Happy 15th Anniversary to Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ third & final studio album Streetcore, originally released October 21, 2003.
When Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros began recording their third album Streetcore, they had no idea it would be their last. On December 22, 2002, Strummer unexpectedly died from a heart attack at his home in Broomfield, leaving the Mescaleros with the enormous task of completing the album without him. The decision to carry on was a wise one, as Streetcore is their best and most accessible work. It strayed away from the global/folk rock hybrid of the previous two albums, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (1999) and Global a Go-Go (2001). Streetcore is a return to form for Strummer because it embraces his past without repackaging it and presenting it as something new. Uncle Joe has a few stories to tell, so sit back and listen up.
Because of Strummer’s untimely death, many of the tracks were first takes. What could have been a certain disadvantage gives the album a richness and sincerity that emanate throughout. Producer Rick Rubin helped the surviving members of the band produce the album, giving Streetcore an authentic feel, reminiscent of his recordings with Johnny Cash.
The band hits the ground running with the first two tracks, “Coma Girl” and “Get Down Moses,” the latter being about holding firm to your principles in a world in which every corner of our universe seems to be for sale. “Long Shadow” is a song Strummer originally wrote for Johnny Cash, but was never recorded by the Man in Black. It’s the musical second cousin of The Clash’s “Hateful” as seen through the eyes of 50-year old Strummer as opposed to a 27-year old Strummer. It’s the perfect song for both legends as it can be interpreted as a eulogy for each.
“If you put it all together, you didn’t even once relent / You cast a long shadow, and that is your testament / Somewhere in my soul, there’s always rock & roll”
Strummer’s songwriting on Streetcore is his strongest since The Clash’s Combat Rock (1982). He spent the thirteen years after he disbanded The Clash trying his hand at acting, co-producing Big Audio Dynamite’s No. 10, Upping St. and filling in as the frontman for The Pogues. Strummer came out on the other end of what he called his “wilderness years” still political and passionate, but with some wisdom attached to it. It gave his songwriting a maturity and gravitas that had been missing previously. “Arms Aloft” and the haunting and beautiful “Ramshackle Day Parade” are as different as night and day, but they display Strummer’s expanded versatility. Rolling Stone’s Milo Miles described the latter song as Marilyn Monroe meets William Burroughs meets U-Roy.
From the lyrics all the way to the music, “All In a Day” sounds as if it was lifted straight from a Big Audio Dynamite album. Mick Jones’ vocals are the only thing missing from the track, and this experiment with electronic music comes off as successful with the help of famed electronica producer Danny Saber.
“Burnin’ Streets” could be considered a sequel or part two of The Clash’s “London’s Burning.” Twenty-six years apart, and Strummer is telling us that London’s still burning (metaphorically), only this time he uses slow dub/rock to get his message through.
“The sirens' risin’ / There's a distant blues dance on a crowded street / The temperature's a-risin’ / Soon you're gonna be runnin' down / Those burnin' streets, come on / The century that's hardly on its feet / And the late news breaks early / Does the sun rise from the west or from the east? / An' it takes every day to be survivin' in the city”
“Midnight Jam” was a track that did not have any of Strummer’s vocals recorded. To save the track from being discarded, the Mescaleros’ drummer Scott Shields and multi-instrumentalist Martin Slattery wisely used clips from Strummer’s BBC Radio Show London Calling as the vocal track. It’s a brilliant homage to Strummer and nod to his past as a member of The Clash.
Strummer recorded two cover songs without the Mescaleros. The first came about when producer Rick Rubin had paired Cash with Strummer, guitarist Smokey Hormel and organist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to record an acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which appears on Cash’s posthumously released box set Unearthed as well. Originally, it was not intended to be a part of Streetcore, but in the wake of Strummer’s death, his widow, Lucinda Tait, thought it would be a great and fitting addition to the album. The second cover song which closes out the album is a poignant reworking of Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Old,” re-titled “Silver and Gold.”
“Heh, I'm gonna go out dancing every night / I’m gonna see all your city lights / I’m gonna do everything silver and gold / And I got to hurry up before I grow too old”
The song ends with those lyrics and then there’s a pause before Strummer chimes in with "OK, that's a take." It’s a bittersweet ending knowing that there would be no more music from Strummer.
It is an easy trap to fall into saying that any praise given to this album is the result of Strummer’s passing away and our inherent lust for nostalgia. But to be fair, it’s a pretty good album. With fifteen years having gone by, please strip away any biases, and give Streetcore another listen.