Vol 2: DEATH IS A STAR
44 years after they exploded onto the UK music scene, The Clash— once dubbed "The Only Band That Matters" by their record label— are still considered one of the greatest bands in history. Some remember them as punk pioneers, shout-singing political messages over a ragged four-chord assault. Others know them as radio-friendly dinosaurs, forever preserved in karaoke amber by “Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go." But beyond the pigeonholes of cultural memory, The Clash were— as their fans will attest— so much more. From their underground beginnings to their commercial peak, the band's core songwriters— Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon— reflected not only what they experienced on the streets of London, but what they observed on television and at the cinema. They were among the first media-literate, socially conscious musicians ever to work in some derivation of the pop format, foreshadowing both the MTV generation and the information age, where there’s no such thing as too obscure a reference.
The Clash's affinity for visual media— and film in particular— dates all the way back to their formation in 1976. Enlisting a pair of art students, Alex Michon and Krystyna Kolowska, as their stylists, the band drew fashion inspiration from a variety of sources, including The Battle of Algiers (1966), as noted by the Spotify podcast Stay Free: The Story of The Clash. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, the film depicts the Algerian Revolution, fought between '54 and '62, through the lens of Italian neorealism: shot on location, in gritty black & white, with a largely non-professional cast, some of whom actually served in the National Liberation Front (FLN). The film was banned in France for exposing the atrocities committed by the French Army in response to the FLN's bombings. Picking up on the film's anti-imperialist themes as well as its mise-en-scène, Michon and Kolowska helped The Clash craft an aesthetic statement of intent, much as Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood did with the Sex Pistols. Per the blog Cult of Elegance: “This blatant disassociation from the police and government was reflected in (The Clash's) militaristic dress; the rebel uniform created by Alex Michon to unite those who were prepared to fight in the war against ‘the man.’” This influence deepens thanks to Ennio Morricone, who scored The Battle of Algiers as well as a host of Spaghetti Westerns, including Sergio Leone's Clint Eastwood-starring Dollars Trilogy. Only at the cinema could North African guerrillas and American gunfighters inhabit the same space, their unique modes of violence set to similar music, further blurring the lines between reality and myth.
For The Clash, these blurred lines would become the status quo. Looking back on the band's first U.S. tour in '78, their pro tempore manager Caroline Coon says, "The Clash had only seen America in movies or in TV screens, and suddenly they were there in it, in America, wearing Stetsons, dressing up as cowboys" (per Stay Free). The cover art for their sophomore album, 1978's Give ‘Em Enough Rope, certainly reveals a fascination with Western iconography in general, but it wasn't until the next year— on their magnum opus, London Calling— that specific films began to bleed into their songwriting. “The Right Profile” (wink wink) is Joe Strummer and Mick Jones's tribute to Montgomery Clift, complete with shoutouts to Red River, A Place in the Sun, and The Misfits in the opening lines. Red River (1948) was Clift's screen debut, and from minute one, he stands out. A Method actor without the broad features that characterize most cowboy actors, his very presence is almost anachronistic, especially next to John Wayne. Director Howard Hawks must have known as much when he cast the film, given how perfectly this intrusion of modernity serves the story: a young cowhand (Clift) takes over a life-or-death cattle drive from his tyrannical father figure (Wayne), winning the respect of his fellow drovers even as he makes an enemy of the man who raised him.
While it's fitting that Monty Clift— not Wayne or Eastwood— would be immortalized in a Clash song, "The Right Profile" has more to do with behind-the-scenes tragedy than onscreen glory. If James Dean was doomed to burn out, not fade away, Clift would have to suffer both fates. In '56, after leaving a party, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a telephone pole. He might have died right then and there had the party's host, Elizabeth Taylor, not rushed to the scene and pulled a tooth from Clift's throat. The accident left him disfigured on the left side of his face, such that directors would only frame him from the opposite side— hence "The Right Profile." Despite his lingering dependence on alcohol and painkillers, Clift eventually recovered, scoring his fourth Oscar nomination for Judgement at Nuremberg in '61. The same year, Clift co-starred in The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, both of whom died within months of the film’s release. Clift himself would only film three more parts before succumbing to heart failure in '66, just a few months shy of his 46th birthday.
"I see a car smashed at night
Cut the applause and dim the light
Monty's face is broken on a wheel
Is he alive? Can he still feel?"
