When I spoke with Joe Strummer in November, his ears were ringing. He and his band the Mescaleros had just finished rehearsing for a U.K. tour, and he hadn't even spoken with his former Clash bandmates -- Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Nicky "Topper" Headon -- about their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That level of recognition was not common for the Clash during the five to ten years (depending on whether you count the 1985 Jones-and-Headon-less Cut the Crap album) they were a band. Although their combination of raw punk power, world beats and politically charged lyrics produced one of punk rock's greatest records, 1977's The Clash, and one of rock & roll's greatest record's, 1979's London Calling, but the Clash didn't break in the U.S. the way the Police or AC/DC did. They would have to wait for the emergence of Green Day, Rancid, the Offspring and Blink-182 a decade later to see how much they mattered to the U.S.A.
A week after this interview, Strummer and Jones, who was kicked out of the Clash in 1983, performed three Clash songs, "Bankrobber," "White Riot" and "London's Burning," together in London -- the first time they had played onstage together in nineteen years. A month later, Strummer died suddenly from a congenital heart condition, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and millions of disciples.
On Grammy night, four of them -- Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steve Van Zandt -- barked out "London Calling" to the largest audience that has ever seen it performed. Joe's ears must have been ringing.
What was the first rock & roll song that blew you away?
"Not Fade Away" by the Stones. We were stuck up in school, and there was no way of getting out to get it, but I do remember the radio delivering it. The song moved like a steam train, and that was the moment when I went rock & roll forever, the moment I said, "Yeah . . . wow!"
How did you react when you were told that the Clash, like the Stones, were going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
When I heard the news, I put my fist up and said, "Like Babe Ruth!" I just didn't know what to say. You only put it together later when you start to think, "There is that old beat-up guitar I started out on propped up in the corner . . ." And then it hits you: "Wow, I'm in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!"
Will the Clash reform for the ceremony?
I'm sure I'd do it, and I'm sure Topper [drummer Headon] would do it, but it's only fair and polite to inquire of the others.
Looking back, what was it like to be onstage with the Clash?
Do you know those shots from above a rocket gantry, especially those Sixties, early-color shots of Cape Kennedy or Cape Canaveral? There's that moment after they count down, 'Three, two, one . . .' when clouds of smoke billow from the rocket. And then it begins to thrust and burn a hole in the atmosphere. That would be the feeling of a Clash show. And it would seem about that length of time too.
Because of that combustibility, were the Clash destined to burn out quickly?
Yeah, I think maybe that's part and parcel. Also, when you think about groups like the Chili Peppers, they were boyhood friends, but we met when we were already grown up in London town. Some groups might last longer if they played basketball together when they were eight. We met, and then we started the Clash immediately. We didn't take two seconds to say, "Hey, nice trousers, man."
Why did the Clash break up?
I think everybody wanted to take over. Everything's fine as long as you are struggling to some goal, but as soon as you have a Top Ten hit in America . . . We also had a lot of fatigue. Maybe we said all we needed to say in a five-year blast. We put out sixteen sides of vinyl in five years. Maybe we could have strung that out over twenty years, and we'd be on the fifth side of Sandinista! right now.
How do you all get along these days?
Well, the last time all four of us were together was a couple years ago to accept the Ivor Novello songwriting award over here, and it was strangely enjoyable. You sort of grow up and stop grousing. You bury the hatchet, or you just forget what the hatchet was.
You actually all came together for some of the anthology and reissue releases too, right?
Yeah, yeah. We had to put that black oblong box set [1991's Clash on Broadway] together, and there was much discussion and listening. Mick and Paul really got together over the live record [1999's Live: From Here to Eternity]. They must have spent over a month in the control room without coming to fisticuffs.
If I had never heard of the Clash, how would you sum up the band for me?
I'd say, "Look, mate, we are the band that invented everything, so get on with it!" No, really, that was a joke. I'm a modest man. I would say, "Well it was a real roller coaster ride, over five years of shows and records." I'd tell you that the sheer variety and excellence of the whole thing was well worth a dip into, without beating on my drums, or trumpet or whatever it's called.
And if you had to play one song to demonstrate the Clash's sound?
I'd play "If Music Could Talk," which is on Side Four on Sandinista!, but I always really liked "Rock the Casbah" -- that would be my number one fave.
Do you have any vivid memories of writing a particular Clash song?
I remember writing "London's Burning" in the top room of a squat. I was crouched over an unplugged Telecaster whispering "London's burning!" so as not to disturb a sleeping person. I can remember writing "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" in a flat in Canonbury, all day and all night. Just bashing in a typewriter in a kitchen with a horrible fluorescent light.
Assuming everyone is game, how would it feel to get up there and play those songs for the first time in a long time?
They're good songs to play, fun songs to play. They were always sort of blunt and to the point. But it ain't like a machine, where you can just start it up and it goes. We would have to put some spirit into the performance.
What song would best fit the night?
I'd say "White Riot." It's a little toe-tapping little number. It's not too long, and brevity is the soul of wit.
[Expanded From Story in Issue 914 — January 23, 2003]