional? All the way through this. It’s ongoing …”

Luce: “Continual, but then I still find that today and wonder ‘What would Joe do or say?’.”

As I understand it, there are more than 20,000 items in the Joe Strummer Archive. Were there moments when it all seemed a bit much to even contemplate sorting out?

Gordon: “It’s been emotional!”

Luce: “Yes, the project has been huge, and without the input, help and enthusiasm from Gordon and Martin Bradley and his team, I would have abandoned it years ago. It really has been a mammoth undertaking.”

Have there been sleepless nights thinking you shouldn’t have left such and such a track off? And is there scope for a ‘Joe Strummer 002’?

Gordon: “There have been many sleepless nights. I care so much about not letting Joe down. The archive is so rich in material, there is more to share. JS002 is definitely a desire.”

Luce: “Many, many sleepless nights, and I’m sure there are many varying opinions out there as to what we should and shouldn’t have included, but there is easily a 002 and maybe even a 003.”

In an interview in 2007 with The Independent, you (Lucinda) suggested an ‘amazing book’ may follow on the archive someday. Any further advanced on that?

Luce: “This is what we were originally planning when we realised Joe had left so many interesting and beautiful lyrics, poems and drawings. So we have put together a book to accompany the release with his handwritten lyrics, scribbles, drawings, photographs and a bio he wrote himself. In effect, we’ve left the book to Joe to introduce us to the album. That is not to say that sometime in the future I would love to put out a glossy coffee table book!”

I’ve come to appreciate in recent years the strength of the 101’ers material. Might that have been something Joe was likely to go back to and reinterpret/re-record a few songs?

Luce: “That I cannot answer, but it’s interesting to note that ‘Pouring Rain’ was first visited in 1984 and then again in 1993, so I guess we will never know.”

There were a few ‘in between’ projects before the Mescaleros evolved, not least the film soundtrack work. What tracks from those less celebrated albums really jumped out at you all these years on?

Gordon: “I have enjoyed watching and learning more about the films Joe was involved in. I Hired A Contract Killer by Aki Kaurismaki is high on my list, and the track ’Burning Lights’ is up there. To add to that, when Luce played me ‘Generations’ I thought this is one of Joe’s best. It had to go on. And of course, when he wrote ‘Sandpaper Blues’ for my exhibition soundtrack, that will always be a personal life highlight.”

Luce: “I think my favourites are the songs he did for Sara Driver’s film, When Pigs Fly. But Walker is astounding too. I find myself listening to that album a lot and never tire of it.”

It seems sad that it took Joe’s departure for much of his work to be truly recognised in certain circles, but I’m more and more convinced I don’t just hold the last two albums in such reverence because of the circumstances, but because he was on a genuine career high.

Gordon: “I really enjoyed seeing Joe play with The Mescaleros. All the albums are great.”

Luce: “I feel he was just getting back into his stride too, and he had a fantastically talented bunch of musicians in the Mescaleros who reignited his passion for writing, recording and performing, so I would agree with you.”

There’s a tendency to think, going back over old interviews, footage and records, that we’re still in late 2002 in Joe’s world. But while I felt Streetcore was perhaps his finest body of work and a couple more albums of that strength may have followed, his restless nature might have seen him move on to another band or solo project at some stage. Do you reckon that may have happened?

Gordon: “Joe was always working with different artists …”

Luce: “Perhaps. He really enjoyed his collaborations with Horace Andy, Richard Norris, Jimmy Cliff and right at the end of his life with Dave Stewart, so I’m sure he would have branched out, and of course he was swapping ideas with Mick at the end too.”

Inevitably, talk will always go back to a Clash reformation and whether it was likely to happen. Signs and snippets of quotes suggest It was at least on a bucket-list for Joe at some point. Any thoughts?

Gordon: “I don’t have the answer … (but) Joe loved The Clash.”

Luce: “As I said, Mick and he were swapping ideas in the last few months of his life, and I guess the Clash was always unfinished business. He had enormous respect and love for Mick, so who knows.”

