Joe Strummer will always be remembered as one of the leading voices of the burning punk movement as he fronted the only band that matters, The Clash. That said, his musical influence stretches far further than the confines of a single genre.
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. It would sadly take his tragic and unexpected death in 2002 for the true weight of his legendary status to land. Strummer, above all else, stood for truth, for passion and for justice. It’s an intoxicating mix.
Of course, Strummer isn’t without his foibles. The singer-songwriter lost his way after the break up of The Clash in 1986 and spent many years wandering the musical landscape looking for a new home. Finally, by the end of the ’90s, Strummer was once again back in the groove and when he and his band the Mescelaroes were finally hitting their stride he sadly lost his life.
Below, in celebration of the great man’s birthday, we’re bringing you 10 of our favourite Strummer songs both with and without The Clash. It’s a perfect set of examples of why he’s still so beloved.
Joe Strummer 10 best songs:
10. ‘Trash City’
Perhaps a sign of Strummer’s terrible luck, some of his finest work (often referred to as “the last great Clash song”) was buried on the soundtrack to a quite simply terrible movie starring Keanu Reeves. It was so bad that Reeves has even erased it from his memory.
On the soundtrack, however, we’re given a taste of the great and wonderful writing talent of Strummer. With a distinct rockabilly flavour, the lyrics are naturally quick-witted and razor-sharp, it shows of the skills Strummer possessed throughout his career—able to cut through the bullshit, even if it was with some nonsense.
9. ‘Clash City Rockers’
Before The Clash, Strummer was the leading man in the 101’ers, a pub rock band who welcomed the long hair and free-flowing rock of The Who as influences. But after punk began to explode and Strummer caught a glimpse of the Sex Pistols everything changed.
It saw The Clash rework this song from Strummer’s days in the 101’ers and allow the singer to add his soon-to-be-iconic growl of mish-mash cockney and nomad accents to a trumped-up punk rock beauty. Seriously, can you ever hear anyone singing “I want to move the town to the clash city rockers, You need a little jump of electrical shockers” as Joe did?
8. ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’
One song which showed of Strummer’s love affair with reggae is this punk-dub joy, ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’. Featuring on the band’s seminal record London Calling, the song was a homage to Caribbean culture according to acclaimed filmmaker Don Letts.
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.
7. ‘Janie Jones’
The first song from your first album always needs to be a banger. Luckily, The Clash had this five-star firestarter in their arsenal. Not only does it come complete with a chugging intro capable of making toes tap like Gene Kelly but it’s also flecked with the rock ‘n’ roll attitude that would define the band.
Written as a eulogy to a forgotten ’60s icon who had been jailed for a vice offence in 1973, the song was even replied to as Jones, the madam wrote her own song ‘Letter To Joe’. It’s easy to see how she was so enamoured with the song, it has the ability to move your body without even trying.
6. ‘Redemption Song’
Strummer and country icon Johnny Cash shared a quite stunning cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ for the country star’s covers album before Strummer took it on himself. Sadly, Strummer would not see the album released, with Streetcore shared in 2003 after his death.
Strummer’s spoken-word style and simple backing make this one of the most poignant moments in his entire arsenal. This is about as close to a perfect Strummer song as you can imagine, imbued with justice and the need for people power, Strummer pleas with his public to take heed and connect with one another.
5. ‘(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais’
As we near the top of this list it’s easy to manipulate the top tracks into your own favourite positioning, but we must insist that ‘(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais’ rests near the top at the very least. It’s 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.
Listening today it still sounds as potent, powerful and purposeful.
If there’s one song which reeks of the class that The Clash possessed then it has to be ‘Bankrobber’. Released in 1980, the song was almost forgotten as a promotional import-only 45. It sees the band once again invite the world of reggae and dub into the punk sphere for a heft dose of storytelling.
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.
3. ‘Johnny Appleseed’
As Strummer and the Mescaleros delivered their second instalment of a promised trilogy in Global a Go-Go there was a slight sigh of disappointment as 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 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.
To sum it all up he sings, “If you’re after getting the honey, Then you don’t go killing all the bees.”
2. ‘White Riot’
The Clash’s first single, ‘White Riot’, may have a habit of hitting the ear wrong in 2020. 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 track in recent years.
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.
1. ‘London Calling’
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’.
‘London Calling‘ 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.
The title track for the record perfectly captures the voice of the largely ignored majority at that period of time. As Joe Strummer pointed his gun at the neo-liberalism that he deemed to be ruining society, he unleashed a vocal which has gone down in the annals of rock and roll history as one of the most passionate of all time.