Joe Strummer
Joe Strummer
Ignore alien orders

“This is my Indian summer...I learnt that fame is an illusion & everything about it is just a joke. I’m far more dangerous now, because I don’t care at all.”

Joe Strummer to Chris Salewicz – 2000.


Strummer was always far more than just your average Joe. Articulate, passionate, challenging – the thinking man’s punk rocker - a born leader. Engage brain before opening mouth – sample maxim. Joe taught a generation that it didn’t have to be THAT way, there WAS an alternative.

Joe Strummer was born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952 & christened John Graham Mellor. His family spent time in Ankara, Cairo, Mexico City & Bonn, before Joe returned to the UK to attend the City Of London Freemen’s School in Surrey. Joe left school & enrolled at Central College of Art but left “after about a week”, heading straight for the underground & squat culture. Joe spent time living in Wales, playing around in knock about bands & going by the moniker of “Woody” in homage to Mr Guthrie. Joe was always a protest singer.

The Vultures in time led to The 101’ers, a bunch of West London based squat rockers named after their squatted address, who provided some of the only high energy rock & roll action available in the capital immediately prior to the Punk Rock Explosion. The 101’ers were eventually supported by a nascent Sex Pistols & Woody became Joe Strummer. Blown away by the power of the Pistols, Joe immediately recognised that the 101’ers were “yesterday’s papers” by comparison. It was time to strike out anew. Somewhere between myth & reality (& let us not forget: the myth is ALWAYS more interesting than the reality), the birth of The Clash was upon us.

Mick Jones & Paul Simonon had been struggling gamely as The London SS (it always stood for “Social Security”, right Mick?) along with Tony James & Rat Scabies. The London SS would eventually spawn The Clash, The Damned, Chelsea & Generation X.

The story goes that Mick & Paul were queuing for their dole cheques when they spotted Joe further down the queue. They approached him outside the dole office & Joe felt he was in for a kicking.

Mick Jones – “Your group’s shit but you’re a top front man, come & join our band” (or something along those lines).

Joe was given 48 hours to mull it over but phoned back after 24 & threw his hat into the ring along with Mick, Paul, Keith Levine & Terry Chimes. Under the guidance of Bernie Rhodes, The Clash proceeded to write a set at their newly christened Rehearsal Rehearsal Studios. They made their stage debut supporting the Pistols in July 1976. Their second show was a behind closed doors affair at Rehearsals for the benefit of hacks & A&R men.

Mark Perry – “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS.”

Harsh words from the man who played a large part in establishing Punk as the alternative establishment. Harsh, but not altogether untrue. The debate surrounding who used who will rage on into eternity. “Remote Control” v “Complete Control”. The Clash v The Man. Sten guns in Knightsbridge, spray paint Capital Radio, air pistols at dawn? The Clash were a lifestyle option before it was invented. The Clash took the temperature of a generation & refused to leave its side.

By the time “The Clash” hit the racks, Levine had fucked off in a strop & Chimes had decided obscurity was far more attractive than compromised political principles & phoney posturing. Strummer, Jones & Simonon graced the LP’s cover alone – Chimes was listed as Tory Crimes & Levine credited for only “What’s My Name”. By this time “White Riot” had established the band’s reactionary viewpoint – The Clash were the only band that mattered, said Strummer. He proceeded to back that to the hilt by living the life to the full.

For those of us present when the bomb went off, The Clash “meant it, maaaaan”. There was no question, no debate & no doubt – absolutely. The Pistols & The Damned were the shockers, The Jam & The Stranglers the meat & the potato – The Clash were the bus to freedom & the future: the greatest rock & roll band in the history of the world.

“The Clash” rarely left my turntable. My mother would constantly berate me for “that bloody awful racket” & once attempted to remove the needle from the vinyl as it was spinning: resulting in her being pushed down the stairs for her troubles & leaving a very nasty scratch on side 2 of the LP. I’m sure she has long forgiven me, the LP still jumps 3 times during “Police & Thieves”.

Topper Headon replaced the departed Chimes at the drum-stool - the classic Clash line up was complete by the end of 1977. The next 3 x 45s would change the way the world felt about The Clash forever: “Complete Control”, “Clash City Rockers” & “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (& their b-sides) were quite simply the business - The Clash would never eclipse these recordings - they captured everything the band stood for.
Watching The Clash on stage during late 1977/78 was a truly life affirming experience. Topper altered the band beyond all recognition – they grew immeasurably in stature following his arrival, a point Strummer laboured to make continually throughout “Westway To The World”. Many will tell you that The Clash were the best live rock & roll band they’ve ever seen – they wouldn’t be far wrong. The backdrops, the pre-tape, the atmosphere, the expectation, the realisation that the future was unfolding in front of your eyes & the feeling that the floor was disintegrating beneath your feet. You can still relive those dates today with David Mingay & Jack Hazan’s film, “Rude Boy”, a flawed but essential historical document that illustrates just how early Strummer began to feel the weight of his convictions.

In 1978 Strummer & Jones were flown to Jamaica by CBS to write material for their second LP. Strummer experienced the real meaning of “under heavy manners” during an incident involving islanders who weren’t over impressed with the so-called white boy rock stars. Simonon was left to sulk at home: “The Clash was great until Sandy Pearlman fucked up our music”. The subsequent “Give Em Enough Rope” was torn apart by some doubters: “Give em enough rope & they’ll hang themselves”. The Strolling Clash - Radio friendly unit shifters. “Tommy Gun”, “English Civil War” & “The Cost Of Living EP” threw The Clash into the charts – but they still resolutely refused to appear on TOTPs (an arcane establishment). As 78 turned to 79 Punk was dead & The Clash were the new rock & roll elite. The situationist sloganeering was gradually replaced with iconic rock & roll shape-throwing. The Clash sure knew how to pose. The bondage pants lost out to sombre black suits, Homburg/Trilby hats & bandanas.

