Critical Writings

Interviews: MUSIC

Julien Temple

All deaths are untimely, and it is surprising that the ridiculous adjective-noun collocation never made it into Myles Na Gopaleen’s Catechism of Cliché, or even Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. Who ever died ‘in’ or indeed, ‘on’ time? But the passing of self-described ‘Punk Rock Warlord’ Joe Strummer in 2002, at the hardly excessively ancient age of 50, just when he and his band The Mescaleros were beginning to attract the kind of positive recognition that had eluded him in his wilderness years since the demise of The Clash, was not only unexpected, but also seemed somehow cruel. On the other hand, it could certainly be argued that the reputation of someone with such a fine body of work behind him, from his punk rock heyday, was already secure, and he didn’t need to do anything else to prove his worth. He even managed, in one of life’s more forgiving twists of fate, a reconciliation with former band mate Mick Jones just ten days before his sudden death from an undetected congenital heart condition, when Jones joined Strummer on stage during the final Mescaleros tour, at a benefit gig for London’s striking firemen, for a rendition of The Clash’s first single, 1977’s ‘White Riot’. It was the first time in twenty years that the two halves of one of the greatest songwriting teams in the history of British popular music had played together, and as is pointed out in veteran film maker Julien Temple’s new documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, it was wholly appropriate that this reunion of sorts was for the firemen, and not for two million quid. It is the most pivotal and moving moment in an altogether excellent movie.

 

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When I meet Temple he is in affable mood, willing to talk about his career lows as well as highs, wryly discussing days gone by as well as promoting his current project. Curiously though, at the same time, this former punk – who previously tried to do a film about The Clash in 1976 before jumping ship to The Sex Pistols – can also partake of the reserve one associates with certain English public school boys. It’s a weird mix of quiet self-confidence and noticeable self-effacement. Something he shares with his subject, another product of the same system?

“I had a funny thing with Joe: that I was born in the same year and we shared a lot of contradictions, time and experiences. There was the whole mid-1960s thing in London, which I was really turned on by. Then the hippy thing which followed, and going to Glastonbury in 1971. Then came the squatting, back in London again, and after that the start of the whole punk movement itself. A lot of moves Joe made in his life I actually made as well. So there is this sense of autobiography in the film, which made it easier for me.”

Indeed, one of the more interesting notions reiterated by this movie (and by last year’s Temple-directed documentary on the history of the Glastonbury Festival) is how the ’90s were the decade when hippies and punks finally realised they had more in common with each other than with any other segment of society, which seems a far cry from the quasi-Stalinist ‘year zero’ approached initially espoused by The Clash, at the behest of Svengali-style manager Bernie Rhodes, even if it had been effectively jettisoned by the time third album London Calling appeared, with its many multi-cultural nods and appropriations from the past.

“I was always arguing that The Kinks should be absolved from this guillotine job, because I felt that they were a punk band in ’65, so I would argue for a connection.”

Would it be fair to see him as someone as much influence by music as by film?

“Well, I was always very into visual things, but I did start to see the world through a window of music in the mid-’60s, because it did seem that they were singing about your lives. They probably weren’t that much older than me, but they seemed like legends. I used to bunk off school and watch The Kinks drink at The Flask in Highgate. I went to school in Hampstead Heath – I first went to school in Marylebone, where I would look out the window and see The Rolling Stones being dragged into court during the lessons. I was lucky because I had some friends who had older brothers, so I was snook into The Marquee to see The Kinks under someone’s great coat.”

Whatever about their similarities, Temple acknowledges the differences that existed between Strummer and him as well: “He hadn’t gone through the Roxy Music move that I had, and a lot of people had, and smartened up.”

“He went the r’n’b route?” “Well, yeah, he really lived that squat thing. I mean, I enjoyed it, it was great thing to do, get away from your parents, live in a mad household with mad people doing whatever they wanted, but I think Joe was really living it as a way of life, whereas I did it because it was cheaper than paying rent. I was going to film school at the same time. I never was a real hippie. Joe did it for real. I was a fake. I mean I did it, and I loved it, but I wasn’t going to drop out. I was interested in getting an education in a conventional, boring way, I suppose. I did like learning about things, so I liked going to university.”

They became close friends and neighbours for the last five years of Strummer’s life, when the latter relocated to Somerset with his second wife Lucinda, a school friend of Temple’s film producer wife, Amanda. What was it like meeting him again, having been out of touch for twenty years, and having a bit of ‘history’?

“Well, there was this thing in the early days of punk, like, ‘it takes one to know one’: who’s this other middle-class guy in a room full of immaculate punks, do we really need this guy around? I saw him in Glastonbury in 1971. What’s he doing here?”

