Rock the high street

He may be pushing 50 but Joe Strummer is back in his element, making music and being righteously angry (take heed, forces of globalisation). What rekindled the fire? Willesden, of course, he tells Stephen Dowling
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As far as Joe Strummer's concerned, there's magic in the air in Willesden, north-west London, a magic that weaves through exotic food and esoteric music amid the hubbub of the traffic.

Not quite the Westway to the World, more the suburb on route to the Hangar Lane gyratory system, but never mind. It's here that Joe Strummer, erstwhile leader of what many consider the greatest four-piece band since The Beatles, got his groove back.

"We've made two records in that studio," Strummer says, shoeless and talkative in Soho's Groucho Club, "and it took a while for it to sink in, but you go out to get something to eat, buy a newspaper, some honey, a couple of bottles of wine, and you go to about 10 countries. You're into the Sri Lankan deli, the Portuguese café, into the Irish shop, the African grocery store. And all of these people have brought their culture with them. In the Portuguese caff there's Portuguese MTV, in the African store there's his stuff. In a 10-minute walk you visit 10 countries. And then you're back in the studio. That really began to seep into the records."

Two years ago, the prospect of Joe Strummer taking the stage and snarling his way through "White Man In Hammersmith Palais", let alone making records again, was the stuff of fantasy. But 18 months later Strummer returned with a new band, The Mescaleros and a new album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. As the dust was settling from his first gigs in over a decade, Strummer and team were wrestling with album number two.

And, according to an almost breathless Strummer this hazy summer's afternoon, things went perhaps too well. "We had three weeks in November supporting The Who in the UK and I booked five days in the studio. I had a vague part to one tune and a vague idea to cover another tune, and I thought 'we'll have five days and see how it goes'. The record began to happen as soon as we got into the studio, so much so that it was hard to leave it and go on tour. We were all worried that if we got back after the three weeks the magic just wouldn't be in the air."

It wasn't just the anxiety a musician feels coming back to the studio – for Strummer this was make or break time. Since putting The Mescaleros together he'd enjoyed good reviews and sell-out gigs, but all with the aura of The Clash hanging over him – after all, apart from one album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989 and his soundtrack work, Strummer had been silent since The Clash's abysmal swansong Cut The Crap in 1986. "When you take an 11-year breather you have a hill to climb, and obviously I've had to deal with a few blows – forget being on the radio, forget being current, forget MTV," Strummer says.

The way he tells it, you can't help but sense that it's a bitter pill to swallow for the former leader of The Only Band That Mattered. Even forming a new group was a trial for him. "I'm lucky to have found these people," he says of The Mescaleros. "It's terribly difficult." Surely there's a swathe of decent musicians ready and willing to join the legend of Joe Strummer? "Yes, but on the other hand it's tainted as well. It might have been a bad idea to shackle their horse to my wagon train," he says elliptically. "I could have been driving off the mountain." Quite.

Strummer's new band – Scott Shield, Martin Slattery, Pablo Cook, Tymon Dogg and their producer Richard Flack – is, as Strummer himself nears 50, realising a band lifestyle that he's been trying to achieve since London Calling. "If you look at that album and you look at the brackets after the song titles, it doesn't say 'Strummer/Jones' anymore. It says 'Clash', to bring everyone on board," he says. "In most bands the two guys who write songs guard it fiercely. But I always felt wrong about that."

Strummer has his own ideas about how to return to the zeitgeist now that his pin-up and TV days are behind him: a 10-day tour of Britain and big-city USA, playing megastore gigs with whatever the band can carry. He excitedly likens it to a bomb going off in every city, the shrapnel a fan coming out of the gig with a copy of Global A Go Go tucked under their arm. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. "I realised that we have two avenues to get through to people. One is gigging and the other is talking to writers," Strummer says, outlining the manifesto like a seasoned campaigner. "But then, when we went to America there was nothing apart from word of mouth, doing gigs and talking to writers. Same same."

The non-mainstream marketing approach may hark back to the days of The Clash, but there are few who will accuse Strummer of rehashing that legend on Global A Go Go. It's a schizophrenic record, swimming with fiddles, drum patterns, deep dub basslines, mandolins and flutes, telling stories of Macedonian refugees ("Shaktar Donetsk"), global radio stations ("Global A Go Go"), and being accosted by Antipodean tourists for mushy peas ("Bindi Baghee").

"I was standing outside one of the newsagents at night, waiting for someone to come out," says Strummer of the latter track, "and a taxi pulled up. A guy came out with a suitcase, turned round and shouted 'You're Joe Strummer!' I jumped and went, 'Yes I am.' And he said, 'I've just flown all the way from New Zealand and you're the first person I've met.' So I said 'Welcome to Britain.'" The rather shell-shocked tourist was invited to the studio, where Strummer saw him pull out a dog-eared copy of Naomi Klein's No Logo as the band rehearsed. "One cool dude, that guy," Strummer laughs.

Quiff still largely intact, he's still happy to rail against everything from the memory of Thatcher to never being allowed to play East Germany (the Stasi heard The Clash's record, allegedly, and denied them a visa for being too political) and the increasing globalisation of the English high street.

The theme of globalisation and oppressive capitalism is one that Strummer warms to – and in a strange way, he agrees, one of the hallmarks of The Clash was that they created a musical globalisation of their own. It was one that appropriated Kingston reggae, New York punk and leftist sloganeering that wouldn't have been out of place in Managua, Havana and Maputo. Now the enemy isn't flint-eyed conservatives like Thatcher and Reagan but the purveyors of mobile phones, skinny lattes and cotton tees.

"It's so comical how things have turned out. But I like the fact that it's so easy to see that corporations buy governments. At least it's all on the table now. I suppose it's always the way they ran the world but it had never been apparent. Clothing and coffee and hamburgers. They run the world."

Aah, The Clash. Two years ago, at the launch of The Clash retrospective Westway to the World, a stage was set up with guitars and drums, a tantalising hint that messrs Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon would clamber up onstage for a few songs as the beer flowed. Strummer is still smarting from it. "That was a nasty trick. No one had told me they were going to do that and that wound up the people at the bash." And the rumours don't go away, those whispers that such and such a festival will see them all get back up on stage, that some promoter has offered the golden amount. Strummer is having none of it.

"We're going to reform when we're 78, we're going to play faster than ever before, and we're going to get Wim Wenders to film it!" he laughs with a twinkle in his eye. "That's what we're going to do. The Buena Vista Clash Club!" Down the front at the Hammersmith Palais in 2030 it is then...


'Global A Go Go' is out on Monday (Hellcat Records)