Joe Strummer 21/08/52 – 22/12/02

Bankrobber / Rockers Galore

Tribute to Joe Strummer who passed on way way too early, six years ago on this day.

Presenting his finest moment (in my opinion) on record and the orbituary from The Times newspaper. 

Joe Strummer, rock singer and lyricist, was born in Ankara, Turkey, on August 21, 1952. He died of a suspected heart attack at his home in Somerset on December 22, 2002, aged 50.

His only rival as the main spokesman for the punk revolution which transformed British youth culture in the late 1970s was Johnny Rotten. Yet unlike the Sex Pistols’ singer, Strummer maintained his punk radicalism. When he was interviewed in this paper last year about his most recent album, Global A Go-Go, the writer observed that he was “the only rock star of his generation . . . who hasn’t mellowed with age”. Only last month, he was to be found playing a benefit gig for the striking Fire Brigades Union with his new band, the Mescaleros.

The son of a British diplomat, he spent his early years living variously in Turkey, Mexico, Germany and Egypt. Educated at a Surrey boarding school and art college, he had a spell busking on the London Underground, after which he formed his first band, the 101ers, playing amiable R&B on the mid-1970s London pub-rock circuit.

But he was frustrated by what he saw as the stagnation of the music scene of the time. In April 1976, the 101ers were supported at a London date by an emerging group called the Sex Pistols. Their volatile and nihilistic garage rock sounded crude and unrehearsed. Yet Strummer became convinced that the energy of the emerging punk movement could be harnessed to revolutionise British music. Within two months he had teamed up with the guitarist Mick Jones, the bass player Paul Simonon and the drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon to form the Clash.

Managed by Bernie Rhodes, an associate of the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm MacLaren, they swiftly built a following at punk venues such as London’s 100 Club. Then, late in 1976, they joined the Sex Pistols on their “Anarchy in the UK” tour. With punk already making front-page headlines for its alleged violence and moral threat to the nation’s youth, all but three of the 19 planned dates were cancelled by anxious promoters.

Such notoriety only enhanced punk’s appeal. Major record labels were soon jumping on the bandwagon and after making some demos for Polydor, in January 1977 the Clash signed to CBS Records. Their first single was the provocatively titled White Riot, a raw, aggressive, streetwise song with Strummer’s angry lyrics snarled at breakneck speed.

It reached only number 38 but the band’s debut album, The Clash, made number 12 on its release in the spring of 1977. Taking unemployment, alienation and rebellion as its subject matter and recorded in a matter of days, it remains, along with the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, punk’s definitive statement.

In many ways, Strummer’s songs were responding to the same events and sense of political drift that led to Margaret Thatcher’s radical Conservatism. But Strummer moved in the opposite direction and was spotted at gigs wearing a T-shirt supporting Brigade Rosse, the Italian Red Brigades held responsible for the murder of the former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. He also expressed his support for Germany’s Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang.

Given the group’s provocative attitude, trouble inevitably followed them. During their 1977 White Riot tour, Strummer and Headon were arrested and fined for spray-painting “Clash” on a wall. The same pair spent a night in jail in Newcastle, ludicrously charged with stealing a pillowcase from a local Holiday Inn. They responded by calling their next tour “Out on Parole”. The group even managed the not inconsiderable feat of inciting a riot when they performed in genteel Bournemouth.

They put their money behind their political convictions, and in April 1978 they headlined a free Anti-Nazi League festival in London, organised by the pressure group Rock Against Racism. But their politics and growing commercial success were always in potential conflict, as Strummer recognised in the single White Man in Hammersmith Palais in which he struggled with the dilemma of punk rockers “turning rebellion into money”.

The group’s second album, Give ’Em Enough Rope appeared in November 1978, and went straight into the charts at number two, kept from the top spot by the soundtrack to the film Grease. The recruitment of the top American rock producer Sandy Pearlman smoothed over some of the group’s rougher edges but did nothing to lessen their political anger in songs such as Guns on the Roof and Tommy Gun, which gave them their first British Top 20 single. “Protest songs, that’s what you’d call them. Folk-songs with an electric guitar,” Strummer said at the time.

