“Straight to Hell”: In 1986, Joe Strummer paired with the Pogues on Alex Cox’s paella western

By on July 17, 2017

In this short episode of the UK television series Video Killed the Radio Star,” titled “When Joe Strummer met the Pogues,” we hear about the former Clash frontman’s participation in director Alex Cox‘s twisted and eccentric paella western Straight to Hell (1987), named for a song off the Clash‘s Combat Rock album.

Watch the episode now in our Video Killed the Radio Star collection on Night Flight Plus and we’ll tell you how to get a subscription below, if you don’t already have one (it don’t cost much!).

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In this episode, we hear through interviews with Pogues legend Shane MacGowan and Pogues manager Frank Murray — and briefly from Joe Strummer himself — how Strummer considered himself a punk songsmith, striving hard to create perfectly-crafted songs.

We also get a quick look at some of the Clash’s videos too, for their songs “Tommy Gun,” Rock the Casbah,”and the seminal “London Calling.”

Also featured is an excerpt from the Alex Cox-directed controversial video for the Pogues, “A Pair of Brown Eyes.”

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Video Killed The Radio Star is a short-format documentary series which aired in the UK.

It delved into a handful of the classic 80s-era videos and the people who made them through in-depth and anecdotal interviews with music video directors and sometimes even with appearances by the artists themselves.

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British director Alex Cox had recently directed the Pogues’ video “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and had recently completed his bio-pic about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon, Sid & Nancy — originally titled Love Kills — when he conceived the idea for Straight to Hell as a deliberately tacky B-movie homage to spaghetti westerns, with a musical soundtrack featuring Joe Strummer, the Pogues, Elvis Costello and others.

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During the 1980s, when it seemed that there was a benefit being held every couple of months, the politically-minded Cox had also organized a benefit gig for the Sandanistas [the FSLN, or Sandanista National Liberation Front] — held on August 7, 1985, at Andy Czezowksi’s club The Fridge, in Brixton, England — in which most of the musicians who appear in Straight to Hell had played, including the Pogues, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello.

Some two thousand attendees had purchased tickets and there were reportedly another two thousand who weren’t able to get inside the club but nevertheless had showed up anyway.

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The popularity of the concert gave Cox the idea of taking the same acts on a package tour of Nicaragua in August 1986, but when he pitched the project to various record and video companies, they all turned it down.

However, since the musicians themselves had already set aside to the time for that project, they were invited instead to appear in his hurriedly-conceived film project, Straight to Hell, to be shot in the searing 110-degree heat in Almería, Spain, during August and September of 1986, among the old Sergio Leone movie sets.

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Cox had Strummer’s interest from the jump, and writes about it in his book X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker:

“Strummer loved Spain for the same reasons all decent Englishmen love it: the sun, the relaxed pace and attitude, the decent food, the red wine and brandy, the cheap cigarettes, and the hashish. Throw in the Madrid Metro system, the Talgo from Atocha to Almería, and the Prado, lose the ciggies, and I was 100 percent in agreement.”

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Read more about the film below.

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Cox quickly made a deal for the film’s distribution with Island Pictures — who wanted, as he tells us, a “wacky, musician-based comedy, not a 1960s Italian Western brooding with homoerotic sadism, parapolitics and insanity.”

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Cox then flew to Los Angeles, and quickly dashed off a screenplay with Dick Rude, a director, actor and writer who would make appearances and contributions to many of Cox’s films, and would also star in Straight to Hell.

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Alex Cox (second from right) with some of his actors on the set of Straight to Hell

The pair began working at the Kensington Hotel in Santa Monica, completing the script for what was provisionally titled The Legend of Paddy Garcia in just three days.

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They drank coffee they heated up in their hotel room themselves (“bad coffee,””brewed on the electric ring”), and were initially inspired by repeating videotape viewings of Giulio Questi’s 1967 spaghetti western Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (Se Sei Vivo, Spara).

That film, which they used as a model for theirs, had what Cox writes was “a visual strategy quite unlike any other Spaghetti Western: moving camera, focus pulls, and blue-and-yellow light for night exteriors.”

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The film’s plot follows a romantic but deadly killer, Simms (Strummer), who, after pulling a bank heist, is now on the run in the desert with Velma (Kurt Cobain’s then wife-to-be Courtney Love), playing the pregnant white trash wife in a short pink dress.

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Zander Schloss (formerly bassist with the L.A. punk band, Circle Jerks, who plays Karl the Weiner Boy), Eddie Tudor-Pole (of Tenpole Tudor), and Jim Jarmusch also make appearances in the film.