Steve Erickson brings new dimensions to Clift's "Right Profile" in his 2007 novel, Zeroville, equal parts film history and metafiction. A divinity school dropout, Ike "Vikar" Jerome, moves to Los Angeles in the summer of '69, just days before the Manson Murders. On his shaved head, he has a tattoo of Monty Clift and Liz Taylor locked in a loving embrace— a still from his favorite film, A Place in the Sun. Cinema becomes Vikar's new religion, rivaled only by "the Sound" he later hears on the radio and in underground clubs, as his journey through Hollywood dovetails with the rise of punk in the late '70s. Working as a film editor, Vikar meets and befriends a number of real-life figures, including writer/director John Milius (The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian), referred to only as “Viking Man” in the novel. One of Vikar's most compelling acquaintances is the cinephile burglar who breaks into his apartment and, years later, holds him at gunpoint on the street, only to end up discussing cinema on both occasions. As well-versed in film theory as any professional critic (which Erickson happens to be in real life), the burglar casually remarks, “But of course the Western changed along with America’s view of itself, from some sort of heroic country, where everybody’s free, to the spiritually fucked-up defiled place it really is, and now you got jive Italians, if you can feature that, making the only Westerns worth seeing anymore because white America’s just too fucking confused.” Soon Vikar develops a new theory of film editing, unbeholden to chronology, in which actors’ profiles represent their spiritual yin and yang. The first time he hears "The Right Profile" on the radio, his own theory echoes back to him: "Which profile was it that Monty broke on the steering wheel? Was it the profile that revealed his light, or the profile that revealed his dark? If Vikar were in the editing room choosing one over the other, would he choose Monty's beauty over his truth, if in fact it was the profile of truth that was shattered? And if the profile of truth happened in fact also to be the profile that was still beautiful, still unbroken, what did the light lose to no longer have the dark?"
Elsewhere on London Calling, “The Guns of Brixton" is bassist/vocalist Paul Simonon's ode to his hometown, a predominantly African-Caribbean neighborhood in South London, as rich in culture as it was rife with socioeconomic inequality. In the song, Simonon compares life in Brixton to The Harder They Come (1972), a Jamaican gangster drama directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff. Referencing both the film's storyline and its seminal soundtrack, Simonon sings over a reggae arrangement:
“You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of The Harder They Come”
In an interview with Cai Ross of HeyUGuys, DJ, filmmaker, and longtime Clash cohort Don Letts discusses the film's influence: “I’m a first generation British-born child of Windrush, and we kind of knew what we were supposed to sound like from the music coming over from Jamaica, but there was no real visual accompaniment to that. The Harder They Come turned us on to the visual aspect and the attitude of Jamaican culture.” In the film, Ivan (Cliff) takes inspiration from yet another film, Django (1966), a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci, later pastiched by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained (2012). In reality, Django and films of its ilk were immensely popular among Jamaican "rude boys," a slang term with much the same connotations as "punk" and "gangsta." Citing rude boy culture in Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, Deborah A. Thomas writes, "Their pride in blackness, their rejection of the status quo, and their claims for social justice competed with an antisocial temper that was also influenced by cowboy movies imported from the United States and shown almost exclusively in working class communities." This Western influence can be traced throughout Jamaican history, from The Harder They Come to Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" to the numerous Clint Eastwood references in Marlon James' 2015 novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, partly set in Kingston during the mid-late '70s. "Guns of Brixton" is a response to— if not a part of— the same legacy, with its accented downbeats, twangy guitars, and jaw harp, splitting the difference between Jimmy Cliff, Ennio Morricone, and Marty Robbins.
