Joe Strummer will always be remembered as one of the leading voices of the burning punk movement as he fronted what was more commonly known as ‘the only band that matters’, The Clash. That said, his musical influence stretches far further than the confines of a single genre. Through his songs, he gathered an audience of adoring fans who didn’t take Strummer at his word but used his ethos to challenge everything and never to be ready to roll over.
Since he and The Clash turned punk into a global force to be reckoned with, Strummer had found himself constantly in and out of fashion throughout his career. Sadly, it would take his tragic and unexpected death on this day in 2002, for the true weight of his legendary status to land. Strummer, above all else, stood for truth, for passion and justice. It’s an intoxicating mix that captured his fans’ hearts and minds for years after he made his musical impact. He made such an impact, largely, through his lyrics which balanced the visceral, the voracious, the volcanic and the voluptuous to devastating effect.
Of course, a noted son of a diplomat, Strummer was a world-weary traveller by a young age. It had seen his viewpoint on the struggle of British society in the seventies be given extra weight and further credence as he noted the demise of the western world as he saw it. Above all else, Strummer represents a different side of punk. He wasn’t showbiz or particularly interested in fame unlike some of the names on this list. Instead, Strummer was a bastion of the genre’s more ethical points of pride.
As such, he used his position within The Clash to spread the word of the oppressed and, what’s more, he did it through a collection of incredible songs. Whether from the band’s self-titled debut or their Magnus Opus, London Calling, Strummer always put his and the band’s integrity in the limelight but positioned it within some searing songs. Using the lines on the page to show not only his own mettle but to call out those he saw fit to offer an explanation and rally those whom he needed by his side.
Below, we’re taking a look at ten of his best lyrics and remembering the great man, Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer’s best lyrics:
10. ‘Spanish Bombs’ (1979)
“Back home the buses went up in flashes/ The Irish tomb was drenched in blood/ Spanish bombs shatter the hotels/ My senorita’s rose was nipped in the bud”
Featuring on the band’s seminal album London Calling, the melody of ‘Spanish Bombs’ could be lifted straight from the glory days of pop. It is supercharged with pop sensibilities only to be scythed down with some of the band’s most obviously political lyrics.
The juxtaposition of the glossy sound with Strummer’s war-torn words turns the track into a worthy piece of the band’s catalogue. Concerned with the freedom fighters who fought in the Spanish civil war, Strummer effortlessly compares them to the holidaymakers and even sings in Spanish. It’s a rich piece of the band’s sound.
9. ‘Complete Control’ (1977)
“They said we’d be artistically free/ When we signed that bit of paper/ They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee/ An’ worry about it later”
A powerhouse number from the band’s debut album, Strummer’s vision for the group was clear from the very start. Though he leant heavily on his bandmates throughout their career, lyrically nobody did it quite like Joe Strummer. While the other songs on this list refer to more globally inspired events, this track is straight from the band.
The track refers to a moment when the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes called the group to a band meeting to state he wanted “complete control” of the band. “He said he wanted complete control,” Strummer remembered. “I came out of the pub with Paul collapsing on the pavement in hysterics over those words.”
It is also positively brimming with all the best bits of punk’s ideology for good measure.
8. ‘London’s Burning’ (1977)
“The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/ I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone”
There’s no doubt that Joe Strummer and The Clash were born out of the bubbling scene in London. The group’s stone demeanour was fired in the Big Smoke’s punk kiln, and it infiltrates most of their finest work. Though ‘London Calling’ is the standout capital referential number, this one is pure passion.
Smashing out of the speaker on the band’s debut record, ‘London’s Burning’ turns the old nursery rhyme on its head and makes it a real menace. While the rhyme children sang in school was drenched in saccharine notions, Strummer’s version was pure hellfire and demanded attention.
7. ‘Bankrobber’ (1980)
“Some is rich, and some is poor/ And that’s the way the world is/ But I don’t believe in laying back/ Sayin’ how bad your luck is”
If there’s one song that reeks of the class that The Clash possessed then it has to be their track ‘Bankrobber’. Released in 1980, the song was almost forgotten as a promotional import-only 45, the band’s record label refusing to release the song as it sounded like ‘David Bowie backwards’. However, after the import sold well, the song was eventually released.
It sees the band once again invite the world of reggae and dub into the punk sphere for a hefty dose of storytelling. It is within the story that Strummer certainly excels as he plays across the story with a deft hand.
Of course, Strummer’s dad wasn’t a bank robber, he was a diplomat but that doesn’t mean this song is any less charged or electrified. Produced by Mikey Dread, the song is a stark reminder of Strummer’s wide-ranging influences and the avenues he would open up for artists across the world.
