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Strummer 101

Two unearthed albums help confirm the late punk godfather's genius.


Here's a cultural riddle: Take an icon of a major pop movement and pretend the movement never happened: Ice Cube without gangsta rap, Ken Kesey without LSD, John Lydon without punk. What's left? Would we have ever even heard of these guys? Like Lydon, Joe Strummer rose with punk and will always be associated with it. But if punk had never happened, if the Clash had never happened, Strummer would have. At least, that's the possibility presented by Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited and Walker, two long-lost Strummer documents reissued this month by Astralwerks, both of which could have existed without punk and without the Clash.

Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited is a gussied-up version of the original post-breakup LP by Strummer's first band, the 101ers, which Strummer abandoned in 1976 to form the Clash, despite a strong London following. "I lost a mate, my musical cohort and my band when he left," says 101ers drummer Richard "Snakehips" Dudanski from his home in Spain. "For a year or so, I was well angry with him, but after a time, we renewed our friendship and worked together on bringing out the first edition Elgin Avenue Breakdown in 1981."

It was while he was with this quartet of pseudonym-loving London squatters that John Mellor became Joe Strummer and helped make some of the most interesting music of the pub-rock scene. Like the music of Graham Parker and Dr. Feelgood, these recordings are meaty, beaty and soaked in the mythos of early rock and roll. The 101ers sound like a junk shop come rollickingly to life, with Strummer's gravel-yard vocals balanced on a pile of Telecasters, saxophones, and pots and pans.

Like a lot of songwriters more concerned with communication than with introspection, Strummer's first instincts were crowd-pleasing ones, including the catchy "Keys to Your Heart" and the grooving metaphor for the clap in "Rabies From the Dogs of Love." The Astralwerks edition includes live tracks that show Strummer forming his lifelong obsession with Americana (a blazing rendition of Chuck Berry's "Maybelline") and Caribbean music (his first stab at the Jamaican rarity "Junco Partner").

"I think that there's a lot of curiosity and depth in the 101ers that other pub rock acts didn't aspire to," says Astralwerks general manager Errol Kolosine, who helped leverage the American release of both albums from parent company EMI. "To me, this is a welcome opportunity to understand Strummer's roots, certainly, but it's also just a great, rockin' record."

Amateurishness may be part of the 101ers' charm, but the soundtrack Walker -- Strummer's first work after the Clash's split -- shows a man with the tools to express his vision. The setting of the 1986 film, 19th-century Nicaragua, provided a musical context for Strummer's political interest in Latin America. Far more accessible than most world music, the album is a cascade of bright Latin piano, flamenco guitar and horns, and hints of the rockabilly that Strummer always admired.

"He had such an ability to embrace all styles of music, immerse himself in the culture, sociology and sounds of that music, and then deliver his own brand," Kolosine says. "In my opinion, it came from a fundamental respect rather than a desire to exploit."

The album is dominated by gorgeous instrumentals, complemented by several ballads in which Strummer's usual growl cools down to a rough croon. And even with its eclecticism, Walker is purely, intangibly Strummer, his most satisfying solo work next to 2001's excellent Global a Go-Go. Never pretentious, never a stretch, it is, instead, the sound of Strummer's own infectious fascination.

"He was very passionate about what he was doing, very interested in people and everything around him," Dudanski recalls. "Joe was always a special geezer."

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