Joe Strummer, the late frontman of The Clash, was punk’s shining light. Born out of the highest echelons of British society, he hated his background and despised the injustices he saw everywhere around him. A brilliant musician and lyricist inspired by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Little Richard, Strummer helped to fight the good fight until his untimely death in 2002.
Not only did Strummer pen some of the most iconic tracks in the history of punk with The Clash, but he also helped to fight against racism and pledged his support for environmental causes. On-stage and off-stage, Strummer was the real deal.
He led by example, and his iconoclastic spirit lives on throughout his music. Unbelievably intelligent and witty, his takes on all matter of things were eye-opening. Take, for example, what Strummer said about his schooling, for instance: “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.”
Strummer showed that punk wasn’t all about faux-nihilism and self-destruction. It could be a force for righteous causes and used for positive ends. There’s no wonder that The Clash’s music is the most enduring of the first wave of British punk, he wrote songs that had a pulp, a meaning, that went far beyond the hollow calls for anarchy and the like.
The lyrics to the 1982 track ‘Straight To Hell’ reflect this sentiment clearly. A take on the world’s universal woes of poverty, misery and disaffection, lines such as, “As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust” were more like something from a Thomas Hardy novel than an upstart punk.
In 1999, Strummer released a track that was about another injustice he perceived, but it wasn’t one you’d expect. This came in the form of the album opener of his post-Clash outfit, The Mescaleros’ debut album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. The track was ‘Tony Adams’, a direct reference to the ex-Arsenal defender. Strummer was an Arsenal supporter, and in the ’90s, Tony Adams was the team’s captain. One of the best defenders of his generation, Strummer felt Adams had been served a massive injustice.
In 1999, Strummer explained in rather opaque terms: “England is used to worship a brand new band every now and then and throw them away into the ten following minutes. England is used to get rid of these kind of people, that’s disgusting. That’s a vicious behaviour but symptomatic of one certain illness which corrupts the UK.”
He continued: “I’ve written one song about that which is called ‘Tony Adams’: No one in this fucking country rose up when he was denied the England armband, whilst he was winning his own fight against alcoholism. People might imagine footy is mundane, sometimes mundane stuff are important. We need people like Tony Adams.”
Strummer was right. Running concurrent to Adams’ on-pitch successes was his massive struggle against alcoholism which caused huge personal problems. One of the most high-profile recovering alcoholics in the country, he helped to normalise discussion about the addiction and bring it into the mainstream. His 1998 autobiography, Addicted, was rightly critically acclaimed.
Like some old sage oracle, Joe Strummer perceived injustice everywhere, and it’s through moments like these that his iconic spirit lives on.
Listen to ‘Tony Adams’ below.