Defining voice of
the punk years
by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Financial Times 24.12.02
A diplomat's son and ex-public schoolboy who made some
of the most thrillingly insurrectionary music in the
history of pop music, no one better epitomnsed punk's
mix of artifice, opportunity and anger than the Clash's
singer Joe Strummer, who died on Sunday, aged 50, at
his home in Somerset. A less nihilistic counterpoint
to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, he led punk's political
wing and will be remembered not only as the defining
voice of a generation but also as a leading member of
one of the best British bands ever.
Strummer, real name John Meilor, was born in Ankara,
Turkey in 1952 where his father was a diplomat. His
childhood was peripatetic, with the family living briefly
in countries such as Mexico, Cyprus, Iran and West Germany.
At the age of eight he joined his elder brother at a
boarding school in England, where he developed a keen
interest in art and music.
Hoping to become a cartoonist, he enrolled at an art
college in London on leaving school but was soon expelled.
He dropped out and became a busking musician, changing
his name first to Woody Mellor, in honour of folk, singer
Woody Gutbrie, before choosing Joe Strummer, in honour
of the ukulele he strummed at various Underground stations.
Living in squats in west London and drifitng between
busking and odd jobs - he was fired as a cleaner by
the English National Opera for practising guitar in
the orchestra pit - he joined his first group, the 101'ers,
in 1974, playing a traditional form of pub rock whose
limitations Strummer found increasingly irritating.
His epiphany came when the newly formed Sex Pistols
supported the 101'ers in the spring of 1976. "The
difference was, we played 'Route 66' to the drunks at
the bar, going 'Please like us,"' he told Jon Savage,
author of punk history England's Dreaming. But here
was this quartet who were standing there going, 'We
don't give a toss what you think, you pricks, this is
what we like to play and this is the way we're gonna
Fired up by the Pistols' attitude and their scorching,
abrasive music, Strummer formed The Clash with Mick
Jones, a graduate of fledgling punk band London SS.
The songs they wrote together, such as "White Riot"
and "I'm so Bored with the USA" were fast,
caustic and politically engaged, the lyrics conjuring
a west London dystopia of race riots, mass unemployment,
police brutality and US imperialism. But there was a
suspicion of radical chic too, an example being Strummer's
endorsement of terrorist group Baader Meinhof.
A quartet, The Clash's live performances were legendarily
ferocious, while Strummer's interest in reggae gave
their music an extra dimension. More adventurous than
any other punk band, their songs grew increasingly complex,
leading to small-minded accusations of their betraying
punk's stripped-down ethos on their masterpiece, the
1979 album London Calling. They continued into the 1980s
with the richly varied if overlong Sandinista!,
before running out of steam mid-decade.
Strummer's post-Clash career never carried him back
to such heights: he had starring roles in small films,
made a few soundtrack albums and had a stint with The
Pogues. Last year he released a well-received album
with the Mescaleros, suggesting that the creative fires
weren't yet diminished and making his sudden death seem
all the more untimely. He is survived by his wife, two
daughters and a step-daughter.