Published Aug 01, 2001Joe Strummer has made his career by being different. The son of a British diplomat, born John Mellor in Turkey in 1952, he stood at the forefront of the punk rock movement as the front-man for the Clash, dubbed "the only band that matters." One of punk's most recognisable bands, the Clash's image, politics and sound administered a much needed kick in the teeth to a bloated and lethargic rock and roll establishment. While their punk contemporaries either imploded (Sex Pistols), kept making the same record (Ramones) or made music that had virtually no commercial appeal (Crass), the Clash expanded their boundaries and won over more fans. And although all these bands have had a lasting impact on punk and hardcore, the Clash added the right amount of abrasion and vitriol to pop music to produce hits. When the group disbanded in 1986, Strummer stepped out of the spotlight, doing soundtrack work and the occasional acting gig. In 1999, he returned to the spotlight with his first solo record in a decade. And now he's back with another called Global A Go Go, which although considerably different from his Clash-era material, still stands on its own.
Joe Strummer is the front-man for a moderately successful pub rock group called the 101ers, named after the squat where they lived at 101 Walterton Terrace. After playing a gig with the Sex Pistols, he decides to leave the band for punker pastures. The Clash are formed with the help of manager Bernie Rhodes, who introduces Strummer to Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the art punk group London SS. The other members of the now-disbanded London SS morph into the Damned.
Their first record, The Clash, is released in the UK in April. (Judged "too crude" for American tastes, it isn't released in the U.S. until two years later, although it initially sells well as an import). It features an explosive mix of songs that further the notion of the group as a counterpoint to the Sex Pistols' nihilism. An incendiary aural attack, the record stands as a blueprint for the punk aesthetic, setting a standard that still resonates to this day, with songs like "White Riot," "Career Opportunities," and "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A." Their fusion of punk and reggae is another important element with a six-minute cover of Junior Marvin's "Police And Thieves" and the Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced track "Complete Control."
The seminal book on the early days of the British punk movement, The Boy Looked At Johnny: The Obituary of Rock And Roll by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, is published. The authors attack the Clash as "the MC5 of the new wave; the credibility hustling manager, the six-figure recording contract, the revolution for fun and profit." They go on to posit that the Clash "were the first band to use social disorder as a marketing technique to shift product."
"They were in a bad mood," responds Strummer now. "That book is pure fashion, it doesn't have any intellectual rigor to it at all." Give Em Enough Rope, the sophomore LP comes out in November. Rock intellectual Greil Marcus writes of the band: "the Clash is now so good they will be changing the face of rock'n'roll simply by addressing themselves to the form and so full of the vision implied by their name, they will be dramatising certain possibilities of risk and passion merely by taking a stage." Give Em Enough Rope is produced by Sandy Pearlman, an American best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult. Strummer is quoted in the same Marcus article, saying Pearlman had "been trying for six months to turn us into Fleetwood Mac."
Perhaps somewhat more mellow with age, he now says "That's unfair. Did I say that?" He admits: "We presented him with quite a difficult thing to capture, a sort of raucous rock and roll group and we weren't smooth around the edges or anything." Strummer believes manager Bernie Rhodes chose Pearlman from a short list provided by the label "because I reckon he liked [Blue Oyster Cult song] Don't Fear The Reaper.'" The record is slightly more polished in an attempt to make their sound more palatable to American listeners. Strummer thinks Pearlman "had some pressure from Columbia to deliver something coherent." Even though he feels "it wasn't our easiest session," the result still has the same energy as the debut with tunes like "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun."
Over the course of the year the Clash film Rude Boy is made. Directed documentary-style by Dave Mingay, it features the trials and tribulations of the band as seen through the eyes of a fan-turned-roadie. Released in 1979, the film was called "visual record of a lost era" by Jon Stewart in the book England's Dreaming. The film brings them to the attention of Martin Scorsese, who plans to cast them in Gangs Of New York. When the project is shelved he eventually gives them a cameo in 1983's King Of Comedy as a band called Street Scum. (The long delayed Gangs is due at the end of 2001.)
Growing as band, they release London Calling, a double album and arguably the best thing they'll ever do. This record has more of an American influence, but from the band's perspective rather than the label's. From the cover art (a take on the first Elvis Presley LP) to the cover version of British-born American-raised rockabilly star Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac," the record has a broader appeal. Rolling Stone comments: "the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll's past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legends, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours." They score their first hit single with "Train In Vain." A review of the record in The Nation sums neatly sums up the band's legacy: "As the Clash have shown, although an attitude usually provides the initial excitement in rock, over the long haul, ideas still offer more lasting power."
The meandering triple LP Sandinista is released. It is named for the socialist revolutionaries in Nicaragua and the band forgoes a portion of the royalties in order to keep the price down. The record further pushes the band's musical boundaries, incorporating dub, scratching, samples, gospel, calypso and more. Part of the reason for the record's reach may be in its creation. Strummer says "We just happened to be in New York and happened to book some studio time and got in there without any material and started to make it up on the spot." The excess is criticised by some who feel it is one record too long. He admits that he has debated whether it was better as a triple or if it would have been better as a single album. "It was good that it was three although for many years I think I was in the should've been the one' frame of mind, but now I'm back with the original vibe."
