Matt Cooper appreciates the music and times of the lead singer of the Clash
White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution
From the Clash's "(White man) in Hammersmith Palais" (1977)
When Joe Strummer, one time front man of the Clash, died at the age of 50 on 22 December, it was more than a pioneering musician who died. Strummer linked rebel music with the politics of resistance in a way that was neither pretentious nor insincere.
That punk should erupt in 1976 when Britain was in the throes of the greatest political crisis and class struggle for 50 years was no coincidence. It was music built on frustration and anger, but often undirected, nihilism without hope. It often had nothing to do but sneer and spit. The Sex Pistols, with whom the Clash shared the ill-fated Anarchy in the UK tour in 1976, typified this attitude. With the exception of Johnny Rotten/Lydon, they were a bunch of no-hopers trashing out recycled rock chords. And while punk had plenty of lefties (the Gang of Four), art-school rebels (Wire), the occasional group who could turn a catchy chorus (the Buzzcocks) and even some who looked beyond the white rock tradition (the wonderfully trashy Slits), no-one was as refreshing or as innovative as The Clash.
The Clash was not just Strummer's band. While Strummer was the front man, guitarist and vocalist Mick Jones played as much of a role in shaping the sound of the band. What Strummer brought was energy, anger and a passion that was never, or never seemed to be, a pose.
While The Clash were the greatest of rock bands, not least because of Strummer's passion, their musical canvas was broader. Both Strummer and Jones loved reggae. Not just the music of crossover superstar Bob Marley, but also the dub, toasters and roots reggae of Jamaica, and increasingly Britain. What gave the early 1977 Clash singles their bite was an edginess, a sense of harmony and rhythm that owed as much to reggae as rock.
For their third single, "Complete Control", the Clash brought in veteran reggae producer Lee Perry. When the results were not as Jamaican as they wished, Perry produced two further singles, "Clash City Rockers" and "(White man) in Hammersmith Palais", records that moved further away from the white-noise and warmed over pop that punk was descending into. It was this sound that was part of the appeal of the Clash's first album.
What made this music all so special was that the Clash had so completely absorbed reggae's notion of rebel music applied to the struggles of urban existence. It was Strummer who, as the increasingly charismatic front man, carried this. He never hectored, he never lectured, he just sang about the world as he saw it. And that was a world of injustice.
That is why the Clash's 1978 second album, Give 'em enough rope was so disappointing. It had too many rock cliches; its lyrical tone was rather preachy.
Salvation from rock insipidity came from an unexpected source for the man who had written "I'm so bored with the USA" on the Clash's first album - American music. The 1979 single "I fought the law" was an old standard written by Sonny Curtis, a white American country rock and roller, a member of Buddy Holly's Crickets who was more at home with bluegrass.
In mid-1979, and with punk already dead, the Clash recorded their masterpiece, London Calling which was, unusually for its time, a double album. Its four eclectic sides didn't contain a single bum track. The album drew on American rhythm and blues, rockabilly, country, soul and gospel and funk as well as Caribbean reggae and calypso. The album widened many other musicians' horizons, and lyrically it was a return to form. With the tour the Clash performed on stage with reggae star Mikey Dread, a combination that produced the stupendous single "Bankrobber". This was Strummers' most productive period.
After extensive touring the Clash returned to the studio at the end of 1980 and produced a triple album, Sandinista! For many its two hours plus was too long, the music too eclectic. It does include a few tracks that should never have made it on. But again, it showed a band that was not willing to recognise the division between musical genres or black and white music. It was still rebel music. Strummer's vocals were still open, honest, reflective but infused with anger at injustice and hope of something better.
The Clash had never met with great commercial success. Although their singles charted, only three made it into the top 20 and none top ten. Their last album, Combat Rock (1982) showed the band straining to be popular and true to themselves, but with an eye on the American rock market. They took the unwise decision to tour US stadiums supporting rock dinosaurs The Who. The tensions came to a head with Strummer sacking Mick Jones - a decision that he was later to admit with characteristic honesty was his gravest and most egocentric mistake. The Strummer-only Clash staggered on, but as a parody of their former selves.
It seemed that Joe Strummer had made his contribution to music. A new band of 1988, Latino Rockabilly Rebel, came and went. He made a couple of film appearances and a solo album that disappeared without trace. Then in 1999 Strummer emerged with another new band, The Mescaleros, and two albums followed. While Strummer seemed less angry and more contemplative, they were good albums. His musical palette was even wider, drawing what has become known as world music, an eclectic mix that The Clash did more than a little to awaken people too. Best of all, this most charismatic and rebellious of performers returned to live performance. One of his last shows was a benefit for firefighters in his old stamping ground, West London, last November. And for the first time since 1982 he was joined on stage by Mick Jones.
I learnt three things from Joe Strummer. The first: it is not wrong to care, nor is it wrong to fight against injustice throughout the world. The second: good music is not bounded by our limited horizons. The third: these first two things are not unrelated.
We built buildings of the new city
out of the broken down people,
and we built the new languages
out of courtesy and velocity
Joe Strummer, At the border, 2001.