We tend to think of you as Joe’s widow, Luce, but time moves on. Where are you at now? And where’s home these days?

Luce: “Home is Somerset and where my heart is.”

What’s (Joe and Lucinda’s daughter) Eliza up to these days? Are you still in touch with (Joe’s other daughters) Jazz and Lola and other members of his family? And do you often speak to Mick, Paul and Topper?

Luce: “Eliza is a singer and a producer and goes under the name of Lyza Jane. She has an EP out on Blah Records and has just finished writing her first album. Jazz and Lola are both mothers, living on the South coast, and I saw them a couple of weekends ago. Mick, Paul and Topper, not as often as I don’t come to London much these days, but we are in touch.”

It’s now 25 years since you met Joe, and although you were only together around a decade, you clearly knew him so much better than most. Although you both had West London links, he seemed to be just as at home in Somerset, away from the big city.

Luce: “He took to Somerset life easily and did love it down here, although he never lost his thirst for London and indeed other cities.”

Joe was something of an archivist of his own work and could seemingly outdo most of us with his hoarding capabilities. I get a picture of a ‘carrier-bag man’ keeping hold of so many items that might one day come in handy (lyrics or whatever). Were there ever difficult ‘Do you really need this, Joe?’ conversations?

Luce: “Many. I couldn’t understand why he kept these endless plastic bags which littered the house, especially as I am the opposite, and love a good clear-out.”

How important was Gordon’s input in setting the right tone on this box-set project? 

Luce: “This whole project is really Gordon’s baby, he has masterminded and engineered it from conception.”

How did you (Gordon) get to know Joe? I think you suggested to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London that it involved a copy of a Hank Williams book and a pumpkin pie.  

Country Style: Joe Strummer in 1984 (Photographer Unknown)

Gordon: “Back in the early ‘90s, my friend Lucky Pete, drummer of Gaz Mayall’s band The Trojans, left my Hank Williams book at Joe’s house. I wanted my book back and lived around the corner from Joe when he was living on Lancaster Road. I remember having a Baby Belling cooker and thought I would make a pie and customise the outside of the box – ‘Slim’s Pumpkin Pie’. I was cooking Sunday lunch at The Globe, Talbot Road at the time. Anyway … I turned up, rang the bell; Joe opened the door and I asked for my Hank book. He went and got it from the lounge and said he read it, which made me happy. Standing at the front door sporting my cowboy hat and pie in hand, I said ‘I made this for you’. He immediately invited me in, with my son Hughie and Lucky Pete. He seemed happy with the pie. We chatted and my son played with his kids Lola and Jazzy. This was the beginning of our friendship.”

Were you a Clash fan, growing up in Montreal? Ever dream you might get to know the band and know their London? And what did you think when Luce asked you to get involved on all this?

Gordon: “Yes. I saw The Clash in Montreal 1982. I was 18. ‘The Call Up’ really got into my head.

“I arrived in London on Carnival Monday, 1983, and knew no one. I didn’t know that Notting Hill Carnival was on and ended up on Portobello Road, under the Westway, listening to Aswad. Six years later I met Paul Simonon at his after-carnival party through my friend Gaz.

“I always feel it is a great privilege to help Luce with Joe’s archive.”

You’ve paid tribute to Joe with art installations in London, Belfast and Tokyo, most famously the Edgware Road tube project. Ever try to define what it was about him that truly resonated with you?

Gordon: “The Joe Strummer Subway was my guerrilla project to rename the subway under the Marylebone flyover intersection of the Westway and the Edgware Road where I had The Subway Gallery for 10 years.

“Joe was one of my teachers, along with Hank Williams, John Fogerty, The Beatles, Gene Clark, John Cooper Clarke, Shel Silverstein, to name but a few. I have learned a lot through rock’n’roll, and Joe was a huge part of that.”

