Before Bono became rock's premier human rights activist, there was Joe Strummer, who brought forceful protest songs back to popular music in the late 1970s as rhythm guitarist and front man of the Clash. Wearing t-shirts scrawled with the names of extreme-left organizations and railing in his grainy British brogue against racism and other social ills in songs like "White Riot" and "London's Burning," Strummer fronted what for a few years was the great band in rock, a group who turned out classic albums like 1979's London Calling while continually broadening their sound to include funk, reggae, dub and more. In later years as a solo artist, Strummer's anarchy turned to a more conventional left-wing ideology and his music softened slightly, but he never left his political leanings behind. One of his last recordings before his death in 2002 was a duet with Johnny Cash on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."
Born John Graham Mellor on August 21, 1952, in Ankara, Turkey, the son of a diplomat, his family lived in various cities around the globe including Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn, before settling back in London during his grade-school years when he discovered rock & roll – Little Richard and the Beach Boys. His biggest hero was Woody Guthrie, and soon Mellor even nicknamed himself Woody. He attended a couple of art schools in his early adulthood and thought of becoming a cartoonist, but eventually dropped out and by 1974 was busking on the streets. The following year he married South African Pamela Moolman for her to gain British citizenship; with the money he received, he bought a Fender Telecaster guitar. Around that time he formed a band with some friends who lived in the same squat with him; they called themselves the 101'ers for their street address. Woody Mellor changed his stage name to Joe Strummer (because he strummed rhythm guitar), and the 101'ers, playing Stones and Chuck Berry covers along with early Strummer such as "Keys to Your Heart," began performing at local pubs.
When a new group called the Sex Pistols opened for the 101'ers in 1976, Strummer liked them and wanted to join the band. Instead, he formed the Clash (see entry), which became the socially conscious, thinking man's version of the Pistols. Around those two bands a scene developed, becoming the U.K.'s first-wave punk movement. Strummer got involved with organizations including the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, and his lyrics became increasingly political. In 1978, he began a relationship with seventeen-year-old Gaby Salter that would last fourteen years and produce two children, Jazz and Lola. Meanwhile, the six albums the Clash released between 1978 and 1985 would make a big impact on Eighties rock.
When the band broke up in 1986, guitarist Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite as a vehicle for his more dance-oriented songs, and Strummer began working in film. He penned songs for the Alex Cox biopic Sid and Nancy, about notorious Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, and scored Cox's 1987 film Walker with a mix of traditional Latin music and atmospheric compositions reminiscent of the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone than the whiplash punk of the Clash. Strummer also had an acting role in Walker and a larger part in the filmmaker's critically panned farce Straight to Hell (1987) alongside Elvis Costello, indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and a young Courtney Love. He toured briefly as a temporary guitarist with the Pogues, but returned to acting, starring in Jarmusch's 1989 film Mystery Train. That year Strummer released his first proper solo album, Earthquake Weather, which sold poorly and received lukewarm reviews; he also produced the Pogues' 1990 album Hell's Ditch. Sony dropped Strummer and in 1991 he re-joined the Pogues for another temporary run, this time as a replacement for singer Shane MacGowan. From then until the late 1990s, Strummer collaborated with a succession of bands including the Dirty Pictures, the Levelers and Black Grape, and worked on dub remixes of old Clash material with reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry. In 1993 Strummer ended his longtime relationship with Salter and began dating Lucinda Tait, whom he married in 1995.
In the late Nineties Strummer returned to writing and recording with his Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, mixing acoustic folk, beats-heavy dance music and multi-cultural musical collisions on the albums Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (1999), on Mercury, and Global a Go-Go (2001), on the indie label Hellcat; neither sold well or received more than mixed reviews, although the band's tours generated excitement among Clash fans and younger punks. Strummer and Jones reunited onstage during a 2002 Mescaleros show for the first time since their Clash days to perform old songs; that same year Strummer and Bono co-wrote "46664" (named for Nelson Mandela's prison number) for an African AIDS benefit. On December 22, 2002, Strummer, who unknowingly had a congenital heart defect, died suddenly at his home in England. The following year saw the release of his final album with the Mescaleros, Streetcore; which featured much stronger songs that signaled a return for Strummer had he lived, the album was well received by critics and sold more copies than either previous disc. Filmmaker and video director Julian Temple's acclaimed documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.