Island Hopper, Joe Strummer's "Earthquake Weather"

joe strummer live

“Who the hell cares what you are now
The soundtrack is too loud.”

Joe Strummer, a huge influence in my life, passed away at the age of 50 in 2003. He left behind a legacy that included more than just his words and melodies in The Clash. His solo albums, not including his posthumous, dare I say, masterpiece, Streetcore, are also works of art that are often unnoticed and rarely listened to. One such album is Earthquake Weather, which, as the title implies, lives in Los Angeles (where it was recorded) but is dreaming of the Bayou.

The album is hard for a casual Clash fan to swallow at first. Released in 1989, nearly a decade since the demise of the Clash, Strummer pushes his musical acumen towards the synergy of the 1980 masterpiece Sandinista!, which is still being sorted out by fans in a love-it-or-hate-it fashion. The further Strummer pushed towards this, the faster casual fans tuned out. Earthquake Weather would be lost in the haze of the early 1990s.

But I argue that this album, along with Walker (1987), Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (1999), and Global A-Go-Go (2001), Earthquake Weather is not only a hidden force of rock music lost in the decadence of the 1980s but also smart, crafty experiment which – like Sandinista! has its moments, but overall transports the listener to its time and beyond.


joe strummer earthquake weather

Strummer arrived in Los Angeles as a celebrity. The Clash became, after it split, one of the most caricatured and copied bands of all-time (God knows I tried, over twenty years after the fact) and Strummer was known for his passionate voice, political views and, of course, his writing (he penned songs for Johnny Cash among others). In 1988, along with Zander Schloss, Lonnie Marshall, Jack Irons and Willie McNeil, Strummer learned to play music without Jones and Simonon.

Strummer’s heroes had changed, and his music emphasized this shift. He was into Paul Simon’s Graceland and, notably, Bob Dylan – who stopped by during a session. As recounted by producer Gerry Harrington in Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz:

“Every time I found a great new record, I’d want Joe to hear it so he could see he could be better himself. When ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ by the Waterboys came out, I thought it was a great song. I played it to him. He said, ‘The problem is he’s saying what he feels. Bob Dylan doesn’t say, “I walked through a door.” He says, “There was smoke in the air.” He doesn’t say the obvious. This guy’s hitting it on the head. It’s just not interesting.’ I’d never thought of it that way.”

For nothing else, Earthquake Weather does not pull punches, it attacks from the inside and works its way to the surface. It is hidden, ephemeral, every changing. The lyrics are at once a critique on daily life, the daily grind, the struggles between the tops and bottoms of the world as well as geographically diverse, both in terms of musical content and lyrical pining – from women to locations.

joe strummer tele

Strummer, pining for a freedom of sorts (“What a fate to be imprisoned/ At the height of your dreams”), famously took over for the desert during the recording of the album . It was time for solace as well as contemplation about his role in the music world after Sony asked for demos of his new record, even after selling 5 million copies of Combat Rock with The Clash. His songs, in one way or another, offer this sense of adventure which gives the album an ambition it did not have and a depth obtained firsthand.

“Island Hopping,” a highly personal, tropical folk ballad full of splashy Spanish guitars and exotic beats, points at a man who is witnessing a world falling down around him, condoned by those in power (“Chop down the cherry trees on Mango Street / That’s the council for you every week”) while he is trying to weather this storm, although salvation is obtained incognito because his “face is known in the territory.”

“King of the Bayou,” one of the best on the record, “Dizzy’s Goatee,” and “Boogie With Your Children” all express an admiration of New Orleans, something taken for granted in this album. It is in the meditation on New Orleans that Dylan shine’s through Strummer, as he is two-thousand miles from his reality in California. Cory, the King of the Bayou, is,

Running with Revolt and Plutonium
In the canyons of Uranium
Rolling off a roulette on a Rampart Street

“Dizzy’s Goatee” is a reference to jazz icon, Dizzy Dizzy Gillespie. Although New Orleans remains blurred, the brooding on Gillespie, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Harry Belafonte and Be Bop.

The sunglass vision and the golden clef
And the ghetto rod divine which notes are left

Overpowered by Funk, Strummer lets the bass drive the funky “Boogie With Your Children” and his cover of the Tennors, “Ride Yu Donkey,” two relatively weak tracks but interesting nevertheless.

“Gangsterville,” which opens the album, is pure Strummer, one for the greatest hits catalogs. It is not the strongest track on the record, but the slurring of his speech, the timid production on key musical details, the lyrical content. “Now’s the time your visions and your shreds,” he screams. “Turned out to be the cheap imported threads.” He’s warning that this is not a continuation of the past – but a call for the capture of the present.

Gansterville shut off all the power burn out all the gasoline
Stop writing things on screens.

joe strummer thinking

The kickbacks “Shouting Street” “Silkorsky Parts,” “Slant Six” and the brilliant “Jewellers & Bums” all scream their way into the forefront of the album’s production, which stops and starts in spots. Whereas these cuts sound like The Clash, “Passport to Detroit” sounds like records he’d be making in the early 2000s and “Highway One Zero Street” sounds like Strummer imitating Springsteen. “Sleepwalk” and “Leopardskin Limousines,” the two ballads on the record, each take on a sparse arrangement that if hard to hear unless one has great speakers. Unlike the quick cuts, the ballads also cut deeper into Strummer’s personal struggles. From “Sleepwalk:”

You know your car and your plates are really out of place
That goes for your soul
Some holy rock ‘n’ roll
What good would it be,
What good would it be,
If you could change every heartache
That ran through your life and mine?

The album was initially panned. Strummer, an English-man, ruminating about America did not appeal to some, such as Robert Christgau of the Village Voice. Strummer toured, but no one bought the record. It sold 7,000 copies worldwide – less than Walker, a soundtrack to a movie. But the redemption lies in the spirit with which Strummer tried to push his own boundaries:

“If these flaws keep the album from greatness, at least Strummer’s voice and songwriting are engaging enough throughout the 14 songs that there’s never a second where things come off as dated or rushed. Indeed, the flaws reside only in elements that add texture and flare, so they’re somewhat easily ignored, especially since the production is so layered and there’s so much going on in each song. Earthquake Weather is a solid, fascinating album, mostly because of Joe Strummer’s always fiery charisma, his impeccable vocals, and his mostly unerring musical exploration and experimentation. Even when Strummer occasionally goes wrong stylistically, his conviction is too winning and his passion for music too strong to allow him to turn in a subpar performance.”

Joe dissolved the group and would, in effect, disappear for nearly another decade before creating a sincere, evolutionary record with Rock Art and the X-Ray Style.


~ by Daniel on June 28, 2009.

3 Responses to “Island Hopper, Joe Strummer's "Earthquake Weather"”

  1. Great great piece, can I link to this on my site? I’ll mention in my Blog Reviews and link to the ‘Post Clash’ section.


  2. […] Weather….the Joe Strummer album that vanished upon release is given a very fair and bright assesment by Daniel on his blog. Personally I feel it was one of these records that impacts (the very few who own a copy!) everyone […]

  3. He died in 02, actually :)

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