A four-track EP which included a suitably venomous version of Bobby Fuller’s I Fought the Law was released in summer 1979 as a holding operation while they broke America and began planning their third album, London Calling. Produced by the veteran Guy Stevens, the double album is widely regarded as the group’s finest, as reggae and rockabilly tunes take their place alongside raw punk aggression on songs such as The Guns of Brixton and Revolution Rock.

London Calling reached only number nine in the British charts, but it remains one of the most influential rock albums. Among those to fall under its influence was Bob Dylan’s son Jacob, who now leads his own band, the Wallflowers, and recently cited London Calling above his father’s work as the record that “changed his life”.

The group’s politically charged fourth album, Sandinista!, appeared in 1980. The first to be produced by the group themselves, this sprawling, 36-song triple- album was released at a special budget price, after the group agreed to forgo royalties on the first 200,000 copies in return for CBS’s co-operation.

In 1982 Strummer mysteriously disappeared for three months, later claiming that he was in Paris where his girlfriend’s mother had been in jail. The mystery helped the next album, Combat Rock, to number two in the British charts and gave the group there first American Top Ten entry.

Strummer still sounded confrontational and the album produced hit singles in Rock the Casbah and Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Yet paradoxically, it was the beginning of the end for the group. Headon left, and when the Clash joined The Who on their farewell tour of America in late 1982, many felt that the latterday punk heroes sounded tame in comparison to the 1960s veterans.

The following year Jones was evicted from the group. Strummer and Simonon soldiered on with two new recruits, Vince White and Nick Sheppard, and played benefit shows for the striking miners. But after the group’s final album Cut the Crap was savaged by critics, they called it a day at the end of 1985.

As a rock icon who had achieved everything before he was 30, Strummer appeared unsure what to do next. He played on Bob Dylan’s album Down in the Groove, organised a “Rock Against the Rich” tour, played with Latino Rockabilly War and released the 1989 solo album Earthquake Wonder. But that was to be his last album for a decade as he turned to cinema and deployed his chiselled good looks to effect in such films as Straight to Hell, Sid and Nancy, Mystery Train and Lost in Space. He also worked on several film soundtracks including John Cusack’s Grosse Point Blank.

After a brief spell deputising for Shane MacGowan as lead vocalist with the Pogues, he spent much of the 1990s resisting invitations to re-form the Clash as various compilations kept them in the charts and a reissue of Should I Stay or Should I Go? became the Clash’s first number one single, following its use in a Levi’s jeans commercial. Strummer reportedly refused an offer of more than £3 million for the group to tour America. “That was never the Clash way of doing things,” he later told The Times. “We all agreed it would have been sickening to have been playing that music with the pound signs hanging over us.”

It was not until 1999 that he returned fully to the fray with a new band, the Mescaleros, and the album Rock, Art and the X-ray Style. A second Mescaleros album, Global A Go-Go, followed within 18 months. “It took ten years to recharge my batteries. I felt isolated and wanted to wait until I’d stopped being the singer from a once-famous group and was this guy who needed help,” he said.

Although he moved to Somerset to bring up his family, his political fire remained undimmed. “The spirit of rock’n’roll helped to stop the Vietnam War,” he told The Times last year. “Perhaps it’s a bit crazy for me still to feel like that. But I can’t help it. Someone’s got to keep the faith.”

In March he was due to have been inducted with the Clash into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when it was expected that the group’s original line-up would perform for the first time since 1983. Fate has decreed that the Clash will now never reunite. He was also working on a track written with Bono and Dave Stewart for Aids Awareness in Africa.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and a stepdaughter.

Baby Aaron celebrating The Clash.

  1. luggy
    December 22, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Have fond memories of him letting loads of us in free at their gigs. He died the day after my mum did. Xmas is a weird time to lose someone when everyone else is really happy.
    When I got back to London & went back to work, it really cheered me up to see someone had stuck photocopied pictures of Joe all along Mare St. Found out later that a mate of mine did it!

  2. Penguin
    Penguin • Post Author •
    December 22, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    That’s an awful shame Mick, my sympathy to you and the rest of your family during this time.