Combat Rock spawns the Clash's two biggest hits, the Mick Jones track "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Strummer's dance number "Rock The Casbah." The record and opening slot on the Who's farewell tour turn them into rock stars. Strummer says the record is "what made us and what slayed us." He says the struggle to get there kept them together but "when you get there, all the arguments break out." Drummer Topper Headon leaves because of excessive drug use, signalling the beginning of the end for the Clash.
Mick Jones is fired from the band by Strummer, who cites growing differences between the members. He later admits that it was more of an ego thing and tension between Jones and reinstated manager Bernie Rhodes that caused the rift. Strummer hires two new guitarists, Vince White and Nick Sheppard, and a new drummer, Pete Howard.
Cut The Crap features the new line-up, and is a critical and commercial flop. Strummer calls it his "least pleasant memory" and takes the blame for its failure. "That's really all my fault because it was me who allowed that situation to develop and I guess it was an experiment gone too far." The record proves to be the final nail in the band's coffin. Mick Jones forms his new project, Big Audio Dynamite.
After a decade, the Clash call it quits early in the year. When asked if he could have ended it differently, his response is slightly cryptic. "I think something nice and Hollywood, kind of like some old gunfighter film. That would have been nice to do a final concert and everybody shake each other's hand while the sun set and the music played and the credits rolled. Something noble like that." Strummer is hired by director Alex Cox to provide material for the soundtrack to his film Sid And Nancy. The result is the title song, "Love Kills" and another called "Dum Dum Club." The two remain friends, leading to Strummer's starring role in Cox's spaghetti Western Straight To Hell. He contributes two songs to the soundtrack, "Evil Darling" and "Ambush At Mystery Rock." The film, which also stars a pre-rhinoplasticised Courtney Love, is despised by fans and critics alike. Strummer reunites with former band-mate Mick Jones for the second Big Audio Dynamite record, No. 10, Upping St. He produces and co-writes five tracks for the record.
Strummer travels to war-torn Nicaragua with Alex Cox for the filming of Walker. It is the story of an American mercenary, played by Ed Harris, who goes to Nicaragua in 1855 with the intent of annexing it for the U.S. Cox envisioned the film as a commentary on destructive Reagan-era policies. Strummer composes the film's soundtrack and plays a small role as one of Walker's soldiers.
Strummer and his back-up band the Latino Rockabilly War contribute five songs to the soundtrack to an utterly forgettable Keanu Reeves project called Permanent Record.
Strummer takes a supporting role in Jim Jarmusch's cult film Mystery Train, about a young Japanese couple who make a pilgrimage to Memphis. His solo record, Earthquake Weather, comes out featuring the same band as the Permanent Record tracks. All three records are currently out of print, something Strummer would like to change. "I'm going to try and dig it out of obscurity and try and get some sort of release action on it, even if it's only on the internet."
After Shane McGowan leaves the Pogues, Strummer, who had occasionally worked with the band, joins as vocalist and guitarist. He also produces their album Hell's Ditch.
Strummer hooks up with Mick Jones again as producer Big Audio Dynamite's best of record Planet BAD: Greatest Hits.
Strummer briefly joins Britpop act Black Grape and makes an appearance on their single "England's Irie," a football anthem that becomes a top ten hit.
Strummer contributes the background music on a track from Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness. This tribute record features readings from William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jim Caroll among others. Strummer provides the music for Kerouac's reading of "MacDougal St. Blues."
Strummer records "It's a Rockin' World" for the South Park album Chef Aid. The song features Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine. Strummer also makes a guest appearance on the show performing the song.
Strummer also produces and performs on the More Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack.
Ten years after his last solo record, Rock Art & The X-Ray Style is released. It comes out on the Epitaph imprint Hellcat Records, a label started by Rancid, a band that makes no secret of its love for the Clash. Strummer says "if it wasn't for punk rock today I wouldn't be making any records on several counts," since he has trouble generating any interest among other labels. The new record coincides with the release of the live Clash record Live: From Here To Eternity and the release of remastered versions of the original Clash records, which fuel reports that the band will reunite. The closest thing fans will get is Strummer playing Clash songs on tour.
With the release of his new record, Strummer continues looking ahead. He admits he's happy with the new one, saying "we have a good record so that makes the press a lot more fun than if you're trying to defend an atrocious piece of work." He says he also enjoyed "that we made it like a group" instead of a solo project with him at the helm. He prefers working this way because "one guy is never smart enough to figure all the possibilities out. If you get six guys on deck it's going to be much more intricate and more satisfying." He says the record was created in a "spontaneous way" last November before a UK tour with the Who. He says "it's given the album a good fresh sound." The record is eclectic to say the least, incorporating a folky Van Morrison-influenced sound with elements of trip-hop, world and electronic music and even a dash of Tom Waits. Even though he could take the easy way out and cash in with a Clash reunion he says "it's not possible to do anything in a forward direction if your attention is looking back. So I'm with Bob Dylan. Don't look back."