They were also inspired to include some sexual tension into the film based on the fact that they were able to see one of their neighbors at the hotel sun-bathing each day (“She was dark-skinned and voluptuous, with a very small bikini” Cox says).

Cox would later describe the storyline as taking place in a desert two with 750 guys and only five women, joking that “no one ever gets laid.”

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They knew at the time that Strummer was to be the film’s hero, but he was, as Cox tells us in his book, “an untried actor whose enormous stage charisma might not translate onto film.”

The script also included scenes for the Pogues, as the caffeine-addicted McMahon gang, the bad guys, in their long coats and black hats of varying enormity.

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Cox was also asked to include cameo scenes for Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones (as box office bait), and those for a band featuring three sexy girls with dreadlocks.

Production on the film — budgeted at around £900,000, or $1 million U.S. — began on August 4, 1986, with scenes filmed inside and outside the Gran Hotel, the only modern hotel in Almería, built after the German navy shelled some of the last towns to surrender to the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

It’s also where all of the movie crews, actors and directors who came to Almería to work on films always stayed.

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The three-week shoot was scheduled to wrap on August 22nd, the only day that Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones were set to work, but Cox was able to talk them into staying a bit longer, until August 31st.

Courtney Love would later tell a writer for NME that she thought Grace Jones “was psychotic with her stardom,” showing up for her bit part and acting like a diva.

“Her makeup artists worked with a pair of binoculars and took eight hours to do her face. It was scummy stage make-up, tacky as hell.”

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During the post-production editing process — when Cox was actually in Nicaragua and Mexico, involved in the pre-production for his next film, Walker, the true story of American mercenary and first president of Nicaragua, William Walker — Joe Strummer sent Cox a long letter, written Kerouac-style, on one continuous piece of paper, in which he detailed his doubts about the pre-release edit of the film he’d and whether or not it was going to be successful.

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Stummer wrote, “I realize were are probably doomed to a disastrous reception from the critics and public in February.”

He included a few ideas for re-structuring the film (using flashbacks), even his idea about how they could do reshoots, and he also included lyrics for his song, “Dogtown” (he’d later give Cox a song he’d written for the film called “Evil Darling”).

In August of 1987, Strummer would tell SPIN Magazine:

“I think about acting 24 hours a day. It’s what I want to do, to be an actor. Not an actor though. I’m not going to go to drama school. I’ve discovered that there’s a lot more to acting that just learning the lines. I’ve had an intense life, so I’ve got a lot of experience to draw on. There isn’t a town in the world I haven’t run amok in!”

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Cox returned to London in order to work on the film, trimming away scenes including one he’d shot with Elvis Costello (as the obsequious grubbily-attired butler Hives, who works for the McMahon gang).

Straight to Hell opened in London and Dublin, Ireland, on June 12, 1987, and critics were sent a press release in which Strummer is quoted: “Yuppies are gonna hate it!”

The UK’s Time Out managed to give their own succinct take on the film in just one simple sentence: “Cox’s Spanish quickie comes on like a snorter’s rag revue and resembles the result of roadies bouncing ideas off each other after a gig.”

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Just as Strummer had predicted in his letter to Cox, the critical response to the film was negative and apathetic theater audiences mostly avoided going to the first few theatrical screenings, setting the tone for those that followed.

Roger Ebert, in his review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote: “In fact, if [Strummer] finds a demographic group that does not hate it, he should phone in a new quote for the ads.”

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Straight to Hell opened in the U.S. at the Pickwick Drive-In in Studio City, California, north of Los Angeles, on July 1st, and in seventeen other U.S. cities.

There was reportedly only one positive review for the film (in a Seattle-based paper) in the entire country.

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Straight to Hell did its best business in Japan, where Cox was later invited to direct an episode of a Japanese TV show in which they’d wanted to him to do something similar to what he’d done with his film.

However, Cox misunderstood what they’d liked about Straight to Hell, and gave them a nearly hour-long Spaghetti Western set in Yokohama, Japan, when what they really wanted was a short film with many guest appearances by American and British rock stars.

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Today, Straight to Hell is seen in some circles as being just a bit ahead of its time, a forerunner to the smirky, Sam Peckinpah-ish violence-drenched movies of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

There are even a few brave souls who hail the indie film as a postmodern cult masterpiece, a mix of all sorts of American sub-cultures, including Mad magazine and ’40s-era gangster movies, as well as yet another homage to Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti westerns.

We’ve also got episodes of Video Killed The Radio Star featuring Billy Joel, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Michael Jackson and the Cure, and they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.