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Music

How Joe Strummer's traumatic childhood shaped his artistry

Everyone is a product of their background. Be it Donald Trump, Adele or even Ozzy Osbourne, the place in which you were born and how you have been raised leaves a lasting impact on the self, giving you a sense of direction. This theory obviously comes in all shapes and sizes, in both negative and positive ways, but one thing is for sure, a childhood leaves a lasting impact.

Often we see the effects of childhood experiences flood into the creative realm. Whether it be in visual arts, music or literature, art is often used as a tool for understanding what was experienced as a child or as an outlet, an escape from the horrors we experienced whilst still innocent. Many of the great creatives have used their childhood as a means of coming to terms with the past, an attempt to ensure that the future is a better one. 

One man who embodied this sentiment was the frontman of The Clash, Joe Strummer. Born in 1952 as John Mellor in the Turkish capital city, Ankara, he was the son of Ronald, a secretary in the British foreign service. The family wouldn’t stay in Ankara for long, however, and they would travel to and inhabit some of the most exotic climates the world has to offer. 

As a young boy, Strummer would visit his parents in Cyprus, Cairo, Mexico and Tehran, and this would expose him to some of the world’s most vibrant cultures, a factor that inspired his artistry as he got older, helping The Clash to break away from being out and out ‘punk’. For instance, Strummer’s first music teacher was in Turkey, which imbued his work with a colourful edge, offering a stark contrast to the monochrome landscape of 1970s Britain and the punk movement in the years to come. 

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However, at the age of nine, Strummer and his ten-year-old brother, David, were sent to study at the City of London Freemen’s School in Surrey, and the pair would only see their parents once a year after that. Strummer’s mother and father had always lived at an arm’s length, but being totally separated from them would leave an indelible impact on him and David. Strummer recalled: “At the age of nine, I had to say goodbye to them because they went abroad to Africa or something. I went to boarding school and only saw them once a year after that – the Government paid for me to see my parents once a year. I was left on my own, and went to this school where thick rich people sent their thick rich kids. Another perk of my father’s job – it was a job with a lot of perks – all the fees were paid by the Government.”

Strummer hated school, but whilst there, he developed a love of rock music and became an obsessive fan of Little Richard, Woody Guthrie and The Beach Boys. In fact, during the years of his teenage rebellion, Strummer would even adopt the name ‘Woody’ as a homage to the musical scourage of fascists. The name would stick with Strummer until he assumed the surname we all know him by today in 1975. “He was a self-made man, and we could never get on,” said Strummer of his father. “He couldn’t understand why I was last in every class at school. He didn’t understand there were different shapes to every piece of wood, different grains to people. I don’t blame him, because all he knew was that he pulled himself out of it by studying really hard.”

By the dawn of 1970, when Strummer was 18, David had become estranged from the family. Over the course of their teenage years, Joe and David had grown apart, with the older brother coming to embody something of the antithesis to Strummer. David had retreated into himself whilst at school and was now an adherent of the occult and a member of the National Front. David’s membership in the National Front must have come as something of a surprise to the family, as through their father, the boys had Armenian and German-Jewish heritage. 

One can only imagine the anger and confusion that David must’ve felt after being shipped off to Surrey. Sadly, in July of 1970, Strummer was called by the Police to identify David’s body after it had lain undiscovered for three days in London’s Regent’s Park. Understandably for Strummer, David’s suicide traumatised him, lighting a fire in his belly that he would carry until his own final days. “(David) was a year older than me. Funnily enough, you know, he was a Nazi,” Strummer once said. “He was a member of the National Front. He was into the occult and he used to have these deaths-heads and cross-bones all over everything. He didn’t like to talk to anybody, and I think suicide was the only way out for him. What else could he have done?”.

Strummer hated his upbringing and loathed the school he went to for their medieval take on discipline and what had happened to David. Chris Salewicz, a friend of Strummer’s and the author of the 2007 biography Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, wrote: “He would always berate his mother till her death, asking why his parents sent him and his brother, David, to that school. The experience had scarred him deeply and he still wanted an answer, to help him understand. He also thought that David would still have been alive if he hadn’t seen sent there.” 

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In the future, as he immersed himself in London’s music scene, both in the 101ers and The Clash, Strummer’s background would often become a point of contention from some of his peers. He remembered: “One night in the speakeasy, some big fucking Ted pal of Lydon’s knocked half my front tooth out cos I went to private school. But the truth is my orphaned dad, Ron Mellor, was born in India and joined the foreign office on the lowest rung. After his work took us to from Germany to Cairo to wherever the fuck they sent him, my parents were concerned for our education so sent us to this horrible, vicious fucking boarding school that the Foreign Office paid for.” 

In a 1976 interview with Melody Maker, Strummer admitted of his experiences at boarding school: “I’m really glad that I went because I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to boarding school. I only saw my father twice a year. If I’d seen him all the time I’d probably have murdered him by now. He was very strict.”

Joe Strummer would not have developed into the fierce artist he later became without his formative experiences travelling the world and traumatic experiences in Surrey. His unprejudiced worldviews were formed whilst globe-hopping as a young boy, and his anti-establishment rage was stoked whilst enduring years at one of the country’s strictest schools. Together, they formed a potent mixture, one that would see him help to alleviate many societal ills and confirm himself as one of the most important musical artists of all time. 

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