There’s something about that voice. That soulful, slum-of-all-slums, slurred-when-sped voice, spiting the spirit of punk rock with every verse. And punk hadn’t even broken yet. Punk was still in swaddling clothes in America. In the United Kingdom, punk (read: the Sex Pistols) was opening for bands including that of Joe Strummer, owner of said punk voice and eventual vocalist and guitarist for eventual punk outfit the Clash. Strummer’s band at the time, right around 1975, was a hard rockin’ London pub band called the 101ers, heavily steeped in R&B with a penchant for worshiping its rock gods (the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry) in the form of cover tunes.
Pub rock was all the rage, what with the minor appeal of Dr. Feelgood and all, and Strummer and his squat mates, all residents of 101 (a ha!) Walterton Road, were serving up the right concoction of what Londoners wanted (aside from booze) after working a long day/week/month on the job. The songs weren’t nearly as revolutionary as what would come in the next few years in the form or anarchy and snot noses, but the energy was there.
The 101ers released only a song while they were together (“Keys to Your Heart”), and their only album, Elgin Avenue Breakdown, was issued in 1981, five years after they broke up. That album is “revisited” for this twenty-track release, expanded from twelve tracks to include most of the band’s recorded output and a few live tracks, and it does an adequate job of capturing this excitement. Songs such as “5 Star R’n’R” and “Sweety of the St. Moritz” rock hard enough, but the album mostly just sounds like kids wanting to swivel their hips and pout their lips and duck-walk until the ladies scream. There’s more emulating idols than becoming idols.
But goddamn, there’s that voice. Strummer sounds like he’s about four pints past okay. His voice is like something out of the future, something fresh and about to break, something proving you don’t have to be Bob Dylan (or Iggy Stooge or Lou Reed or …) to sing like a jackass. From the hoarse, guttural strain of “Shake Your Hips” to the just-barely-hitting-these-notes finesse of “Keys to Your Heart” to the rapid-fire tongue-tied stream of “Letsagetabitarockin’,” Strummer’s voice draws attention away from the band — enough so that when Strummer became an icon in his own right, Elgin Avenue Breakdown was one fascinating way to look back and say, “Damn, I knew there was something about that voice.”