In late 1982, I bought a punk rock history compilation album called Burning Ambitions. It wasn’t particularly comprehensive: nothing from the Sex Pistols, Clash or The Jam were featured, and the only Americans featured were Dead Kennedys and The Heartbreakers. But it did turn me on to a bunch of songs I’d only hitherto read about: “I’m Stranded” by The Saints, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” by The Adverts, “Baby Baby” by The Vibrators, and most crucially, “Keys to Your Heart” by The 101ers.
I can’t imagine anybody reading this who doesn’t already know, but The 101ers was the band that St. Joe Strummer was in prior to The Clash, and while “Keys To Your Heart” was hardly punk rock — the 101ers were firmly ensconced in the pub rock scene — it is totally Strummer, and remains one of my very favorite songs he ever did outside of the context of The Clash.
Raw and direct throughout, “Keys to Your Heart” opens with a big meaty Strummer guitar riff, building drums and rolling bass, some cool lead guitar licks and quite naturally the guttural beauty of St. Joe Strummer’s unfiltered voice.
They say love can move a mountain
Love’s gonna bring down trees
Well it’s on this that I’m counting
‘Cause for your heart
And then there’s the tiniest bit of build as Strummer strangles the world “hearrrrrrrrt” and the whole song stops so he can launch into the incredibly hooky chorus.
I found the keys keys
Yeah the keys to your heart heart
Yes I got them on a chain chain
When the doors come apart part
We’ll never be the same same
What makes this chorus is the repetition: he just doesn’t have the keys to your heart, but the “keys keys to your heart heart“, which he’s got not a chain, but a “chain chain.” It’s an utterly brilliant bit of song craft — not to mention a steal from “Sister Ray,” which is always good — and shows that even before he hooked up with Mick Jones, St. Joe Strummer knew his way around a song.
And of course, he always had the words. So. Many. Words. Oft times, more words than would actually fit into the verses or choruses or even bridges of the songs, but of course, he’d fit them in somewhere.
And so after verses about being a teenage drug-taker, and never looking in the mirror in the place where there would normally be a guitar solo, there are even more words, as the song breaks down and Strummer sing/speaks a rap that somehow ends up with him getting arrested and tried.
None of the lyric sites include this part, but what words I can understand I’ve always loved, because it makes so little sense in the context of the rest of the song, so here’s my best guess.
They booked me up in the core of love
The finny knew the judge and the jury who saw
Big blue policeman, little black book
Wrote it down, but he didn’t look
Iiiii I seen the lock on your heart
And I got the keys
Go right in
It doesn’t really make a whole hell of a lot of sense, but the way Strummer says “Big blue pleezman” absolutely slays me, and the whole thing is absolutely a precursor to what he would be doing in just a couple of years during the breakdowns of songs like “Complete Control” & “Capital Radio II”
And so after the breakdown, with drummer Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski doing some timely rolls, St. Joe Strummer attacks his rhythm guitar in a fashion that literally only he could for a few bars, as “Keys To Your Heart” builds back into the final verses and choruses with even more momentum that ever.
Without that breakdown and buildup, “Keys to Your Heart” would just an interesting pub rock song from the mid-1970s, not quite as good as Eddie & The Hot Rods “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” — which was more power pop anyways — but still better than anything I’d ever heard from Dr. Feelgood, but because of that mid-section, it becomes an absolutely key pre-Clash text, a key to the heart of Joe Strummer.
Keys to Your Heart
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