London Calling from beyond the grave: the lost tapes of Joe Strummer
The Clash singer's widow tells how she found his lost recordings in their barn, and how they still have impact
His work inspired devotion around the world – prompting more than one fan to tell him he had changed their lives – but for a long time after his untimely death Lucinda Tait could not bear to hear her husband Joe Strummer’s voice.
Her grief was simply too raw and his singing only served as a cruel reminder of what she had lost.
So it was only in recent years that Tait could bring herself to listen to the previously unreleased recordings by the former lead singer of The Clash, which she had discovered in their Somerset barn, shortly after he died of an undiagnosed heart defect in December 2002, at the age of 50.
Now, 32 songs from that stash of long-lost Strummer tapes have been released as part of a new collection of work by a man who inspired thousands during a career that spanned four decades and several musical reinventions.
Some are pre-Clash, from when Strummer was a young pub rocker with the legendary London R&B band The 101ers; some from his post-Clash wilderness years, after he had, to his later regret, broken up the band and was dabbling in film scores.
Yet more are from the period when, by now in his late 40s, he discovered a new lease of life with a group of young musicians and formed The Mescaleros.
‘It was very strange to hear him again’
For Tait, the result of years of work by friends in archiving, restoring and remastering the lost tapes has been a highly emotional experience.
“It was very strange for me to listen to his voice again, anew, as we put the project together. It was very, very emotional for me to hear these songs for the first time,” she said. “When Joe died I was so immersed in grief and trying to find a way to move on that I couldn’t listen to his voice. It was just too much to hear him.”
Among those songs is an acoustic version of a song Strummer wrote in his squat in west London, in 1975, the year before punk exploded on the capital’s music scene and he joined The Clash, widely regarded as one of the most influential and innovative bands of their generation.
The song – usually performed as a raucous stomping number on stage – is delivered almost as a lullaby, sung by someone who could be sitting in a damp flat on a lumpy bed across from the listener.
The recording had been made at 101 Elgin Avenue by Stummer’s friend Julian Yewdall, a photographer, who had deposited it in a bank for safekeeping and only retrieved it years later. For Tait it was a revelation.
“To hear something like the acoustic version of Letsagetabitarockin’, which Julian Yewdall recorded in 1975 in a squat they shared, was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It’s so intimate it sounds like Joe’s in the room with you. Just hearing his voice was fantastic, always full of enthusiasm, brings it all back.
“Mind you it didn’t sound like that to start with. It was all crackly and full of hiss. It had to be properly cleaned up, but when it was it was wonderful.”
The popular picture of Strummer is that of an angry young man spitting out the lyrics to White Riot, London Calling and Rock the Casbah.
But the newly discovered songs display the humour, exuberance and simple joie de vivre that was the other side to Joe’s character, a side more frequently seen by his friends and family.
“Joe wasn’t jaded or bitter. He hadn’t become an angry old man, shaking his stick and railing against the world,” said Tait. “He believed in humanity and believed in people and thought life was to be enjoyed. He was like that to live with.
“I remember we’d had one really miserable spring and I woke up to a lovely sunny day and came downstairs to find Joe making sandwiches. Eliza, our youngest, was in her school uniform waiting to go off, but he was saying: ‘No school today, no school, it’s a lovely day. We’re going to Sandbanks, we’ve got to enjoy the day!’ That’s what he was like. He always wanted to seize the moment.”
But if Strummer lived in the present he was also acutely aware of the power of the past and of the myths and legends everyone constructs around them. So much so that he was loathe to discard anything accumulated during his years on the road.
Ticket stubs, notebooks, posters, badges, magazines and countless bits of ephemera were all kept and stored for potential future use.
It was this treasure strove that Tait found, almost literally at the bottom of their garden, after he died.
“I knew there was stuff there, but I didn’t really know what it was and I also thought it was just papers and lyrics, not recordings,” she said.
“Joe had moved around a lot during his life and when we moved to Somerset he had these huge moving boxes, the wooden tea chests that would give you splinters and they ended up sitting in a barn with no doors, open to the elements. He also had lots of stuff in different plastic bags, including lyrics he’d written or typed out, chord changes, notes, set lists, sketches and cartoons.”
Unable to cope with the raw emotion of sorting through so many tangible memories, Tait called on friends to help, including the artist Damien Hirst.
“After Joe died Damien Hirst kindly offered to come down and take a look and he said: ‘I’m going to take this stuff and put it in storage’, which he did. Some of it was going mouldy. But it was only when he had to move his own stuff into different storage that someone finally started going through these boxes and we discovered there was music in there, hidden away on cassettes and old reel-to-reel tapes,” she said.
Someone else who joined the project was another friend, the artist Gordon McHarg III. And it was at this point they realised they might have something very special on their hands; new recordings of Strummer’s work.
“When Gordon started going through the tapes and cassettes and transferring it onto a digital data bank, he discovered all these new songs and versions we’d never heard before,” said Tait.
The plan has long been to release some of Strummer’s aural, visual and written archive, but it was a long haul.
“Altogether it took about five years to clean up the tapes – removing all the hiss and noise to make them audible – for us to complete the process,” explains Tait.
There’s many a young punk who would have sneered and flicked a V-sign at this release 40 years ago. Myself included.
After all, collections of demo tapes, outtakes, discarded studio versions and ephemera from the likes of Bob Dylan, Little Feat and Crosby, Stills and Nash were for self-indulgent hippies and musos, not for the sturm und drang brigade of The Clash and the Sex Pistols.
Well, time and nostalgic longing finds us all out in the end. Like all back catalogue collections it’s of variable quality – from the brilliant to the forgettable – but even the lesser material is of historical interest to fans and musicologists and much of it still stands up to scrutiny as great, emotionally and intellectually committed songwriting.
Several of the songs are as relevant today as when they were first scribbled on paper or banged out by Strummer on his typewriter.
One song, written in 1983 – long before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the accession of former communist states to the EU led to an influx of migration west – tells of a Czechoslovak migrant newly arrived in England and terrified of being sent back.
Tait hopes the new collection of her husband’s work won't just be appreciated by old punks.
“It would be nice if this collection could reach a new audience. Songs like Generation and Over the Border could have been written today or tomorrow, they’re not dated. And to think he wrote Czechoslovak Song/Where is England? about a migrant scared of being sent home in 1983 is astonishing,” she said.
“I don’t really listen to the Top 40 much, but even so I rarely hear anything that isn’t banal nowadays, anything that’s about more than just people’s feelings, that's about bigger themes. So I hope these songs will be a rallying cry and will spark something out there, among other people.”
– © The Daily Telegraph