  3. Trunt
    December 22, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Mr Strummer, a sad miss, always a fighter for the underdog. What about sticking Redemption Song on the site, what a class song, either Marleys version or Joe’s. Taken away far too early, R.I.P.

  4. Nuzz
    December 22, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Too fucking right penguin, what indeed would Joe Strummer do? But more importantly, who is the kids of today and adults of tomorrows, Joe Strummer?

  5. baronvonzubb
    December 22, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    What can we say thats enough about Mr Joe?
    Gossip;met him a coupla times. His first wife Gabby was our mates – Devlin RIP- cousin.
    Tried to give him a hard time at gigs ‘cos he was famous by then, stupid as I was.

    We all have our favorites.
    Mine; White Riot and Ghetto Defendent he was a huge talent, a big person and an all round genuine & ‘good bloke’ from what we could gather.
    its not been the same without him.

  6. Ian S
    Ian S
    December 22, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    luggy wrote: “He died the day after my mum did.”

    Saddest day in most people’s lives when their old mum dies, certainly was mine. Both my parents went around the Christmas period so my condolences to you.

    Put Strummer on at the Glasgow Barrowland around 1990. He seemed like a pretty decent guy but didn’t get to talk to him much. After the gig him and all the people with him went to the Burnt Barns pub near the venue. The landlord did a lock-in and it was a good night all round.

  7. Martin C
    Martin C
    December 23, 2008 at 12:15 am

    I stole this single from the market under Luton’s Arndale Centre in 1994 for a then girlfriend.

    Also saw Joe and the Mescaleros in ’99 at the Brixton Academy with my mate Nick – we met a Noo Yoiker, also called Joe, in the Beehive before the gig and got on like an orphanage on fire. Fucking brilliant gig – everyone snuck to the bar during the Mescaleros number but he played ‘Clash City Rockers’, ‘White Man…’ and ‘White Riot’ (dedicated to Mick Jones – fuck you if I’m think I’m joking). One of the best gigs I’ve been to, everyone was buzzing and the mood spilt out onto the streets.

    Also lost me pa round Xmas, 2001. I know it sounds perverse, but it was a top funeral. Especially when a vampire in a dog collar asked my older sister, ‘Was he in the IRA?’ just cos we draped a tricolour round the coffin.

    Fucking hell, was it really 2002 when he died? I was still seeing that girl…I remember the security guard at our workplace going, “No, really, did you say Joe Strummer’s just died??” when me and some girl walked past talking about it. Nobody had really spoken to him before, turned out he was a massive Clash fan. Ended up getting cunted on vodka with him in Old Street.

  8. Martin C
    Martin C
    December 23, 2008 at 12:33 am

    There was a top tune on the Mescaleros album called ‘Yalla Yalla’ (I think?). Nick taped it for me, but I never bought it cos there was also a track on it called ‘Tony Adams’ , which is just filth to my ears. Yeah, sorry to say, that sort of stuff bugged me more than fur coats or nuclear armament..

  9. Henry Ponds
    Henry Ponds
    October 20, 2011 at 3:54 am

    Thanks! Joe Strummer will NEVER die!! His music will see to that.When you think back to the 80’s you can’t help thinking of THE CLASH!!! They had the world by the BALLS(To Ya BABY!) I saw The CLASH open for THE WHO…I know dream bill right?? But…it was in DETROIT where they were a NON “FUCKING’ FACTOR!! Eddie Money opened and the crowd went APE SHIT!! I mean you’d think Eddie was Elis Money instead…UGH!!! I BLOODY HATED IT! Then the Clash came on to a booing(yes already!) hostile Detroit braindead crowd!…it was freaking SAD! When they played their BIG hit “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” the reply was GO!!!! Cheers!,HenryPonds P.s. THE WHO made up for it 10 fold!

  10. joggn
    September 15, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Noticed a new Clash LP,The Clash Hits Back, quite expensive so doubt i can afford it at the mo.
    Found a great recording of a gig at the electric circus in Manchester, great sound quality, captures an electric night.
    hope you dont mind me posting the link Mr P? Enjoy if you do.
    click on listen and it’ll open and play in windows media player or which ever is your player

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