The Clash’s engagement with ska and reggae might smack of cultural appropriation in 2020, but context offers necessary nuances vis a vis intent. Long before every frat boy from Santa Barbara to South Beach had a Bob Marley poster on his wall and a Rastacap in his closet, these transatlantic styles were as radical as punk itself. The Clash were exposed to Jamaican music by British Jamaicans, including Don Letts, and their enthusiasm came from a place of genuine identification. "I think that we were like-minded rebels," says Letts in a 2018 interview with Bad Feeling. "Musically, (dub reggae) was poles apart, but the punks started to pick up on certain things like the bass line, like the anti-establishment vibe, like the musical reportage quality of the lyrics... So it was kind of empowering for me to see the impact of my culture on my white mates." The Clash sought to challenge the orthodoxy of rock & roll— itself a tired appropriation of the blues— with sounds that better reflected their progressive ethos. On their self-titled debut, they covered Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves,” an indictment of gang warfare and police brutality that managed to become a club hit in the UK— a revolutionary feat by itself. "The Clash cover isn't a slavish copy... the band didn't do white reggae," says Public Enemy's Chuck D, the narrator of Stay Free. "It's a tribute, but in punky Clash style." With Murvin’s single ringing in their ears, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon participated in the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots, the culmination of long-standing tensions between African-Caribbean immigrants and local police. The Clash stood in solidarity with the former on their very first single, “White Riot,” often misread as a white supremacist anthem despite the band's subsequent involvement in Rock Against Racism. They would continue to explore the same themes on 1978’s “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” inspired by Strummer and Letts' experience attending a reggae festival at the titular London venue.
On 1980's Sandinista!— a triple album named after the Nicaraguan socialist party that the CIA-backed Contras fought to overthrow— The Clash doubled down on their use of films as metaphors for social issues. The opening track, “The Magnificent Seven,” repurposes the 1960 Western of the same name as sarcastic slang for the nine-to-five workday, or an 8-hour shift minus a lunch break. The more overt reference is “Charlie Don’t Surf," a line memorably barked by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now! (1979)— the same character who proclaims, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” While the song seems to recapitulate the film’s commentary on American imperialism, the filmmakers offer conflicting accounts on that subject. In a 2012 interview with IGN, John Milius— Viking Man!— says his original script resulted from a twofold desire to make a Vietnam movie and to fight in the war, though the latter was scuppered when the Marines rejected him for asthma. “I missed going to my war,” says Milius. “It may not be a good war, but it's the only war we've got.” In adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness— a novel fraught with colonial racism— to a modern setting rife with similar political issues, Milius toed the line between his wannabe Marine id and his USC film-student ego, between jingoism and psychedelia, Hemingwayesque machismo and Huxleyan madness— contradictions perfectly suited to the chaotic setting. George Lucas was originally attached to direct, only to drop out when 20th Century Fox greenlit a little film called Star Wars.
Enter Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off two Best Picture wins for The Godfather films. Coppola significantly reworked Milius’s script throughout a lengthy and fraught production, incorporating more of the source material as he confronted the moral gray areas inherent to the U.S. occupation of Vietnam. And while most audiences would consider Apocalypse Now! an anti-war film, Coppola himself refuted that notion in a 2019 interview with The Guardian: “An anti-war film cannot glorify war, and Apocalypse Now arguably does. Certain sequences have been used to rev up people to be warlike.” One particularly glaring instance of this hypocrisy is the scene where Kilgore blasts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” during an air raid on a Vietnamese village, itself a reference to Birth of a Nation, where D.W. Griffith uses the same piece as an anthem for the Klu Klux Klan. If that's not disturbing enough for you, consider how many films have since turned that needle-drop into a punchline— The Blues Brothers, Small Soldiers, Rango, The Smurfs, Rio 2, et al— without really considering its semiotic implications.
The Clash knew better. Rather than glorify Kilgore and his ilk for murdering innocent villagers in the name of recreation, "Charlie Don't Surf" holds them accountable: “The reign of the superpowers must be over / So many armies can’t free the earth.” The fact that Apocalypse Now! hit theaters just six months before The Clash started working on Sandinista!— note the purposeful use of an exclamation point in both titles— speaks to the band’s avidity as filmgoers, and the degree to which they let that pastime inform their own creativity. "The mood of American movies in the 70s reflected the disillusionment of a generation brought up in the middle of an unjust war, and from The Wild Bunch to Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men, the good guys became bad guys, paranoia reigned and violence was just around the corner," writes Scott Rowley of Louder. "'Charlie Don’t Surf' owes its title and chorus to Francis Ford Coppola’s stoner classic Apocalypse Now but is as much about American hegemony and absurd racism as it is about Vietnam itself." As Zeroville's film-obsessed burglar would have it, The Clash were countering white America's confusion by firmly embracing "the anti-myth."