6. ‘Clampdown’ (1979)
“You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running/ It’s the best years of your life they want to steal”
Approaching Joe Strummer’s favourite subject — the fall of capitalism — ‘Clampdown’ has rightly become an anthem for the band. Featured on their seminal 1979 album London Calling, Strummer takes aim at those in charge and calls for his audience to join him in bringing them down to size.
Throughout the song, Strummer points out the fruitlessness of following such a system if one is destined to be at the bottom of it. He refers to blue and brown collar workers, hinting that the only thing left for most school leavers to do was got to the Navy or Army. Across the whole track, Strummer’s tongue is fiery and his delivery potent.
The singer was, of course, not really affected in the same way as his bandmates. The son of a diplomat he was afforded opportunities but chose to turn them down: “You see, I’m not like Paul or the others, I had a chance to be a ‘good, normal person’ with a nice car and a house in the suburbs – the golden apple or whatever you call it. But I saw through it. I saw it was an empty life.”
5. ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ (1979)
“I know that my life make you nervous/ But I tell you I can’t live in service/ Like the doctor who was born for a purpose/ Rudie can’t fail (ok)”
Featuring on the band’s seminal record London Calling, the song was a homage to Caribbean culture according to acclaimed filmmaker Don Letts. Lyrically, it sees the band celebrate the culture they had immersed themselves in.
It was a song dreamed up after a long-hot summer smoking marijuana and enjoying reggae clubs that were popping up across London. The song doesn’t only use its lyrics to pay tribute “drinking brew for breakfast” and the “chicken skin suit” but also the horns and groove of the track are undeniably influenced by reggae and ska. It’s a joy to behold.
4. ‘White Riot’ (1977)
“All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it/ While we walk the street/ Too chicken to even try it”
With all of the racial tension that surrounds us and Strummer employing a distinctly seventies-leaning set of lyrics, it’s easy to see why Mick Jones has distanced himself from The Clash’s debut single ‘White Riot’.
While the song has struggled after being wrongly appropriated by White nationalist groups who tried to take the song’s lyrics for their own use rather than see them as a call to arms for all of the oppressed, it’s a misunderstood punk masterclass. The song was written after Strummer and Paul Simonon were caught up in the 1976 Notting Hill riots and sees the singer strum his Telecaster harder and faster than he ever has done since.
It’s a powerhouse punk tune, despite racial overtones now implied, and acts as a flurry of fists to the face, reminding you just who The Clash were. This is all largely achieved through a set of visceral lyrics that acted as a blaring call to arms.
3. ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ (1977)
“White youth, black youth/ Better find another solution/ Why not phone up robin hood / And ask him for some wealth distribution”
The track, featured on the band’s self-titled debut LP, the song ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’, is, without doubt, one of The Clash’s very best moments on record.
It sees a rock chorus meet a reggae verse head-on and lyrically it sees Strummer address the state of the nation following a paltry gig at a reggae club in Hammersmith Palais. In the song, he touches on everything from the music industry to racism and the rise of nationalism, urging his audience to not be confounded by the history books of apathy.
Ask any diehard Clash fan for their ten favourite songs from the band and we’re pretty certain this one will feature in all of them.
2. ‘Johnny Appleseed’ (2001)
“If you’re after getting the honey, hey/ Then you don’t go killing all the bees”
As Strummer and his group of reckless bandmates the Mescaleros delivered their second instalment of a promised trilogy in the LP Global a Go-Go there was a slight sigh of disappointment. Their desire to sonically experiment meant sometimes the songs were forgotten—but when they got it right they really smash it out of the park. On ‘Johnny Appleseed’ they sent one song flying into the stratosphere.
A modern-folk classic, ‘Johnny Appleseed’ was actually written by violinist Tymon Dogg, with whom Strummer had worked before The Clash. It doesn’t take anything away from Strummer’s performance as he fires out the lyrics aiming to preserve the good things in life with a simple yet honest refrain.
1. ‘London Calling’ (1979)
“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in/ Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin/ A nuclear error, but I have no fear/ ‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river”
The track is an apocalyptic anthem in which Strummer details the many ways the world could end which, during the current climate, feels more relevant than ever. It is arguably The Clash’s definitive song, it sums up everything that’s great about their ethos wrapped up into three-and-a-half minutes as they stuck two fingers up at the establishment with their noted degree of intelligence.
Singer Strummer was unapologetically a news junkie, funnelling the world around him into his music. It gave him the inspiration for the track which was written around the time of the Cold War and it is this impending sense of doom that is filtered through ‘London Calling’. The song would see the band gain notoriety in the US with the eponymous album being universally loved by critics across the globe despite its Britain-centric direction.
Released around the time that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Britain, with their snarling intellectualism, The Clash soon became the voice of the disillusioned youth on both sides of the Atlantic.