Joe Strummer, frontman for the groundbreaking punk band the Clash, died at his farmhouse in southern England on December 22nd. He was fifty. According to Trisha Simonon, the wife of Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the cause of death was a defective artery near his heart. “The coroner says it’s something he would have been born with,” she told Rolling Stone. “This could have happened at any point in his life. He walked his dog, sat on his sofa and that was that.”
It was an unlikely end for an artist who thrived on the energy of insurrection and worked throughout his life to smash musical and cultural boundaries. The Clash, which he helped form in 1976 with Simonon, guitarist Mick Jones and drummer Terry Chimes, channeled England’s working-class rage into a roaring, purifying noise. The band embraced hip-hop in the early Eighties, when most of the rock world was either ignorant or contemptuous of it, and reggae was always a potent element in the group’s sound.
“The Clash was the greatest rock band,” Bono told British reporters after Strummer’s death. “They wrote the rule book for U2.” Says folk-rock provocateur Billy Bragg, “The Clash brought something to punk beyond a sneer and a pair of bondage trousers. They brought a radical agenda. And that agenda was brought by Joe Strummer.” The original members of the Clash — along with Topper Headon, who replaced Chimes — are set to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March.
Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in Turkey on August 21st, 1952, the son of an English diplomat. He lived in Mexico, West Germany and Egypt during his childhood, attended an English boarding school and later enrolled in art school in London. But he dropped out and earned his stage name performing folk songs with an acoustic guitar on the street. He was fronting a pub band called the 1o1ers when he met Jones, who had already hooked up with Simonon. “I was just lookin’ to meet my match,” Strummer recalled. “Just lookin’ to stir things up.”
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However adventurous the Clash’s music was on albums such as London Calling (which Rolling Stone named the Best Album of the Eighties) and Sandinista!, the core of their sound was a fierce guitar attack and Strummer’s guttural, declamatory vocals. Songs such as “White Riot,” “London’s Burning” and “Garageland” electrified the English punk scene and made a powerful impact in the U.S., in no small part due to the group’s tumultuous stage shows. “They were ferocious live,” says Kosmo Vinyl, who comanaged the band for many years. “Joe put out like a soul singer — it was like an exorcism up there.” Ultimately, the group had difficulty squaring its political beliefs with its commercial ambitions. Pressures from its record label, the media and punk purists didn’t help.
Still, dramatizing the strain of such contradictions seemed at the heart of what the band was about. As Bragg says, “That’s why they were called the Clash.”
“The trouble with this interview is that you’re interviewing me as though I’m a success, and I feel I’m a failure,” Strummer said in 1982. “I only see the disappointments. We’re angry because everything we do turns to ash.”
Ironically, Combat Rock, the 1982 album that brought the Clash its biggest success with songs including “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” essentially broke the band up. Around the time of its release, Strummer disappeared for a month just as the group was about to go on tour. He eventually turned up in Paris, saying, “I felt that freedom, you know, like in a Hank Williams song.” Upon Strummer’s return, Headon was kicked out of the band for using heroin. Strummer and Simonon gave Jones the boot a year later. The Clash soldiered on with new members and put out an album called Cut the Crap in 1985. They split for good that same year.
Four years later, Strummer made a solo album, Earthquake Weather, that largely went unnoticed. He formed a band called Latino Rockabilly War, wrote music for and appeared in a number of films, hosted a radio show for the BBC World Service and briefly replaced Shane MacGowan as lead singer of the Pogues. His 1999 release of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style with his band the Mescaleros provided a joyful, eccentric new direction for him. Global a Go-Go, Strummer’s most recent album with the Mescaleros, was released in 2001.
Though Strummer never particularly enjoyed talking about the Clash — “Who cares about the past?” he said in 2001 — the band has undergone something of a recent revival, and the group’s catalog was remastered and reissued in 2000. Strummer and Jones even played Clash songs at a November 15th benefit for striking firefighters in London — their first time playing together since the breakup. There was talk of a reunion for the Hall of Fame induction.
“It’s not just going to be people of my generation thinking of Joe,” says Bragg, “but anybody who’s ever picked up a guitar with the urge to change the world. We never go away. But something has gone now. A shining light has been snuffed out.”
Strummer is survived by his wife, Lucinda, two daughters and a stepdaughter.
This is a story from the January 23rd, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.