Four years ago, you were saying how your ‘seven-day pop-up shop’ was to raise funds for a Strummer statue. There have been temporary murals and tributes in London, Spain and the US since 2002. Any closer to your dream?

Lone Ranger: Joe Strummer, caught on camera by Lucinda in 1997 (Photo: Lucinda Mellor)

Gordon: “I raised enough from the pop-up shop to make a 3D-printed maquette. It ended up totally different to my original idea. In Joe’s archive I found a great drawing that he did. A self-portrait of Joe as a cactus with a cowboy hat, boom-box and a smoke. We made a special print of this for the JS001 box-set. My dream is to make this as a life-size sculpture.”

The biographers who got closest to the subject, not least Pat Gilbert, Marcus Gray and Chris Salewicz, gave honest portraits of a man who (like us all) for all his faults still came out as nothing less than charismatic and passionate, words that come up time and again when reference is made to Joe. Yet he remained something of an enigma. Do you think only a few of you got to know the real John Mellor?

Gordon: “I got to meet Joe Strummer …”

Luce: “Perhaps.”

Have there been genuine moments when you’ve been overwhelmed by just how much love there is still out there for Joe, all around the world, where he’s touched so many lives and inspired so many people?

Gordon: “Never overwhelmed. Proud to be a part of it.”

Luce: “Yes, I’m continually amazed that the passion and love for the man and his music is still so strong.”

The way politics has gone in recent years, particularly in the UK and US, seems to be the antithesis of everything Joe fought for – anti-poverty, anti-borders, pro-inclusion, promotion of the arts/culture, pro-cooperation and connecting. He would have plenty to rail about if he was still with us, wouldn’t he?

Gordon: “Yes. Without doubt.”

Luce: “Of that I am certain.”

Where are we at with the Joe Strummer Foundation in 2018? Are there projects ongoing? And are there special events taking place to mark the release of the box-set?

Gordon: “Yes. We are working on something special for the release …”

Luce: “The Foundation is going really well and there are many projects happening at the moment. We have partnered with Kerrang Radio to create Revolution Rock, where we are helping provide musical instruments for financially-challenged schools and music-mentoring for the homeless and/or underprivileged, helping youths find a way out of gang crime or music therapy for mental health issues. There was also Strummer Jam in August and a gig at Dingwall’s on September 7th, plus supporting emerging musicians in the Hastings area through a project called DEBUT (all information for those events and more can be found via joestrummerfoundation.org).

Finally, in a sense, Joe never left us – his music remains with us. Approaching 16 years after his passing, what do you both think of when Joe Strummer springs to mind today? What picture of him do you both see?

Gordon: “His energy and laugh. Chatting with him around his campfire at Fuji Rock Festival and Glastonbury.”

Luce: “I see him in the kitchen with a half-eaten sandwich, his dog asleep on his feet, waving a piece of paper at me and asking me to fax it quick to Mick.”

Joe Strummer 001, out on Friday, September 28th, is available to pre-order via this link in the following formats: 

Limited edition deluxe box-set: quadruple heavyweight vinyl, 7” vinyl single, cassette, A4 book, enamel badge, art print, screen print, lyrics and sticker sheet (IGN53BOX).

Limited edition deluxe double CD in A4 book (IGNCD53X).

Double CD in slipcase (IGNCD53).

Quadruple heavyweight vinyl in slipcase (IGNLP53X).

Digital download.

Meanwhile, ’London Is Burning’, an alternative/early version of ‘Burnin’ Street’ from Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ final album Streetcore is available now via this link.  

Live Presence: Joe Strummer in impassioned action with The Mescaleros in 2002

For more details about ongoing charity projects in Joe’s name, head to joestrummerfoundation.org.

Footnote:  this feature/interview is set to feature in a different format in a brand new biography of The Clash by Malcolm Wyatt, to be published next month (October 2018) by This Day in Music Books. Further details will follow on this blog as soon as possible. In the meantime, for the WriteWyattUK  lowdown on ‘White Riot’, 40 years on, published in mid-March 2017, follow this link.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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