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Remembering Joe Strummer, punk's shining light

On what would have been his 69th birthday (August 21), join us as we revisit the brilliant iconoclasm of John Graham Mellor, aka Joe Strummer. The Clash’s frontman was a character who existed in his own individual realm. A champion of social issues, he would write some of the finest protest and punk songs in existence. He followed up his on-stage persona with a burning personal crusade to do his bit in helping to cure the planet of its social, political and environmental ills.

Although his bandmates were largely from the lower but educated middle-classes, Joe Strummer was born out of the highest echelons of society. Born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952 to a Scottish mother, Anna, and English father, Ronald, Strummer’s early life was indicative of the establishment that, come the end of his teenage years, he would be rebelling against. 

Ronald Ralph Mellor MBE came from a long line of British diplomats. Strummer’s grandfather was a railway official in colonial India, and from this, his father Ronald became a clerical officer who later achieved the high rank of second secretary in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. This would lead to the young Joe Strummer spending his early childhood globe-hopping. He spent parts of his childhood in Cairo, Bonn and Mexico City, taking in all the wonders the city’s had to offer.

To anyone who grew up working-class, this seemingly idyllic early existence, would abruptly come to an end when Strummer was eight. He and his 10-year-old brother, David, were enrolled at the traditionalist boarding school, the City of London Freemen’s School in Surrey. Over the next seven years, the pair would see their parents once a year. The negative affect this sort of separation has on children cannot be understated. In an op-ed published in 2012 in The Guardian to mark the 10th anniversary of Strummer’s death, his daughter Jazz opined: “Dad came from a strong authoritarian background. His father was very academic, and he went to public school, which he found really tough. He hated having that put upon him as a kid.”

Strummer was later quoted as saying: “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 was clearly inherently opposed to the environment he was being raised in. This would go on to inform the rest of his life. As an adolescent, he developed a love of all things rock ‘n’ roll. Listening to records by Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, and the Beach Boys, the young Strummer’s inner flame of rebellion would be lit. In a way, it is easy to see Joe Strummer as a successor to the anti-fascist socialism of Woody Guthrie. The man whose guitar was adorned with “this machine kills fascists” would make a huge imprint on Strummer’s ethos. So much so, that Strummer would go by the nickname of “Woody” until 1975. 

These early years wrapped in the isolation of the establishment would also bring great tragedy for Strummer. Over the course of their education, brother David had become estranged from the family and withdrew into himself. In July 1970, he committed suicide in Regent’s Park. Understandably, this traumatised Strummer, who was called to identify his brother’s body after it lay undiscovered for three days. 

Retrospectively, Strummer said of the tragedy: “David was a year older than me. Funnily enough, you know, he was a Nazi. 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?”

The Clash (L-R) Mick Jones, Topper Headon, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon
(Credit: Alamy)

Luckily that year, Strummer would be finished with boarding school once and for all. He enrolled in the Central School of Art and Design in London. There he briefly considered becoming a full-time cartoonist as he finished a one-year foundation course. He would pass the time by taking copious amounts of LSD and listening to his idol, Woody Guthrie. This information goes some way in dispelling the notion that hippies are not punks. One would wager that it was the younger end of the hippie generation who became punks. Let that idea settle.

He shared a flat in the north London suburb of Palmers Green with friends Clive Timperley and Tymon Dogg during this time. Timperley would go on to play in post-punk band The Passions, and Dogg is today a highly respected multi-instrumentalist. This time would be when Strummer made his first foray into the world of musicians. He remembered of the time: “I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99, I think and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play ‘Johnny B. Goode’. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and ‘Johnny B. Goode’. And that’s how I started.”

Fast forward to 1973; Strummer relocated to the sunny location of Newport in South Wales. In what seems a fairly random choice, he didn’t study at Newport’s esteemed college of art; he hung out with college musicians at the student’s union bar. Before too long, he became the vocalist for the Flaming Youth, who quickly renamed themselves the Vultures. It was here that Strummer would get his first taste of a band environment, and this would truly set him on his path to greatness. 

In South Wales, Strummer wrote and recorded ‘Crumby Bum Blues’ on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, which would later be used in Julien Temple’s 2007 documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Nonetheless, the Vultures were short-lived, and they had fallen apart by 1974. Strummer swiftly moved back to London, and after busking for a while, he, Dogg and Timperley formed iconic pub-rock act the 101ers. It was inventively named after their squat, 101 Walterton Road in Maida Vale. 

