As much as music has always meant to me, I’ve never been one to get too emotional over the passings of the people who make it. (Unless, it’s someone I know personally, of course.) But when Joe Strummer died in 2002 at only 50 years of age, I shed tears. For as long as I can remember, Strummer, as singer/guitarist in The Clash and the group’s moral/political compass, had provided a soundtrack on a continuous loop throughout my life. The Clash’s first five albums, and to a much lesser extent the sub-par, “not really The Clash” Cut the Crap, are intrinsically woven into my musical upbringing. Joe’s voice and that of his songwriting and guitar-slinging counterpart Mick Jones have long been fused into my synapses, and The Clash’s music is as familiar to me as the sound of my own heartbeat.
As such, Joe’s death felt as if someone I was once very close to was suddenly gone. I hadn’t spent much time with the records he made later in his life with the Mescaleros, but I was fortunate to see him play live with that group a few years before he passed away. It was the only time I ever saw him in the flesh, and there were moments that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, moments that reminded me why The Clash was once “the only band that mattered.”
Assembly, released by Dark Horse Records, the label begun by George Harrison and recently resuscitated, is a 16-track reminder that Strummer remained a vital musical force right up until the time of his death. The albums he made with the Mescaleros were the logical progression of his multi-culti musical worldview, and it’s the music—two albums-worth released while he was alive and a third released posthumously—he made with them that provides the bulk of this double-album set. Assembly begins with “Coma Girl,” a track that blends the soulful rock & roll with which Strummer grew up with touches of reggae and a lyrical nod to Dylan, a constant influence on Strummer. It sounds like quintessential Strummer, but what Assembly proves is that Strummer was multi-dimensional, even in his blending of influences. “Tony Adams,” from Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, juxtaposes a big backbeat with electronic flourishes, a terse reggae riff, and mournful sax into something wholly unique and yet seemingly once again quintessential Strummer.
If this set proves anything, it’s that Strummer was like a shark: constantly moving. “Sleepwalk,” the one cut from his autonomous solo record, Earthquake Weather, is a sleepy, flamenco-tinged reverie unlike anything else on the record, while “Love Kills,” his contribution to the Sid & Nancy soundtrack, is completely different in a completely different way, its metallic riff and mechanized beats contrasting sharply with the rest of the record. Aside from a recently unearthed acoustic rendition of Clash-staple “Junco Partner” and a couple of live recordings of Joe with the Mescaleros (“I Fought the Law” and “Rudie Can’t Fail”), there’s not much new here. But that doesn’t matter. Assembly lives up to its name by assembling a top-notch compendium to remind us of our departed hero. Joe Strummer’s legacy is multifaceted and this record shows that he never once rested on his laurels.