Joe Strummer, Remembering A Legend…
It could be said that Joe Strummer was not only one of the faces of the punk movement during the late 1970’s, but also one of the most influential musicians in rock history. His ability to infuse multiple styles of music into his own unique sound was the key to his success, putting him in the ranks of Bob Marley and Brad Nowell in terms of pushing the limits of musical genres while creating music that is still enjoyed on a mass scale today.
Born John Graham Mellor, Strummer’s father worked as a diplomat for the English government and lived in Turkey at the time of Strummer’s birth in 1952. His family moved around from continent to continent, living in Cyprus, Cairo, East Germany, and Mexico City, all before he went to boarding school in England at age 8. While on break from boarding school, he spent time in Iran and parts of Africa visiting his parents.
As a result, his upbringing of living in and visiting different parts of the world helped him develop his diversity in music and shape his world perspective that would help influence his musical career that spaded nearly 30 years.
After boarding school, Strummer briefly went to art school in London and flirted with the idea of becoming a cartoonist. He ended up dropping out and following some friends to Newport Wales. He took on the nickname “Woody”, after the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. While in Newport, he became the front man for a group called The Vultures. The Vultures didn’t last long, however Strummer did get his first experience as being the front-man of a band.
After The Vultures, Strummer moved back to London in 1971 living in an abandon apartment building with a small group of friends at 101 Walterton Road. It was at this time when Strummer developed an ear for the Reggae, Ska, and Rocksteady sound that was popular in England at the time. Artists such as Jimmy Cliff, & Desmond Dekker grew in popularity after the 1972 film release of The Harder They Come staring Cliff himself. The Harder They Come helped moved the Reggae, Ska, and Rocksteady sound into the mainstream. This would immensely influence Strummer and he would later use elements of reggae, ska, and rocksteady throughout his career.
Around 1974, Strummer and his squat mates formed a Pub Rock band, calling themselves the 101’ers, after the address of their place in London. “Pub Rock” was a sort of throwback to the rock sound of the previous decades. It included garage rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, and traditional “Rock and Roll”, which got its name from the fact that these smaller bands would play in Pubs, as oppose to large stadiums or other large music venues. Back then, the larger venues were dominated by the popular Glam and progressive groups of the day.
While playing with 101’ers, he began to fine-tune his musical abilities as a front man and rhythmic guitar player. This was when he also stopped going by Woody and took on the now legendary name of Joe Strummer. The 101’ers started gaining popularity in the Pub Rock scene of London and so did their charismatic front-man, Joe Strummer. However, a new sound was coming that would cause Strummer to leave the 101’ers.
Joe Strummer & The Clash
“We aren’t particularly talented. We try harder.” – Joe Strummer, on The Clash.
One night, in 1976, a little known band called the Sex Pistols opened up for the 101’ers at the popular London venue called the Nashville Rooms. Watching the Sex Pistols was a life changing moment for Strummer. What he saw on stage in the Sex Pistols was a rock sound that was youthful, primal in form, full of attitude, and most importantly, brand-new. At the time, Strummer seemed to be looking for a new sound, and after seeing what the Sex Pistols had, he realized that Pub Rock might have ran its course and this new sound was the future.
Strummer was quoted as saying: “Seeing the Sex Pistols in a crummy little pub in London called the Nashville, nobody was doing anything with one inch of the guts, the sheer audacity of what they were doing, they were the 1st people I saw who did something heavy.”
At a later gig, with the Sex Pistols supporting the 101’ers, Strummer met two musicians by the names of Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who were impressed by Strummer’s talent. They asked Strummer to join their band and he was given 48 hours to make his decision & Strummer agreed in less than 24. As a result, The Clash consisted of Joe Strummer on Lead Vocals/Rhythm Guitar, Mick Jones on Lead Guitar/Vocals, Paul Simonon on Bass/Backing Vocals and after going through a series of other drummers, they found a permanent fixture in Nick “Topper” Headon on Drums/Percussion in 1977.
After about a month of practicing and naming their band The Clash, they played their first show opening up for the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield England in 1976. At first, Strummer was the only member with any real experience performing and infusing the musical styles he knew and loved into The Clash’s music. The Clash’s first notable quality seemed to be that they had a much larger musical spectrum than most punk bands at the time, successfully incorporating elements of early rock and roll, ska, and reggae into the edgy sound of punk.
