This Day in Music Spotlight: A Man Called Strummer
December 22, 2002
Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
The Clash were always more worldly than their punk brethren, incorporating global beats from reggae, ska, rockabilly and even rap, on occasion. It was no coincidence, of course, that the band’s leader had a more international background than the average English musician. Indeed, Joe Strummer was a unique character in the history of rock.
Born in Ankara, Turkey in August 1952, the future Joe Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and a Scottish mother. Little John Graham Mellor’s (as he was named) family moved from post to post around the globe, with Egypt, Mexico and Germany serving as ports of call during his early childhood. Eventually, John and his brother were placed in a London boarding school, where they spent the next seven years. For John, boarding school was a steppingstone to artistic pursuits at London’s Saint Martins College of Art and Design. For his brother David, life took a darker turn. David joined the White supremacist National Front and eventually committed suicide at just 19 years of age.
But John carried on, eventually getting involved in music. Living in Newport, Wales for a time at the age of 21, he began singing in a group called The Vultures (formerly Flaming Youth). He paid the bills during this formative period by working as gravedigger. After about a year, he moved back to London and began busking. Eventually, he caught on with a new pub rock outfit called The 101ers (originally called El Huaso and The 101 All Stars). The group (named after the band’s squat at 101 Walterton Road, Maida Vale, London) garnered a decent following on the London club circuit between 1974 and 1976. They even did a bit of recording, though only a single came out while the band was still around. It was during this period that John had exchanged his original stage name, Woody Mellor, for the rather self-explanatory Joe Strummer.
Everything changed for Strummer, as it did for so many musicians of that period, in London, when he heard The Sex Pistols for the first time. On April 3, 1976, the nascent but ferocious punkers opened for the 101ers at The Nashville Rooms in London. Strummer recalled the show in a later interview:
“I saw the future—with a snotty handkerchief—right in front of me. It was immediately clear. Pub rock was, ‘Hello, you bunch of drunks, I'm gonna play these boogies and I hope you like them.’ The Pistols came out that Tuesday evening and their attitude was ‘Here's our tunes, and we couldn't give a flying (expletive) whether you like them or not. In fact, we're gonna play them even if you (expletive) hate them.’”
That was enough to drive Strummer to leave The 101ers and join a new group with guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, second guitarist Keith Levene (later of Public Image Limited) and drummer Paul LaBritain (later of 999). Simonon suggested the name The Clash, inspired by the constant conflict that filled the news. The band agreed that the name captured the confrontational aspect of the band’s — and indeed punk’s — music and outlook.
And the rest, as they say, is history. The band eventually booted out Levene and settled on Topper Headon as their drummer (after multiple runs with Terry Chimes) and rattled off a series of provocative but tuneful hit songs for a decade (though the last few years marked a steep decline without Jones and Headon). Unlike most of their punk peers, The Clash grew together musically, with Strummer challenging his bandmates with very un-punk rhythms. More importantly, Strummer brought political and humanitarian convictions to his lyrics, again surpassing the mere nihilism espoused by his contemporaries with thoughtful substance.
Strummer’s death, on this date in 2002 from a congenital heart defect, was doubly tragic. Beyond the obvious human cost of the life of a husband and friend cut short at the early age of 50, Strummer’s death also curtailed an artistic renaissance. After over a decade of scattershot musical output, Strummer found a creative resurgence with his new band, The Mescaleros. Again, Strummer brought in a host of musical influences from around the globe — reggae, hip-hop, Irish folk, country and, yeah, punk. As he had done so famously during those vital days with The Clash, Joe Strummer approached his craft with open ears and open mind until the very end.