“Kind of blundering through life is my method”. These words were spoken by the frontman of arguably the most influential punk rock group of seventies Britain, Alison Lee reflects on the life of the Clash’s Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer wasn’t born the rebellious punk he styled himself to be. Christened John Mellor, his father was a British civil servant in the Foreign Office branch. This department was well-known for being elitist and snobbish, which didn’t help Joe as he tried to fit in with the punk scene in later years.
Born in Turkey and sent to boarding school in England, Strummer had to ajust to only seeing his parents once or twice a year. Listening to records by The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan helped to assuage his feelings of abandonment, but the suicide of his older brother David affected Strummer deeply.
This tragedy prompted a time of transition in Strummer’s life. He completed a foundation course in art and began occupying a house which he and his fellow squatters nicknamed ‘Vomit Heights’.
Although not musically talented, he took up the ukulele (chosen over the guitar as he figured that four strings would be easier to manage than six) and busked in Underground stations.
His passion for justice was awakened as he witnessed the British establishment’s discrimination against his black friends, ultimately leading to his anti-racism campaigns in later life.
Strummer’s first real foray into the music business came when he formed a band (The 101’ers) with his flatmates. Another seminal change was his adoption of the name ‘Joe Strummer’.
Though reasonably successful, The 101’ers lifespan was short. Strummer was captivated by the venomous, frenzied style of one of their opening acts- a then-unheard of group called The Sex Pistols.
He agreed to form a rival punk band when approached by manager Bernie Rhodes, and in 1976 the Clash was born.
The punk era was a time of rebellion against the repression of the Cold War, racial tensions in Britain, and the self-indulgence of mainstream rock n’ roll.
Who would have thought just “blundering through life” could make you such a legend?
The Clash and other garage bands led the struggle; playing edgy, short songs with the bare minimum of instruments and effects, singing of repression, politics and militarism. The Clash were unique in that many of their songs had a strong Caribbean sound thanks to Strummer’s varied musical influences.
The band were often in trouble with the law for everything from vandalism to shooting off guns on the roof of a block of flats in central London.
But the Clash fell apart as their success in Britain and the U.S. created an insurmountable paradox. How could they protest against the hedonism of supergroups like Led Zeppelin while allowing themselves to become just as rich and famous?
Hardcore punk fans objected to Strummer’s continuing forays into different musical styles, and tensions grew within the group as drummer Topper Headon’s heroin addiction went from bad to worse.
Strummer grew more and more disillusioned. In 1985, discord within the group reached such a pitch that he fired guitarist Mick Jones and then disbanded the entire outfit.
Strummer spent a few years recording his own material and dabbling in the film industry. He even replaced Shane MacGowan as lead singer of the Pogues for a tour. Eventually he formed The Mescaleros, and began writing sunny, reggae-influenced material.
Strummer and Mick Jones hadn’t been in touch since their falling-out. But at a benefit concert for firemen in 2002, Jones joined him on stage for a spontaneous jam session. This was the last time that they would ever play together; Strummer died peacefully a month later on December 22nd.
Despite the hard-bitten, defensive front that he assumed, close friends described Strummer as “sensitive”, “dreamy” and “extremely nice”. Throughout his career, this was manifested in his treatment of his fans. He insisted on staying on after gigs until everyone who waited for him had gotten an autograph and had a chat.
Also, his many appearances at benefit gigs such as ‘Rock Against Racism’ show an innate generosity and desire to use his influence as a force for positive change.
For someone who just blundered through life, Joe Strummer achieved a lot. His friend Johnny Cash summed him up by saying “he was a good man, and a good musician”. But it’s fair to add that he was also a hero and an inspiration.