December 24, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
The leader of "the only rock 'n' roll band that mattered"--or at least
one of the most important groups of the punk movement of the '70s--is dead.
Joe Strummer, a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter with the Clash, died
in his sleep Sunday at his home in Broomfield, Somerset, England, the victim
of an apparent heart attack, his record company reported. He was 50 years
Together with fellow Englishmen the Sex Pistols and New Yorkers the
Ramones, the Clash led the charge in reinvigorating rock in the mid-'70s by
returning to faster, louder and more political sounds during a time of
bloated rock-star excesses and wimpy singer-songwriters. In doing so, the
quartet paved the way for a new generation of bands during the indie-rock
'80s and the alternative explosion of the '90s.
The Ramones' lead singer, Joey, died of lymphoma in 2001, and their
bassist, Dee Dee, died from drug and alcohol abuse earlier this year. Both
were also 50.
Though he effected working-class roots, Mr. Strummer was born John Graham
Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, the son of a British diplomat. He spent most of
his childhood in privileged boarding schools, and there he developed a love
of music, especially American rockabilly and soul. He was performing in a
pub-rock band called the 101'ers in 1976 when the Sex Pistols turned the
London rock scene on its ear, and he quickly embraced the passion of punk in
a new group formed with fellow guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Mick
Though it stands as one of the defining albums of the punk era (and one
of the best rock debuts ever made), the Clash's first self-titled disc
wasn't even released in America until more than a year after it appeared in
England. The band's label believed U.S. audiences just weren't ready for
abrasive, intelligent and politically challenging amped-up garage-rock such
as "White Riot," "Career Opportunities" and "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A."
Despite the title of the latter, Mr. Strummer loved American pop culture,
and the band was ultimately the most successful of any of the English punk
groups on these shores. Its second album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," was
recorded in New York, and its brilliant third effort, "London Calling," was,
in the style of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.," a double-album love
letter to American sounds, including nods to Motown, Stax/Volt, Johnny Cash,
Elvis Presley and Hank Williams.
The late rock critic Lester Bangs was one of the band's biggest
supporters, and he was instrumental in championing its cause in the States.
He traveled with Mr. Strummer, Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer
Topper Headon for two weeks in 1977 and wrote the definitive piece on the
In Bangs' view, the Clash had gone further than any other punk band
"towards the realization of all the hopes we ever had about rock 'n' roll as
utopian dream. Because if rock 'n' roll is truly the democratic art form,
then democracy has got to begin at home; that is, the everlasting and
totally disgusting walls between artists and audience must come down,
elitism must perish, the 'stars' have got to be humanized, demythologized
and the audience has got to be treated with more respect."
Ultimately, though, Bangs was disillusioned by the group, which turned
out to embrace the same star-making machinery that carried many less
idealistic bands to the top of the charts. Following "Sandinista!," its
wide-ranging, stylistically diverse 1980 triple album, the quality of the
Clash's output dipped dramatically as it tried to tailor its sound for
American radio and MTV with 1981's "Combat Rock" (yielding the dumbed-down
but still political hit, "Rock the Casbah").
In the end, Mr. Strummer seemed to acknowledge the compromises--the
Clash's final album was titled "Cut the Crap"--and he disbanded the group in
Mr. Strummer was said to have been the primary holdout against a
lucrative Clash reunion tour, though he did acquiesce in allowing the
incendiary single "London Calling" to be used in a recent Jaguar commercial.
("Should I Stay or Should I Go?" also appeared in a Levi's commercial.)
Ruggedly handsome (though cursed with notoriously bad teeth), Mr.
Strummer tried his hand at acting, starring in Alex Cox's 1987 film
"Straight to Hell" and making a cameo appearance as a street thug in Martin
Scorsese's "The King of Comedy." Eventually, though, he returned to music
with a new band called the Mescaleros.
Mixing Caribbean, South American, African, Arabic and Celtic rhythms and
tonalities, the Mescaleros inspired a passion in Mr. Strummer that hadn't
been heard since "Sandinista!," and it released two strong albums on the
American indie label Epitaph, 1999's "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style" and last
year's "Global A Go-Go."
Performing with the group at Metro in 1999, Mr. Strummer railed against
nostalgia and living in the past. "I've got no time for Luddites. . . .
You've got to live in this world," he sang in his distinctive rasp on "Diggin'
The band was gearing up to record a third album at the time of Mr.
Strummer's death, Epitaph said, and the Clash was due to be inducted into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March.
"The Clash was the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2,"
Bono, the lead singer of that band, said Monday.
Added Bob Geldof of Clash contemporaries the Boomtown Rats: "They were
very important musically, but as a person, he was a very nice man."
"Within the Clash, Joe was the political engine of the band," said
political singer-songwriter and Clash fan Billy Bragg. "Without Joe, there's
no political Clash, and without the Clash, the whole political edge of punk
would have been severely dulled."
Mr. Strummer is survived by his wife, Lucy, two daughters and a