In his 1987 historical drama Walker, director Alex Cox (Repo Man) told the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), an American renegade who, in the 1850s, took over as president of Nicaragua. The film caught a lot of flak from critics because of its use of deliberate anachronisms (TVs, helicopters, etc.) to draw satirical parallels between Walker's corrupt behavior and the US government's involvement in Nicaragua in the 1980s; it quickly sank into obscurity -- and sadly, so did its soundtrack...
Feeling somewhat lost after the breakup of his celebrated punk band, the Clash, singer Joe Strummer had begun to dabble in film work, contributing some songs to Cox's previous films Sid & Nancy (1986) and Straight To Hell (1987), and even accepting a starring role in the latter. Eager to try his hand at a whole film score -- and inspired a bit by Bob Dylan's work on one of his favorite movies, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) -- Strummer offered to compose *all* of the music for Walker (in addition to taking a small role in the film as an ill-fated member of the Immortals, General Walker's "gringo army").
The result was a surprisingly lively and lovely soundtrack album, featuring 11 instrumental pieces and 3 vocal tracks. As the producer of the album, Strummer suggested that the music be performed entirely on acoustic instruments -- his rationale being, "let's be 1850, nothing plugged in." He only appears as a performer on the vocal tracks: the wistful "The Unknown Immortal," sung from the viewpoint of one of Walker's men; the giddy "Tennessee Rain," which apparently runs down a wide-ranging list of things his men would rather be doing and places they'd rather be; and the mournful "Tropic of No Return," which seems to be about how his army was depleted by disease and desertion. Joe acquits himself nicely on these pretty, low-key tunes, though I wish that his vocals were higher in the mix (or that a lyric sheet had been included with this disc). The instrumentals -- blends of traditional folk and Latin sounds, with trace elements of jazz and country -- are just as intriguing; a lot of the tunes here may not be instantly memorable, but I think they're appealing enough to keep you listening and to keep growing on you.
Last year, the label Astralwerks was kind enough to reissue this long out-of-print album with 3 bonus tracks (remixes of the jaunty opener "Filibustero" and the haunting "The Brooding Side Of Madness," as well as the brief "Straight Shooter," originally released as a b-side) shortly after its expanded reissue of Elgin Avenue Breakdown, the album by Strummer's pre-Clash band the 101ers; together, these two discs are bookends of sorts to the most popular phase of Joe's career. Although I admit I was hesitant to buy the mostly-instrumental soundtrack to a movie that I haven't seen and may never get a chance to see, I'm glad I finally did; Walker shows a side of the late Strummer that his last albums with the Mescaleros (not to mention such Clash songs as "Rebel Waltz" and "Corner Soul," from 1980's Sandinista) only hint at, and it's actually a more satisfying effort than Joe's official solo debut, 1989's uneven Earthquake Weather. I'd love to see Astralwerks put together a whole collection of Strummer's post-Clash, pre-Mescaleros soundtrack work and rarities (like the aforementioned Sid & Nancy and Straight To Hell tracks, the songs he did for the 1988 film Permanent Record, his contribution to the 1998 South Park TV series soundtrack, etc.)!