“You felt threatened by each other?”

“There was an element of that. But when I got to know him better I was just surprised at the depths of the guy, how passionately he’d speak about things the old Joe Strummer would never have spoken about. He was much more at ease with his own background, as a diplomat’s son, and at ease with the hippie thing.”

“Maybe moving around so much when he was a kid was what sparked his interest in so many types of world music?”

“Yes, and it was great to see him getting his self-confidence back again, after the years of fall-out from the end of The Clash – to see him put The Mescaleros together, and then to see them getting really good. He was always a great person to be around, at least when I got to know him. Maybe I missed twenty years of a great person to be around, I don’t know.”

The central image of the film is the campfire, since for the last ten years of Joe’s life the idea of a campfire – any loose assembly of people bonded by rising flames and advancing dawn – became an art form in itself, the essential outdoor forum for constantly evolving ideas and conversations.

“Just as in his lifetime, we had people from all walks of life sitting by the fire, listening to the music that was so much a part of him. It was a place to lose themselves in the flames; in the firelight everyone is equal, the famous people no more relevant then the not so famous people. By interviewing that way for the film we were freeing ourselves from the ‘talking heads’ of a conventional documentary. We were getting a real sense of friendship and connections.” However, some would appear to be more equal than others, for Bono appears by himself, saying his piece at his own personal fire on Killiney beach.

Still, the fact that Temple opts not to give contributors name credits, although initially confusing, ultimately works, as does his signature use of footage from old movies, like Animal Farm, 1984 and If. Temple has made both features and documentaries, so does he favour one mode over the other?

“I don’t really think of them as different. I mean, they call me the uber-rockumentarian, which is a word to hang yourself by, and I just hate that genre. I don’t think of myself as a documentary film maker. I just think of them as films, telling stories. Having said that, I like the way you’re left on your own with a thing like this, there aren’t loads of bankers sitting on your shoulder. You’re working with less budget, you don’t have a script, so they don’t know what you’re supposed to do, so they can’t bust you for not getting the shot by 9.30.


“At the same time, I hope I’ll be able to do some fictional films with a similar freedom now.”

“You’ve got more clout?”

“Well, I’ve got more clout than I did as Julien ‘Absolute Beginners’ Temple,” he laughs, putting the critical and commercial mauling he got for his 1986 musical in perspective. But he has suffered at the hands of the British film industry, for deviating from its realist norm, like one of his influences, Michael Powell.

“I was very amazed to find Michael Powell’s films when I did because I’d been taught that the English cinema was a very literary cinema with no visual flair, and when I saw those films I was blown away by how beautifully imagined and cinematic they were.”

Jean Vigo, about whom Temple made a film while in college, as well as 1998’s Vigo – Passion for Life, was another touchstone.

“I really related to all the films I saw by Vigo, as a guy who did it outside the rules, outside the system, who did it with his friends, he found the money under mattresses, he took the camera off the tripod for the first time. He did a lot of very personal things in this industry which is very regimented, with army-style roles.”

This obviously contributed to Temple’s punk connection, with its ethos of “taking on the machine, not dropping out to Wales like the hippies had done.”

And what of his infamous involvement in The Sex Pistols saga? Was 2000’s band-focused film The Filth and the Fury a putting to rights of bad feelings engendered by 1979’s Malcolm McLaren collaboration, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle?

“I felt that I owed them (The Pistols) a film. Not that I was atoning for any sins. What we created with Rock’n’Roll Swindle was a polemical provocation, designed like a red rag to a bull, to annoy and anger Sex Pistols fans. That was the point. It was a joke, it was a dark, surreal, Godardian joke, like F For Fake, which had come out around that time, where you take the truth and make it unbelievable and you take the fiction and make it create more fiction that you make people buy. It was a joke on people who had Sex Pistols posters in their bedrooms, because by that time there shouldn’t have been any bedroom, never mind posters. But I had got tired of hearing Malcolm moaning about how ‘I squeezed them out of clay’, especially as he would have been terrified to be in the same room as them.

“But there are hundreds of ways to tell that story. John Savage has told it, so has Greil Marcus. I did it two ways – two halves of the same story.”

Right now he intends to further muddy the borders between biopic and rock doc, in a film about the heroes of his adolescence, The Kinks. He will have actors playing Ray and Dave Davies, because, “You’ve got to show them young, when they were growing up, how Cain and Abel emerged.”

For the moment, his Strummer film, coupled with Chris Salewicz’s recent biography Redemption Song, should guarantee that attention continues to be focussed on the man who many people would still consider – despite the very un-punk-like longevity of his band in comparison with The Pistols – the personification of the spirit of the movement.


First published in Magill, May 2007



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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