“London Calling” kicked in the commercial doors for The Clash. It gave them their biggest hits to date in the UK & finally turned the Yanks heads long enough for them to adopt the band as their own. Bernie Rhodes 1st stint as manager of The Clash was reaching the end of its tenure. Mick Jones, musical arranger & chief songwriter, was beginning to eclipse control within the group. Jones had never really liked Bernie or his ideas, he suddenly saw himself as the main man in the equation & the balance of power shifted accordingly. 1980’s sprawling triple LP, “Sandinista”, was ample evidence of this. Strummer was by now holed up in his studio “spliff-bunker” scribbling away to his heart’s content while Mick held the reigns firmly in his talented fingers.

1982’s “Combat Rock” brought all the commercial success that the very existence of The Clash now required to keep the wolf from the door. Strummer bought a large Notting Hill house to remind him of his squatting days & all the promises of a better tomorrow began to wilt under the pressure of compromise.

By 1984 Topper’s smack habit had become so bad he could hardly hold a pair of sticks yet alone sit on a stool for an hour or so – he was duly fired & replaced for touring duties by old mate of the band, Tory Crimes. What followed next was traumatic: Bernie Rhodes was re-instated & duly sacked Mick Jones from the group for “rock star tendencies” & “loosing touch with the original spirit of the band”. Joe “disappeared” for a while after poor ticket sales & surfaced in Paris blaming a Bernie scam. The Clash expanded to a five piece & undertook a busking tour – Joe had a Mohawk! The stink of desperation did not go unnoticed & the wheels finally fell off for me at Leicester when I stood & vented my anger & disappointment at 5 figures on a stage purporting to be The Clash, leaving the building long before the final bonk!! The Clash died horribly. I was distraught, in mourning, it had all turned to shit after all & from where I was standing it all seemed to be Joe Strummer’s fault.

This was a sentiment obviously shared by Joe himself. As the years slipped under the bridge he would openly admit he got it all wrong. He was wrong about Topper, wrong about Mick & most definitely wrong about Bernhard Rhodes. By the time he’d chased Mick down to The Bahamas & presented him with a bag of weed & an apology, it was already far too late: Mick now had Big Audio Dynamite.

Joe flirted with acting in the late 80’s appearing in Alex Cox’s “Walker” & “Straight To Hell”, as well as Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”. In 1989 he released the patchy “Earthquake Weather” as his debut solo LP, before briefly joining the Pogues while Shane dried out. Being Joe Strummer from 85 to 95 really wasn’t very much fun – a decade of discovery followed by a decade of regret. You can feel the apologetic resignation seeping from him throughout the interview clips of “Westway To The World”. You find yourself touched by his modesty, humility & his overpowering sense of loss. It’s haunting.

Thankfully, Joe Strummer had one more card up his sleeve. He split from long term partner, Gabby, moved out of London & eventually married Lucinda Tate in 1995. The newly weds set up home in Bridgewater, Somerset. Joe appeared to heal some in the ensuing years, he could even have been at peace (pop back to the quote at the top of the page). He was blessed with 2 daughters, enjoyed the rural surroundings & began to turn his thoughts back to music:

“CAN I GIVE A MESSAGE – HELLO – YEAH, I’D JUST LIKE TO SAY: LET’S HAVE SOME MUSIC NOW, HUH?”

The Mescaleros duly delivered “Rock Art & The X-Ray Style” (1999) & “Global A Go-Go” (2001). The Mescaleros may have changed from tour to tour, but the songs remained the same (Joe even found work for his old busking pal & fiddler, Tymon Dogg, for the first time since “Sandinista”). The music was a glorious amalgamation of every aspect of Joe’s character: as wide as his vision & as big as his heart. I caught shows on each tour, to see Joe again after so long was just as exhilarating as it had been the first time round. The last time I saw him I’d decided that he was gonna live forever & turn into a gnarled punk/blues/world amalgamation of Bo Diddly, Woody Guthrie & Muddy Waters – a man for all seasons & all generations. A foot soldier of the old guard destined to continue teaching lesser minds the beauty & power of legitimate protest through an art-form: “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power, you know that we can use it”.

Never meet you heroes, is what they say, & I only ever met Joe across a heaving moshpit: just another face in the crowd. Doesn’t mean I never felt I knew him, doesn’t mean I wasn’t touched irrevocably by his honesty, doesn’t mean there isn’t a large tear in my soul now that he’s gone. Joe Strummer may have led me astray, Joe Strummer may have led me straight up the garden path, Joe Strummer may well have been as human as every single one of us – but he was still Joe Strummer, & always will be. To me Joe isn’t dead – he’s simply slipped into the other room & I hope he’ll still be waiting when I get there. Maybe we could do that book then, I have so much I wanted to ask him, so much blame I was sure he was gonna help me apportion.

Ignore alien orders, strap on your strumguard, grab a Telecaster & follow me down to the spliff-bunker. There’s still some work to be done – maybe you could pick up the baton – Joe dropped it over there, somewhere.

“They got Burton suits, they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”

Long live the myth of The Clash. Joe Strummer has left the building.



Jean Encoule – trakMARX.com – Jan 2003



Links
Plant a tree for Joe – www.futureforests.com


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Joe Strummer