The band played numerous gigs around the London pub circuit, with their sets mainly comprised of popular American R&B and blues songs. During this period in 1975, he stopped labelling himself “Woody” Mellor and adopted the guise we all know him as, Joe Strummer. 

After the decision, Strummer insisted that his friends call him by his new name. Allegedly, “Strummer” was a self-deprecating pun on his role as the 101ers’ rhythm guitarist.

It was during this period that the foundations of the British punk scene would be laid. He was dating Paloma McLardy, ‘Palmolive’, at the time, and she would go on to be the drummer of influential all-female punks the Slits. On April 3 1976, Strummer’s life would change forever. On this day, a then-unknown act called Sex Pistols opened for The 101ers at the Nashville Rooms in London.

After the show, Strummer was approached by Mick Jones. Jones was the guitarist in the premier pub rock band, London SS. He wanted Strummer to join him in a new group as the singer. Strummer acquiesced, and he left the 101ers. Featuring bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Terry Chimes and guitarist Keith Levene, this new pub-rock supergroup was named the Clash. 

They made their live debut on July 4, 1976, in Sheffield. They opened for Sex Pistols at the Black Swan. The now-defunct venue later became known as the Boardwalk, home of Arctic Monkeys et al. In what was a whirlwind ride, by January 25 1977, the band signed a deal with CBS Records as a three-piece as Chimes had quit and Levene was fired. Shortly after, Topper Headon became the Clash’s full-time drummer. Side note: Keith Levene would go on to be the guitarist in Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten’s iconic post-Pistols outfit, Public Image Ltd.

Thus, the classic iteration of the Clash was crystallised. They would go on to be possibly the most influential punk band of all time. With more substance musically and lyrically than their peers, the Clash took the punk ethos and the messages of Woody Guthrie and mashed them together to create something altogether unique and captivating. 

Although the band were initially known for their raucous off-stage antics, Strummer would go on the straight and narrow after being arrested in Hamburg, Germany, in 1980 for hitting a violent member of the audience with his guitar. This became a critical turning point for Strummer. He remembered, “It was a watershed—violence had really controlled me for once”, from that moment on, he never fought violence with violence again.

Over their short career, the Clash made an indelible imprint on the social fabric of Britain. With songs that approached topics such as social decay, unemployment, racism, police brutality and political repression, Strummer became the leading voice of a generation who were being sidelined by Margaret Thatcher’s unerring adherence to neoliberalism. Strummer was involved with the Anti-Nazi League and the important Rock Against Racism campaigns, which showed he and the band to be British music’s foremost progressive force.

Come 1983, though, and the writing was on the wall for the Clash. Strummer issued the notorious ‘Clash Communique’, which fired Mick Jones. Headon had also been fired due to his severe heroin addiction. With Strummer and Simonon its only original members, the band released the final album Cut the Crap in 1985. Hated by critics and fans alike, the band called time on themselves. 

This does not overshadow Strummer or the Clash’s legacy. He fronted the band through all of their most iconic moments, including The Clash (1977), London Calling (1979), and Combat Rock (1982). After the Clash, Strummer would carry on his musical career. He soundtracked films such as 1986’s Sid and Nancy and 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank. He also formed his iconic backing group, the Mescaleros, in 1999.

Joe Strummer (Credit: Alamy)

Although he passed away unexpectedly in 2002, owing to an undiagnosed heart defect, Joe Strummer will continue to be remembered for as long as music and rebellion exists. His legacy is so large that there is even a plaza in Granada, Spain, named after him owing to his socialist politics and the classic track ‘Spanish Bombs’.

Additionally, throughout his life, he was an ardent environmentalist. He formed the Carbon Neutral Company, which is dedicated to planting trees to combat global warming. Remarkably, he also became the first-ever musician to make the recording, pressing and distribution of his records, carbon neutral. Let that sink in.

In terms of his socialist politics, Strummer explained: “I believe in socialism because it seems more humanitarian, rather than every man for himself and ‘I’m alright Jack’ and all those arsehole businessmen with all the loot. I made up my mind from viewing society from that angle. That’s where I’m from, and there’s where I’ve made my decisions from. That’s why I believe in socialism.”

A pioneering musician and person, Strummer was ironically the product of his background. He came to embody the antithesis of his establishment background and became the people’s hero. No stranger to trauma and estrangement, he overcame his personal demons to front the most iconic punk band of all time. Through his music and extra-musical efforts, Strummer’s spirit has lived on since his tragic passing. A champion of community and for the righteous, there can be no doubting his place in the annals of rock. So on what would have been his birthday, why not revisit British punk’s brightest light?

Listen to ‘Rock the Casbah’ below.