Culture Clash: At the Time of His Death Last Month, Joe Strummer Remained One of Our Most Original Musicians. John King on the Honest Voice of Punk
King, John, New Statesman (1996)
It was Juvenile Jim who introduced me to The Clash. He had bought their first album because it had a Union Jack on the cover and was showing it off in the playground. I borrowed it off him, had a listen and was hooked. The music was fast and furious, and the songs were about subjects I could relate to -- the perfect combination. Bowie was leaving Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane behind with his new album, Young Americans, Slade and Sweet were past their best, and a nation of young bootboys in their mid-teens were looking for something to fill the void. The sound of punk gave us exactly what we were after: the words were a huge bonus; the Union Jack symbolised the way. The Clash's music and Joe Strummer's lyrics tuned in to what was happening in the Britain of 1977. From hooligan anthems such as "White Riot" and "What's My Name" to the speeded-up version of Junior Murvin's reggae 45 "Police & Thieves", via "I'm So Bored With the USA", a song that matched the people's love of American popular culture to a distru st of US foreign policy, Joe Strummer caught the mood of the time. Twenty-five years later, he was back doing it with his new band, the Mescaleros. His death, on 22 December, cut short a talent that still had a great deal to offer.
There were three major strands to punk: those committed to the music and social politics of the lyrics; the good-timers who enjoyed a drink and a tune; and the posers, fashion victims who missed the point but have gone on to write the official history of punk, even though they were the first to bailout. The memory has been hijacked, reinvented as little more than a Mohican haircut and studded collar, though anyone who was around at the time knows that it didn't matter what you looked like, how you dressed, or where you came from. That was the whole point. Joe Strummer epitomised this open-mindedness and his lyrics were the strongest on offer.
That first album, The Clash, was the best punk album ever released, and despite complaints about the production, the follow-up, Give 'Em Enough Rope, wasn't far behind. If Strummer had grown up in a country where literature was more open to those with an alternative take on life, maybe he would have been an author. But, as it was, his thoughts found an outlet in music. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, rebel music was a million miles away from what we have today. Logos were for muppets, and if you spent more than a few pounds on your wardrobe you were considered a snob, or worse, a soul-boy. Cocaine was for the rich, dope for middle-class hippies. The kids had beer, live music and football - and, with punk, the arrival of speed.
In terms of musical style, Joe turned a lot of people on to reggae and dub long before it became fashionable, not to mention rockabilly and even early hip-hop. Great personal memories include three nights running at the Lyceum with the Slits in support, and two hot back-to-back gigs at the Electric Ballroom with Mikey Dread, Joe Ely and a selection of buskers off the street. On the second night, the air-conditioning broke down and Mick Jones took the mike and said they would never be touring again. We laughed and they played on for years. Mick was seen as flash and Joe thoughtful. Eventually, they fell out and The Clash broke up, but they belonged together. Strummer and Jones were a better songwriting team than Lennon and McCartney, I don't care what anyone says. They were a perfect balance, and drew in a wide mixture of people -- scruffs, punks, skins, rockabillies. There was no trouble, music was the common currency. Up and down the Westway, we used to go to see them play, with "London's Burning" on the cas sette player.
The Clash produced other great albums after Give 'Em Enough Rope. London Calling blended punk with 2-Tone-style ska, mixing the likes of "Rudie Can't Fail" and their cover of Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac", and saw them become more than a "punk" band. The next LP, Sandinista! …