Remembering Joe Strummer: Clash frontman synthesized politics and punk

By Mark Guarino

Christmas week was a cruel one for fans of the seminal British punk band The Clash. Joe Strummer, its lead singer and songwriter, died of a heart attack that Sunday. He was just 50 and on the brink of a musical rebirth. In November it was announced The Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That, along with the fact he recently shared the stage with Mick Jones, who he originally fired from the band before it imploded, hinted that 2003 would be the year The Clash was finally going to get its due after almost 20 years.

Sadly, the hall of fame ceremony will now most likely turn into a Joe Strummer tribute show. Strummer’s hand in waking rock up from the doldrums in the late ‘70s and setting it in a new direction is irrevocable. With the Clash, he gave punk rock an entire new vocabulary, expanding the primitive blueprint the Ramones and the Sex Pistols refined. Strummer, along with Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, were just as interested in soul music, rockabilly, funk, reggae, early hip-hop and jazz as they were three chord rock, so they wrote songs with traces of those styles and labeled them punk, too. The music didn’t lose one iota of street tough legitimacy. Instead, it blew the door of possibilities wide open for bands following in their tracks.

The Clash became the first great band since the ‘60s that the post-baby boom generation could call their own. Strummer was Bob Dylan with a mohawk. Like Dylan, he used music to ridicule the status quo and gave punk rock a political voice over the anarchic wail of the Sex Pistols. The music The Clash made lived on a broader musical horizon than any of their peers. The core message in the music was that positive change was within reach if only the people wanted to live it. “What are we gonna do now?,” was the rallying cry of their song “Clampdown.” “The fury of the hour/anger can be power/if you know you can use it,” he sang.

In the nihilistic world of early punk, this was revolutionary. Punk’s first wave in Britain — along with its U.S. equivalent featuring Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads — didn’t touch politics and was mostly devoid of social commentary.

The Clash’s self-titled debut album from 1977 arrived to reflect Strummer’s insistence that rock didn’t have to be mindless party music but could change society for the better. The 15-song album confronted unemployment (“Career Opportunities”) racism (“White Riot,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”) and general middle class malaise (“London’s Burning”). With its call-and-response choruses, violent guitarwork and Strummer’s brusque vocals, the music remains white hot to this day. The band aligned themselves with the plight of Caribbean immigrants in the U.K. by covering Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Police & Thieves.” By throwing in a cover of the ‘60s rockabilly classic “I Fought the Law,” the Clash’s mythological stature as musical outlaws was complete. It was an image they would never shake.

As a songwriting team, Strummer and Jones became the Lennon and McCartney of punk rock, churning out songs at a continually high level over five years. At their first rehearsal, Jones brought in a song he wrote about his girlfriend titled “I’m So Bored With You,” which he handed to Strummer. In one take, Strummer tacked on three syllables at the end and the song became “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” one of the Clash’s defining anthems.

CBS/Epic declined to release the record in the U.S. and it only saw the light of day on these shores a year later when the band’s popularity could not be denied.

Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in Turkey, the son of a British diplomat. Before arriving in England, he had stints growing up in Mexico City, Cypress and Cairo. In his teens he fell in love with early rockabilly heroes like Buddy Holly as well as bluesmen like Bo Diddley. He started playing in London subways for spare change when he was approached by Jones and Simonon to form a band. It was 1976 and they had just seen the Sex Pistols in concert and wanted to get involved in punk rock. They wasted no time. Later that same year, The Clash ended up as openers for the Pistols while at the same time were putting together songs for their debut.

With five proper albums (a sixth, “Cut the Crap” was thrown together between Strummer and Simonon), The Clash kept striking chords and continued to take bigger and bigger risks. Their 1979 double album “London Calling” (Epic) remains one of the most visceral rock albums ever recorded. With its backdrop of working class rebellion, the music is steeped in punk and reggae as well as jazz, pop, r&b and taunting humor. As if trying to top themselves, they followed it up the next year with a triple album, “Sandanista!” (Epic). Although it wasn’t as concise, it went further with the band’s reggae bent as well as introduced a rap influence in Strummer’s groove-based singing. The pollination was due to The Clash’s first tour in New York, where they soaked up early hip-hop heard on the city’s streets.

Just the act of putting out a triple album demonstrated how brazen the band had become. By this time, they had broken through in the U.S. In 1981, they took over Times Square, playing 16 sold-out shows in a row. The next year, thanks to the hit “Rock the Casbah,” they were playing stadiums.

Soon after, the band fell apart. Strummer kicked drummer Topper Headon out because of his heroin addiction. Then he turned on Jones who had increasingly had difficulties working with. Near the end of his life, both had reconciled. In “The Clash: Westway to the World,” a film documentary on the band released in 1999, Strummer expressed regret at his hasty decision-making. “Whatever a group is, it’s the chemical mixture of those four people,” he said. “If it works, do whatever you have to, to bring it forward. Don’t mess with it. We learned that, bitterly.”

Strummer said his band’s legacy was its synthesis of music, culture and politics. “We weren’t parochial, we weren’t narrow-minded, we weren’t little Englanders. We embraced what we were presented with. Which was the world and all its varieties,” he said.

During their tenure, the band had to continually deal with the gnarly contradiction of being radicals while working in the record industry. Their justification was they made so little money from their own album sales. The band originally signed to CBS/Epic for $200,000. Recently, band staples like “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “London Calling” were licensed to television ads.

Aside from one solo album and a brief stint in the Pogues, Strummer remained musically silent until 1998 when he formed a new band, the Mescaleros. Over two albums — and a third due this spring — the band picked up where The Clash left off, delving into exotic rhythms and multi-cultural styles and remaining committed to social justice. The band toured regularly, often for benefits for union organizations. Next month, the band was scheduled to perform at a concert at the South African prison that incarcerated Nelson Mandela for 18 years.

The Mescaleros lit a fire for Strummer in the last four years of his life. “We’d like to be known as one of the good groups from London,” he told BBC News in 2001. “I haven’t even started yet.”

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