Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros – Global A Go-Go
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
It's not hard to find examples of why bands shouldn't use the full seventy-plus minutes available on a CD; how rare, and how more infinitely precious, is it to find an example of the opposite? People who hear Global A Go-Go can be divided into two groups: those who say “well, it's long enough you don't really need that seventeen-minute long version of “Minstrel Boy” at the end, and those of us who know the first group is missing the point. The albatross of Joe Strummer's past is totally irrelevant here, Global A Go-Go is as free and happy and messy and wise a record as anyone could make and part of the joy is the way Joe stretches the hell out until he's relaxed. Saying it's too long or too scattered or too unlike the Clash is more than curmudgeonly; it holds the album and Strummer hostage to what your expectations for his long-delayed solo career might have been.
Joe got looser, rangier in the gap between Earthquake Weather and Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, to say nothing of the time between Cut the Crap and Global A Go-Go. His glee at the long, reeling lists of musical and gastronomical diversity in “Bhindi Bhagee” or the way the band holler out props to Bulawayo, Bo Diddley, and the Bhundu Boys alike on the title track (Strummer rolling the r in “Burundi” is a joy itself) is both infectious and touching, locating us firmly in July 2001. If Global A Go-Go is “about” anything then it's a view of life as ebullient kaleidoscope, one full of promise and difference and most importantly one where you can sing “welcome, stranger, to the humble neighborhoods” on behalf of the entire globe and mean it. It's a fair distance from the guy who gave such force to “Death and Glory,” but I'll take hard-won optimism over youthful cynicism any day.
It helps that his five accomplices churn out such effective cross-pollinated party music. It leaves Strummer free to stick to singing, his cheerful doggerel hitting profundity far more often than the law of averages would dictate. Even when things slow down and get dubby on “Gamma Ray” or the triumphant “At the Border, Guy” (a perfect ending point if you must skip the lovely “Minstrel Boy,” where Tymon Dogg's violin slowly unweaves the album) the Mescaleros keep things rich, melodic, and Technicolor. A track like “Mondo Bongo” was certainly lush enough to appear in Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and its dislocated ache calmly measures out the shortcomings of the world most of Global A Go-Go revels in. So does the darkly funny immigration fable “Shaktar Donetsk,” Strummer and band chanting “Oh you can levitate you know, long as the money's good you're in.” Joe's too experienced to pretend things are always exciting and fun, but compassion rather than depression is the order of the day.
In fact, the very best songs here locate their hope in the heart of being human and fallible; “Bummed Out City” is perversely uplifting, a reassuring pat on the shoulder even as it admits to having lost the map and asks for your mercy and your pity. “Cool'n'Out” sounds at first like another giddy travelogue but, as with the soaring “Johnny Appleseed,” actually contrasts mindless pleasure seeking with giving a shit about your fellow human beings. And “Mega Bottle Ride” goes from having “the blues of throwing it all away” to a completely triumphant ending via the most rousing refrain possible (the band shouting “We've gone Balkan anyway!”), until Joe finishes with the closest we'll get to a statement of purpose: “And it's time to be doing something good.”
Now that he's gone Global A Go-Go's sprawl feels like Joe Strummer trying to throw his arms around the world, making modern cosmopolitan pop via half-memories of punk and reggae and folk and flavors from all over. It's a world that he loves so much that, to paraphrase Studs Terkel, he's crazy enough to dream of one in which it would be easier for people to behave decently. And he's just going to keep dancing until it gets there; look at him in the CD tray, hollering his heart out like he's still 24. Few get a first shot as bountiful and beautiful as this, let alone a second, but Strummer deserved his.