The Clash’s first foray into film happened on Rude Boy (1980), a semi-fictional rockumentary about a Clash fan who quits his day job and becomes a roadie for the band. Directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay used actual footage of The Clash on tour and in the studio, but the band hated the finished product enough to boycott its release. More noteworthy is Paul Simonon’s appearance in Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains (1982), the story of three teenage girls (Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Marin Kanter) who start a punk band. In early ‘80, Simonon slipped away from the Sandinista! sessions to shoot his part for The Fabulous Stains in Vancouver. In the film, he plays the bassist for a fictional band, The Looters, along with ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who also provided the music. Jones and Cook formed The Professionals in the wake of the Pistols’ breakup in ‘78, but had only released two singles due to a lawsuit between their session bassist and their label. In a seeming attempt to circumvent the legal woes that were holding their debut album hostage, The Professionals smuggled four new songs into The Fabulous Stains, including their eponymous anthem, “Join the Professionals,” as the film’s de facto theme song.
The Fabulous Stains was written by Oscar winner Nancy Dowd (Coming Home, Slap Shot) in collaboration with Caroline Coon, a music journalist who covered The Clash for Melody Maker and briefly managed them before pursuing her own career as a visual artist. “Coon told Dowd that feminism was the next big thing to come to punk rock. They began collaborating on a screenplay that put female musicians front and center,” says NPR’s Allyson McCabe in “The Story of ‘The Fabulous Stains’ and Riot Grrrl.” Coon hails Dowd’s script as “a feminist fable,” but laments that (in McCabe’s words) “the film's original call to arms was muted by its male director (Lou Adler).” This creative conflict led to Dowd pulling her name from the credits— using the pseudonym “Rob Morton” instead— and Adler shelving the film for two years. Despite its limited release in ‘82, The Fabulous Stains eventually became an arthouse favorite by way of cable TV, specifically USA Network’s variety show Night Flight. “(The Fabulous Stains) just seemed to spell out, in a lot of ways, what happened with riot grrrl,” says Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, a pioneering member of the feminist punk movement that started in Olympia, WA during the early ‘90s. “It almost looked like the movie was influenced by us. But there's no way that could have happened.” How fitting that Coon— one of the few people who recognized The Clash’s potential when most critics were still skeptical at best, hateful at worst— anticipated riot grrrl a full decade before the movement came to be.
On their next album, Combat Rock (1982), The Clash picked up where “Charlie Don’t Surf” left off, drawing inspiration from a postmodern swirl of current events and cinema. “Rock the Casbah” evokes Battle of Algiers once again, and not just in the band's wardrobe, as the Casbah was ground zero for much of the conflict portrayed in the film. More timely is “Red Angel Dragnet,” inspired in equal measure by Taxi Driver (1976) and Frank Melvin of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer crime-patrol organization based in New York City. Melvin was gunned down by a cop while investigating a burglary on New Year’s Eve of ‘81, smack dab in the middle of the Combat Rock sessions at NYC's Electric Lady Studios.
“Not even five enforcement agencies can save their own
Never mind the people
Tonight it’s raining on the Angels of the City
Did anyone prophesize these people?
“Travis, of course, is Travis Bickle— the titular taxi driver of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 movie, and the personification of mohawk-sporting, .45-wielding vigilante justice,” writes Tim Nordberg of Consequence of Sound. Between verses of "Red Angel Dragnet," Clash manager Kosmo Vinyl does his best DeNiro impression as he quotes from one of Taxi Driver’s many misanthropic yet moralistic monologues: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Nordberg acknowledges that the song may be “a misguided paean to a vigilante anti-crime organization that didn’t turn out to be quite what it appeared,” given the Guardian Angels’ commitment to unarmed crime prevention and safety education, not vigilantism. But as Combat Rock closes out with “Death is a Star," we're reminded that no responsible viewer— least of all Joe Strummer— could watch Taxi Driver and mistake Travis Bickle for a hero.
"By chance or escaping from misery
By suddenness or in answer to pain
Smoking in the dark cinema
You could see the bad go down again"
Travis is a cautionary tale at best, a Vietnam veteran haunted by PTSD, so lonely and resentful that he can’t even pick a target on which to vent his feelings. After an abortive attempt to assassinate a politician, Bickle opts to slaughter a pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his hired muscle instead. The ensuing bloodbath is as cathartic as it is unsettling, given the fact that Bickle is “rescuing” an underage sex worker (Jodie Foster) from criminals, even as he traumatizes his would-be damsel in the process. If Simonon’s conflation of Bickle and Melvin doesn’t hold water, at least Strummer seems to acknowledge that dialectic on "Death is a Star." “It’s about the way we all queue up at the cinema to see someone get killed,” says Joe Strummer in an ‘82 interview with Roz Reines of The Face. “These days, the public execution is the celluloid execution. I was examining why I want to go and see these movies.”
