Listen to the isolated vocal tracks from "London Calling"

I love a good Isolated Vocal Track. Typically, I love them because they're silly (see: David Lee Roth or Mick Jagger, whose performances often sound like masturbating noises out of context) or because they reveal the raw talent behind the songs (see: Michael Jackson). But Joe Strummer's isolated vocal track for the entire London Calling record (above) is something different. The Clash is one of my favorite bands of all time, but even I don't think about them as having any uniquely prodigious musical talent like MJ. Furthermore, Joe Strummer's quirky vocal affectations are already on full display in their songs, and they certainly don't have that sexual ooze like Roth or Jagger, whether in or out context.

What I hear in these isolated vocals instead is the unprecedented conviction. This band is singing their god damn hearts out, and you can hear it in every swaggering sneer. There's nothing awkward or impressive about the subtle human vocal ticks that get lost beneath the music—it just goes to emphasize how much passion that band brought to their best performances. They meant every god damn word they sang. At the same time, you can tell they're enjoying themselves. The Clash famously, well, clashed with one another. But you can hear it in these songs how well they connected, too. When they were on, they were on. You can hear that joy in the vocals, and it helped to sell the convictions of their songs, even when they were singing about heavy topics like climate change, nuclear war, or anti-fascist action.

The other night, I saw the Hold Steady on their 20th anniversary tour. They opened up their set with "Constructive Summer," one of my personal favorite songs of theirs, which includes these lyrics:

Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer
I think he might have been our only decent teacher
Getting older makes it harder to remember
We are our only saviors

I'm always hesitant to lionize any artist, no matter how formative they may have been for me. There's a good chance that some day, your heroes are going to let you down. But what I love about these Hold Steady lines is that they actually perfectly capture my feelings towards the Clash. I'm sure Joe Strummer had his flaws, because he was only human. But he was a damn good teacher. We can all learn a lot from him (and the Clash overall). But that doesn't mean he's a god, or even a hero. It's up to us to take those lessons we learned from those great teachers, and do something better. I think Joe Strummer would agree with that.