Clash leader Strummer dies at 50

December 24, 2002


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 old.

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 Jones.

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 group.

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 1986.

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 New."

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 stepdaughter.