The Taxi Driver references came full circle when Simonon, Strummer, and Jones appeared as glorified extras in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1982), yet another compelling portrait of a sociopath. According to Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds: “Apparently both Scorsese and Robert De Niro were huge Clash fans and saw them during their famous series of seventeen concerts at Bonds International Casino in Times Square during May and June of 1981,” right as King of Comedy went into production. “Aside from the band going out to bars a few times with the director and actor, it’s mentioned in several Clash biographies— and several about Scorsese, too— that Gangs of New York was originally something he envisioned for the group!” The mind boggles at the image of Joe Strummer in the Leonardo DiCaprio role, facing off against Bill the Butcher, who— had Scorsese made the film in the '80s— would almost certainly have been played by De Niro. While that collaboration never came to fruition, Scorsese did feature “Janie Jones” and “I’m So Bored with the USA” in Bringing Out the Dead (1999). He even hails “Janie Jones” as “the greatest British rock & roll song”— surprising, given his affinity for “Gimme Shelter.”
“Janie Jones” refers to the stage name of Marion Michell, a British cabaret performer known for hosting sex parties at her Kensington flat in the swinging ‘60s. Between ’71 and ’74, she became embroiled in a BBC payola scandal, eventually serving three years in prison. The charge? “Controlling prostitutes.” Meanwhile, another key player in the scandal— Jimmy Savile— was never even arrested. The story took an even stranger and more sordid twist when Jones befriended her fellow inmate Myra Hindley, convicted of murdering five children. Jones later changed her public position on Hindley, describing her to the Independent as “brilliant at manipulating people, and utterly ruthless.” After Jones’ release in ‘77— the same year the Clash immortalized her in song— she soon became an active participate in her own mythology. In ‘82, she teamed up with Joe Strummer for a single, “House of the Ju-Ju Queen,” with an all too apropos cover of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as the B-side. Decades later, she appeared with Mick Jones in the music video for Babyshambles’ 2006 cover of her eponymous anthem.
There is a film from 2010 called Janie Jones, but if you’re expecting a stylish Hustlers-style biopic about the vice queen-turned-punk symbol, brace for disappointment. Janie Jones tells the story of a fictional namesake (Abigail Breslin) who gets foisted into the custody of her fading rock-star father (Alessandro Nivola), only to bond over songwriting, filling the paternal void in her life and the creative one in his. Inspired by writer/director David M. Rosenthal’s relationship with his own daughter, the film is sincere, safe, and completely incongruous with the song— and, by the transitive property, the woman— from which its title hails. “The Clash's 'Janie Jones' describes a character with a handful of loves — rock 'n' roll, getting stoned, and a woman named Janie Jones — and one dislike: his boring job,” notes NPR’s Ian Buckwalter in his review. “In David M. Rosenthal's film of the same title, Alessandro Nivola plays Ethan, a declining 30-something rock star who's a boozer, not a stoner. He seems fairly ambivalent about rock 'n' roll, despite the modest fame he enjoys thanks to his music; for the most part, it's become the boring job. As for Janie Jones? Her he doesn't know at all.” The thematic significance of the name ends there. The songs that Eef Barzelay and Gemma Hayes wrote for the film sound nothing like The Clash, but rather indie folk a la Glen Hansard, as befits Rosenthal’s attempt to recreate the DIY magic of Once.
Back in '83, Scorsese seemed to open a door through which The Clash would charge headlong, even if they were fated to do so separately. While Strummer set out to make a movie of his own— Hell W10, a “DIY Buster Keaton-style cops & robbers film starring The Clash and entourage,” according to Stay Free— tensions within the band were rising. Strummer had brought in veteran producer Glyn Johns to trim the fat from Combat Rock, prompting Mick Jones to lob the accusation: “You ruined my music!” Within the year, Jones left the band, but with him went one of the key figures in their entourage: Don Letts. Like Richard Lester and The Beatles, or Spike Jonze and The Beastie Boys, Letts is The Clash’s strongest link to the visual medium. He met the band while working as a DJ at The Roxy, a short-lived London nightclub that hosted 100 days of punk shows in ‘77. Starting with The Clash on New Year’s Day, Letts captured the majority of the performances on Super 8 and edited them collage-style into The Punk Rock Movie (1978). In October ’82, he filmed The Clash opening for The Who at Shea Stadium, though apart from two songs— “Career Opportunities” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”— the footage has never been officially released. Letts went on to direct music videos for not only The Clash, but Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Bob Marley, and the group he and Mick Jones would form together: Big Audio Dynamite.
