Singer/songwriter/guitarist gave band its political spirit
Joe Strummer, who brought punk attitude and politics to one of the most significant bands in rock ‘n’ roll history, the Clash, died of a heart attack Sunday at his home in Somerset, England. He was 50.
Strummer, a singer, guitarist, songwriter, activist and actor, had been touring with his band the Mescaleros since the release of their second album “Global a-Go-Go” in July 2001; the latest leg of the tour ended in November in Liverpool.
The Clash, which formed in 1976, released its first album in ’77 and broke up for good in 1986, will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March. The original lineup of Strummer, Mick Jones, Terry Chimes and Paul Simonon was expected to re-form for the induction ceremony and play the band’s first single, “White Riot,” at the ceremony.
Although it was written as an advertising tagline, the Clash successfully lived up to its slogan as “the only band that matters.”
The son of a diplomat, Strummer was born John Graham Mellor on Aug. 21, 1952, in Ankara, Turkey. He attended boarding schools in London and as a teenager grew infatuated with reggae, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. He formed a pub band, the 101ers, in 1974, which he gave up to form the Clash with Jones, Chimes and Keith Levene.
The band was playing standard rock ‘n’ roll prior to Strummer’s arrival. He added reggae to the mix and upped the ante in politics and intensity. He took a Jones tune, for example, that was a complaint about a girlfriend and turned it into one of the band’s early anthems, “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”
“Within the Clash, Joe was the political engine of the band,” Brit troubadour Billy Bragg said. “Without Joe there’s no political Clash, and without the Clash the whole political edge of punk would have been severely dulled.”
CBS, which owned Columbia and Epic Records at the time, signed the Clash to a worldwide deal. By the time the band went into a London studio, Chimes had been replaced by Topper Headon and Levene’s spot was taken by bassist Paul Simonon. (Chimes would return to the band off and on to spell Headon.)
“The Clash,” issued in 1977 and including songs such as “London’s Burning,” “White Riot” and “Janie Jones,” was dubbed the definitive punk album by Rolling Stone magazine.
CBS put the songs in a different order and added the Clash’s cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” for release in the U.S. a full two years later. The two-LP set “London Calling,” released in December 1979 and viewed by many as the band’s finest work, was considered in the U.K. one of the greatest albums of the 1970s. Rolling Stone named it the best album of the 1980s.
The band made six albums — “The Clash,” “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” (1978), “London Calling,” “Sandinista!” (1980), “Combat Rock” (1982) and, sans Jones, “Cut the Crap” (1985) — but was infinitely more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., scoring 16 Top 40 hit singles in the U.K. and just two — “Train in Vain” and “Rock the Casbah” — in the U.S.
Jones and Strummer penned all of the tunes on their debut and often worked as a team, though later albums would have songs attributed solely to Strummer and, for their final two efforts, have all songs attributed to the band.
Known for wearing their politics on their sleeve, the band’s inner-turmoil — specifically a lingering feud between Jones and Strummer — came to a head in the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Jones left.
Strummer continued the Clash as Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite, but finally called it quits in 1986. Strummer’s first post-Clash act, Latino Rockabilly War, had a short life, as did his stint as rhythm guitarist for the Pogues. In 1990, he released his first solo album, “Earthquake Weather.”
Strummer contributed two songs to the “Sid & Nancy” soundtrack and began diving full-time into film work as a composer and actor. He scored “Walker,” “Permanent Record” and, a decade later, the John Cusack starrer “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
After appearing in “Candy Mountain” and Alex Cox’s “Walker” and “Straight to Hell,” he made his strongest acting appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” in 1989.
He stayed relatively quiet throughout the ’90s, emerging in ’99 with the album “Rock Art and the X-Ray Style” and band the Mescaleros. With his new band, Strummer re-ignited the fire of the Clash in his performances, which were peppered with Clash tunes and many of the songs the Clash had covered. At one of three shows he did at the Troubadour last fall, Strummer proved his punk attitude has never deflated, pulling an abusive patron onstage and challenging him to a fist fight.
He had been due to take part in a Feb. 2 show at Nelson Mandela’s former prison on Robben Island in South Africa.
He is survived by his wife, Lucy, two daughters and a stepdaughter. Strummer’s family have asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Mandela SOS fundraising concert, which is aimed at raising awareness of AIDS in Africa.
(Debra Johnson in London contributed to this report.)