Joe Strummer, former singer, guitarist and songwriter for legendary punk rockers the Clash, died Sunday at his home in Somerset, England of an apparent heart attack; he was fifty. An autopsy is pending.
The son of a British diplomat, Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, and as a boy he lived in Mexico City, Cypress and Cairo, in addition to England. His rock & roll conversion came behind boarding school walls, courtesy of the Rolling Stones’ version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” “I remember walking into some horrible room in some horrible school and hearing it blasting out of a huge, wooden radio,” he told Rolling Stone last month. “The thing moved like a steam train, and that was the moment where I said, ‘Yeah . . . wow!’ “
He quit school in his teens, began busking in London Underground stations — where he picked up the nickname “Joe Strummer” — and formed the pub-rock band the 101ers. He then had another “yeah . . . wow” moment in 1976, when the Sex Pistols opened for the 101ers. Strummer immediately quit his band and teamed up with fellow punk-minded musicians Mick Jones (lead guitar, vocals), Paul Simonon (bass) and Terry Chimes (drums), to form the Clash, named for what they perceived to be the most common word in newspaper headlines. (Crimes would be replaced by Nicky “Topper” Headon later that year).
During their five years together, the Clash blended punk, reggae and world-beat rhythms with lyrics championing racial unity and combating political oppression and became widely known as “the only band that matters.” Their five proper albums — including the 1977 self-titled debut and the 1980 epic double album London Calling, both named to Rolling Stone‘s list of 200 “Essential Recordings” — stand as punk rock’s most impressive catalog.
Although their chart success in the U.K. never translated to the U.S., the Clash did break the American Top Twenty in 1982 with the song “Rock the Casbah.” That fall they toured the U.S. as the Who’s opening act and played to their largest-ever audiences. The Clash’s catchy three-chord bursts, political intensity and, even, Strummer’s mohawk hairstyle would reach the suburbs of America to inspire future punk rockers like Green Day and Rancid.
Strummer likened a Clash performance to a rocket launch: “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 whole in the atmosphere — that would be the feeling of a Clash show. And it would seem about that length of time too.”
Unfortunately, just as they were ready to explode, the Clash imploded. Headon was kicked out because of his heroin use in 1982, and the following year Strummer and Simonon kicked Jones out because of creative differences. Strummer and Simonon then released the final Clash record, the much-maligned, Cut the Crap, in 1985.
Strummer made the leap to the big screen, acting in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987) and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989). He released his debut solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989, and produced the Pogues’ 1990 album, Hell’s Ditch. When the band’s singer Shane McGowan fell ill, Strummer filled in as the Pogues’ frontman on their subsequent tour.
In 1998, Strummer formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, a band that would further explore his taste for exotic, international rhythms. They released two albums, 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and 2001’s Global a Go-Go, and, after their November tour of the British Isles, had just begun recording their third. Strummer also recently co-wrote the song “48864” with Bono and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, which he would have performed at the Nelson Mandela SOS Concert on February 2nd. The concert is scheduled to take place on the site of the maximum-security prison on Robben Island, South Africa, where Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years.
Last month, the Clash were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 2003 — their first year of eligibility — and Strummer expressed a desire to regroup the band for the March 10th induction ceremony in New York. Then, during the Mescaleros’ November 15th show at London’s Acton Town Hall, Jones took the stage with Strummer for the first time in nearly twenty years to perform three Clash songs.
“You sort of grow up and stop grousing,” Strummer said of his relationship with his former band mates. “You bury the hatchet . . . or you just sort of forget what the hatchet was.”
Joe Strummer is survived by his wife, Lucinda, his two teenage daughters and his stepdaughter.