On their ’85 debut— its cover art adorned with the usual Western fashions— BAD managed a Top 20 hit: "E=MC2," their ode to British director Nicolas Roeg, featuring actual samples of dialogue from his films. "As the only member of the band that couldn't (and still can't) play an instrument, (sampling) fell to me — and with my film background it was somewhat appropriate," Letts tells Mark Emsley of The Quietus. "When the others would be laying down their parts in the studio I'd be running what was tantamount to a film festival in the green room." Of all the Roeg films that Letts and Jones reference in intimate detail on "E=MC2," two stand out as essential pieces of rock & roll cinema on their own: Performance (1970)— from which the song’s opening lines are taken— and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Performance follows a British gangster (James Fox) on the lam with a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and his girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg, who was actually dating Keith Richards at the time). For the soundtrack, Jagger contributed the song “Memo from Turner," a Stones outtake from ‘68, rerecorded with a session band that included Randy Newman on piano and Ry Cooder on slide guitar.
The Man Who Fell to Earth stars David Bowie as the titular extraterrestrial, though a contractual snafu prevented him from contributing any music. In his stead, Roeg and the producers enlisted John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas as musical director, a problematic figure if there ever was one. Phillips in turn sought out Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta and Mick Taylor of (surprise surprise) the Rolling Stones to record original pieces. The results bear little resemblance to Bowie's music, least of all his mid-70s work, but you can certainly hear the influence of one Mick on the other. Both Taylor and Jones played lead guitar in their respective bands, and despite The Clash's famous proclamation that there would be “no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in ’77,” Jones was an unabashed fan of all three. His pop-savvy hooks and guitar-hero aspirations set him apart from Joe Strummer, to their mutual benefit as collaborators, even as said differences led to their inevitable split.
With the dissolution of The Clash a few years in his rearview, Joe Strummer sought a suitable outlet for the filmmaking aspirations that inspired Hell W10, which went unreleased until 2002 (thanks to Don Letts). He found that outlet in director Alex Cox, fresh off the cult success of Repo Man (1984). They first collaborated on Sid and Nancy (1986), Cox's take on the fatal love affair between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Strummer wrote two original songs to supplement the Pistols tracks featured in the film, much to the chagrin of their frontman, John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten. In his autobiography, Lydon writes, "(Cox) used as his point of reference – of all the people on this earth – Joe Strummer! That guttural singer from The Clash? What the fuck did he know about Sid and Nancy? That’s probably all he could find, which was really scraping the bottom of the barrel."
In '87, Strummer and Cox re-teamed for Straight to Hell, a surrealist Western named after a Clash song, allegedly written in three days and shot in three weeks. This time, Strummer appears onscreen as a hapless hitman stranded in a desert town populated by espresso addicts (seriously). Notable cameos include Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, Shane McGowan of The Pogues, and Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks. The film and the song have little in common, however, as the latter focuses on Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers and the drug epidemic back in the States. The real inspiration behind Straight to Hell is far, far stranger: Cox partly based his film on Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (1967), an unofficial sequel to Django, the spiritual predecessor to The Harder They Come and "Guns of Brixton." How's that for an ouroboros?
Cox and Strummer’s third and final collaboration, also filmed & released in ’87, is easily their strongest. Walker tells the true story of an American filibuster (Ed Harris) who became President of Nicaragua in 1853, financed by Cornelius Vanderbilt and abetted by a ragtag gang of mercenaries known as the Immortals. In addition to his cameo as an Immortal, Strummer composed an original score, which Cox calls “the best soundtrack of any film I’ve done.” It's a surprisingly pleasant melange of Spanish guitar, Central American percussion, and noir piano— all of it a far cry from The Clash, musically speaking. In his essay “Apocalypse When?” for the Criterion Collection, film critic Graham Fuller writes, “When the late Joe Strummer sang the lines ‘Spanish bombs on the Costa Brava / I’m flying in on a DC-10 tonight’ in the Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs,’ he ironically conflated the socialist idealism of the poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by a Fascist militia during the Spanish civil war, with cheap British holidaymaking in Catalonia. Having titled the Clash’s 1980 album Sandinista!, a taboo word in Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain… Strummer became a spiritual partner in the Walker enterprise." The film’s screenwriter, Rudy Wurtlitzer, also wrote Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah and featuring an original score by Bob Dylan. Walker feels like a variation on the same anti-Western formula, deconstructing myth and exaggerating reality at once, with Strummer as the Dylanesque bard, pulling a thread that stretches all the way back— via The Clash— to Apocalypse Now! and The Battle of Algiers.