They released their debut album The Clash in 1977 followed by the iconic release of 79’s London Calling. Lyrically, the album was politically charged with songs that rang out like battle cries, dealing issues of social stratification, race, and unemployment. This was a different lyrical approach than their counterparts the Sex Pistols, whose lyrics were nihilistic at best. London Calling is considered by many to be one of the best rock albums of all time, even ranking number 8 in the top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Their next release was in 1980 with the triple record release of Sandinista!. The release showcased even more musical styles adding elements of folk, gospel, R&B, dub, calypso and rap, making Sandinista! the most musically diverse album that The Clash released. Rolling Stone went as far as comparing the Sandinista! release to the Beatles’ White Album. In both albums the bands showcase musical diversity and a willingness to experiment.
The Sandinista! release contained three total records. The Clash’s label at the time, Epic/Sony, wanted to put the cost of the extra vinyl on to the price of the album. The Clash cut a deal with Epic/Sony, agreeing not to receive any royalties in return, to keep the price of the album down so it was available to more fans. This displayed an uncompromising love & connection they had with their fans, outside of being one of the biggest rock and roll bands at the time.
In 1982, Combat Rock was released, this time under the influence of new wave and funk. Combat Rock went on to be their most commercially successful album. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end for the Clash. After the release of Combat Rock, Strummer kicked founding member and major contributor, Mick Jones, out of the band due to growing friction between the two, making Strummer and Simonon the only founding members in the Clash.
With Jones out of the band, the Clash lacked a crucial element and this was apparent in their last album Cut the Crap, released in 1985. Due to poor reviews and disliking from fans, Cut the Crap flopped and the following year the Clash broke up.
Life After The Clash
Strummer began to work writing music for films, composing soundtracks, and even acting. Strummer recorded two tracks for Alex Cox’s 1986 movie Sid and Nancy with the songs “Love Kills” and “Dum Dum Club.” Then Cox let Strummer act in and compose the entire soundtrack for Cox’s next film, Walker in 1987. Strummer also acted in three more movies by the end of the 1980’s, showing Strummers ability to work in different artist mediums.
In 1989 Strummer formed a project called, Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War. The band recorded five tracks for Permanent Record, an early Keanu Reeves film. Later that same year, they released the album Earthquake Weather, which had traditional rock and roll with world music mixed in. However, Earthquake Weather flopped financially and Strummer was dropped from his label at Epic/Sony.
Strummer explains his departure from Epic/Sony in an interview with Judy McGuire of PunkMagazine.com saying: “I put out a record in 1989 called ‘Earthquake Weather,’ which didn’t sell any copies at all. So Sony thought, we can’t let this bloke make another record because the wording of the contract was that as soon as I started a session they had to write me an enormous advance check. And they knew they weren’t going to see any of it. Then they gave me my separate life back-my solo life.”
Strummer was, for the most part, inactive in the early 90s, but jumped into action in 1997. That was the year Strummer put together the soundtrack for the film Grosse Pointe Blank staring John Cusack, using mostly late 70s and 80s rock, ska and new wave tracks for the score.
In 1999, he put together Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, releasing Rock Art and the X-Ray Style that same year. World music, electronic, techno, rock, reggae and a bit of folk were incorporated. In addition, Strummer kept true to his brand of socially aware and thought-provoking lyrics.
Tim Armstrong of Rancid, being a lifelong fan of Strummer and his work, signed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros to his label, Hellcat Records in 2001. Later that year they went on tour worldwide. Around that same time, Strummer also recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash as a duet. He was also working with Bono of U2 on a tribute project to Nelson Mandela. Sadly their work was never completed.
In The End
During the recording of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’s third album Street Core, Strummer died of a heart attack at his home in Somerset England on December 22nd, 2002. Street Core was released under Hellcat Records the next year, almost a full year after his death.
Strummer was a family man. His children, Jazz and Lola, both girls came from his long-term girlfriend Gaby Salter. After Strummer and Salter split up, Strummer began a relationship with Lucinda Tait in 1993 and were later married. Tait had a daughter from a past relationship named Eliza, and the four of them moved to a farmhouse in Somerset England where they lived until Strummers passing.
“I can’t believe it. Joe was as a huge inspiration to me now, as he was in 1977. He combined cool with an uncompromising stance, infused reggae into punk and taught a whole generation of us more about politics than any number of teachers or politicians. I desperately wish news of his death was untrue.” -Iggy Pop commenting on Strummers Death.
Strummer’s life & legacy continue to be documented in films, including Julien Temple’s ‘The Future Is Unwritten’. The film features live footage, various interviews & more.
In the end, Strummer’s unique approach to musical projects set a bar for others to aspire to. His formula of mixing musical genres like punk, reggae, rock, funk, dub & rap, created a blueprint that others were able to follow. Strummer may have left us, however his timeless musical contribution will continue to inspire, and be enjoyed by people worldwide.
“For me, the music is a vehicle for my lyrics. It’s a chance to get some really good words across.”
Official Music Video: The Clash – “Rock The Casbah”
The Clash Interview – 1979