Joe Strummer, Voice of the Clash

— Scott McLemee

YOU FEEL OLD when your heroes begin to die. For socialists -- who are, after all, radically egalitarian -- there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It's a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority that go way, way back, maybe to the prehistoric dawn of class society.

We have to be critical of heroes, even though we can't live without them. For a whole generation of us -- including many people never prone to worshipping rock stars -- Joe Strummer, who died late last year, was a hero. And there are not so many socialist heroes around nowadays, that we can afford to lose one without grieving.

It's the last week of 1980. I'm seventeen years old. The vague awfulness of the Carter years are winding down, the more clearly defined horrors of the impending Reagan presidency are just coming into view.

A friend has just sent me a Christmas present -- a double album by a punk rock band from England called the Clash that she figures (quite rightly of course) won't be available in the record bins of my small town in East Texas.

The word on punk rock in the American mass media is that it consists entirely of performers who (1) cannot play their instruments and (2) spit on the audience. The cover of the album shows a man smashing his guitar.

I am an alienated teen, all right, and the image is powerful, even strangely beautiful. But two disks' worth of smashing guitars? I am dubious.

Dropping the needle on the first track -- “London Calling,” which gives the album its title -- it is immediately evident that these guys can, in fact, play their instruments, and quite well. The riffs are catchy, the tone somehow menacing.

The singer's first lines (“London calling to the far away towns/Now war is declared, and battle come down ....”) ring out in a gritty, raspy voice. The chorus sounds like the nightmare looming over the decade to come, with the new president:

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning -- and I, I live by the river ....

This record will not leave my turntable for the next few months. The singer in question, the man with the voice hoarse from yelling across the Atlantic Ocean, is Joe Strummer.

It seems like an appropriate name for a guitar player, although film footage of the band shows that his pick usually hits the strings with a staccato regularity of a jackhammer. How he's handling the instrument actually has some ideological implications, given what rock had become in the 1970s.

The harder stuff usually revolved around intricate -- and extremely long -- guitar solos on concept albums that always seemed to be based on Scandinavian mythology, or the novels of Ayn Rand; something other-worldly, in any case.

Rock with a folkier quality tended toward overwrought ballads about the agonies of stardom, by terribly sensitive singer-song writers. Either way, the performer was someone a world away from the audience, and virtuoisity or delicacy with the guitar was part of keeping the distance.

Not so with Strummer, who seemed to be bashing out an urgent message with no time to spare. He was actually a very skilled guitarist. But the important thing about watching him was that you figured, “Hell, I could do that.” And the band wanted you to give it a try.

The lyrics were explicit about how much capitalism was banking on people remaining passive -- listening to your “giant hit discoteque album” (as the song “Lost in the Supermarket” said) as a reward for taking the “Career Opportunities” available. (“Do you wanna make tea for the BBC? /Do you really wanna be a cop?”)

The band encouraged its fans to start their own groups -- to break free from the programmers who “pick all the hits to play/to keep you in your place all day.”

The Voice of the Clash

All due honor to the rest of the guys in the band, as tight a squad of musicians as ever to march onstage. But there's just no way around it: Joe Strummer was the voice of the Clash, and not just as vocalist.

Although he attended an elite school -- his father worked for the diplomatic corps -- Strummer turned his back on the middle class early on. In an interview, he made a stray reference to selling the Morning Star (the British Communist newspaper) to mine workers, at some point in his pre-Clash days -- an experience that left him with a fairly low opinion of left-wing parties.

Much of his radicalism seems to have been shaped by experience. While playing in an early band, for example, he met some horn players who had escaped Chile after the American-backed coup. The band's involvement in the Rock Against Racism movement was undoubtedly influenced by Strummer's anger that his brother had joined the neo-fascist National Front.

The resulting politics, expressed in the Clash's lyrics, were both socialist and solidly anti-authoritarian. The album “Sandanista!” (1981) celebrated the Nicaraguan revolution --

For the very first time ever
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America
Well the people fought the leader, and off he flew . . .
With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

-- while making clear that American imperialism was only part of the world's total misery:

If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist.
Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet
How many monks did the Chinese get.
In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary
And check the British bullets in his armory ....

Transcending Nihilism

Focusing on the lyrics alone misses what may have been the most important element of the band's politics, and of Strummer's legacy. One powerful impulse in early punk (still audible in some currents today) is the fierce effort to break from earlier forms of music.

This could be a spur to creativity. But it was also sometimes racist -- what the great rock critic Lester Bangs called “white noise supremacy.” Raw distortion abolishes melody. Speed replaces rhythm. And simple nihilism (a hatred of everything) defeats the much richer emotional spectrum that rock inherits from blues, soul, and country.

The Clash, by contrast, wanted to fuse punk with the music of what Paul Gilroy calls “he Black Atlantic” -- and not just reggae, though the West Indian influence would remain the most evident from album to album. You could spend quite a while contemplating the cultural implications of the following terse exchange from an interview:

Journalist: If you had to point to your major source of inspiration, who would it be?

Strummer: Bo Diddley.

Journalist: Anybody else?

Strummer: Bo Diddley.

And at a time when hip-hop was so old school that nobody called it “ld school,” Strummer rapped “The Magnificent Seven,” a memorable cut about the frustrations of the working day that got much radio play in Harlem in 1981. A footnote for historians: this may be the first rap song to make a joke about certain prominent German revolutionaries:

Carlo Marx and Friedrich Engels
Standing in the checkout at the 7-11
Marx was skint [broke], but he had sense
Engels lent him the necessary pence. . . .

The Quality of Respect

In time, the band collapsed from the usual strains of touring, ego, drug use, and corporate pressure. (In a mistake that would haunt them for years, the band signed a contract with CBS that was like quicksand: the harder they struggled to get free, the deeper they sank into its maw.)

After recording some soundtracks and other odd musical jobs, Strummer retired from public life for a number of years before returning with a new band in the late 1990s, the Mescaleros -- not just a retread of old sounds, but a rich blend of more kinds of musical influence than you can pick out, even after several listenings.

The lyrics aren't as militant as his earlier work; he sounded more wistful and romantic than in his Clash days. But I suspect there may be a politics to those Latin horns, their tones perhaps recalling the friends who escaped from Chile.

Hearing his voice and guitar for the first time, more than two decades ago, I felt the sense of discovery that comes from encountering something new<197>for one thing, radical anger, something as raw as the day's headlines. That's one thing that makes for a hero: finding someone who can express what you feel but could never speak.

But anger alone doesn't make for art (unless bumper stickers are art). Musing over Strummer's words and music the past few weeks, I'm struck by something you don't ordinarily associate with revolutionaries, much less punk rockers.

It is the quality of respect. A matter of seeing the present moment as just one part of revolutionary-democratic traditions that go back quite some ways. That comes through especially in a song from “London Calling” about the Spanish revolution:

The hillsides ring with “free the people”
Or can I hear the echoes from the days of `39?
With trenches full of poets, the ragged army
Fixing bayonets to fight the other line.
Spanish bombs rock the province
I'm hearing music from another time....

And as he sings -- words echoing Frederico Lorca, guitar riffs courtesy of Bo Diddley -- Joe Strummer is part of that music.

ATC 103, March-April 2003