As if reinvigorated by the creative process on Walker, Strummer immediately started working on music for another film, Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record (1988). He even assembled a new band, The Latino Rockabilly War, featuring Zander Schloss, Lonnie Marshall (Weapon of Choice), and Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam). In addition to the four songs they recorded for the Permanent Record soundtrack, LRW would also back Strummer on his first post-Clash LP, 1989’s Earthquake Weather. The same year, Strummer appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, an anthology film set in a motel with portraits of Elvis Presley hung in every room. Strummer's character is even nicknamed 'Elvis,' much to his extremely believable annoyance. “Joe was a really fine actor," says Jarmusch. "He was so observant of details and human nature, and he was also empathetic to other people, which you certainly know from his music.”
Strummer later returned to composing for Grosse Point Blank (1997), which also features two Clash songs: “Rudie Can’t Fail” and their cover of Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time.” “Rudie” refers to a rude boy, of course, shamed by his neighbors for his irresponsible lifestyle, even as he protests, "I can't live in service." He eventually compromises to society's pressures and sells his soul for a job at the local market, only to weather more abuse from his employers and customers: “What I need I just don’t have / First they curse, then they press me till I hurt.” Rather than literalize "Rudie Can't Fail" the way Rude Boy does, Grosse Point Blank synthesizes the tropes that bind Westerns, reggae, and punk into the darkly comedic story of a contract killer (John Cusack) attending his high school reunion. A modern outlaw, hunted by government agents, wonders whether he should have settled down like his classmates did, his ennui set to a purposefully nostalgic soundtrack. Most of the film’s needle-drops are diegetic, cued by Cusack’s ex-sweetheart (Minnie Driver), now a local DJ running an "all-80s, all-vinyl weekend." In reality, the soundtrack was curated by music supervisor Kathy Nelson, who later re-teamed with Cusack and screenwriters Steve Pink & D.V. DeVincentis for High Fidelity (2000). In the film, Cusack’s music-snob hero lists “Janie Jones” as one of his “Top Five Side One, Track Ones” (as Scorsese would have it), lending The Clash proto-hipster cred over a decade after their dissolution.
The Clash have since fallen under the umbrella of classic rock, as has much of the first wave of punk, their revolutionary aims lost among the catchy choruses and fashion statements. While the band has yet to receive the Dewey Cox treatment with a by-the-numbers biopic, London Town (2016) comes close. Like last year’s Springsteen-centric Blinded by the Light, only without the heartfelt true story that inspired it, Derrick Borte's London Town is a rock 'n' roll Bildungsroman about a British teenager (Daniel Huttlestone) who makes a life-changing musical discovery— in this case, The Clash. The filmmakers even go so far as to show the band— all played by actors, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Joe Strummer— performing antiseptic re-recordings of Clash classics. A critical and commercial flop, London Town is so committed to conventional storytelling that it ultimately sells its subject short. At best, it's a serviceable approximation of a fan's point of view, not a compelling portrait what makes The Clash so, well, compelling.
London Town makes a valiant attempt at class commentary, in keeping the band's real-life activism, but lacks the visual language to back it up. Assuming Borte and writer Matt Brown have seen the same films that influenced the band, why not incorporate those influences at some level? The possibilities are endless. The London punk scene circa '77, shot and edited in the style of The Battle of Algiers. A Western road movie about The Clash and Joe Ely touring Texas in '79. A Scorsesean glimpse into the band's time at Electric Ladyland and Bonds Casino in early '80s New York. Whatever the case, the results would better approximate the experience of listening to The Clash, just as Walker and Zeroville do in their own meta-textual ways. But until the right filmmakers get the inclination and the wherewithal to do so, look no further than this sweeping— albeit scattered— legacy of sound and picture to slake your thirst for cinema-savvy revolution rock.