You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Roots, rock, rebel
Joe Strummer

By Nicole Colson | January 3, 2003 | Page 9

JOE STRUMMER, lead singer of legendary punk band The Clash, died of a heart attack on December 22 at the age of 50. The Clash, formed in 1976, earned the title "the only band that matters," from Rolling Stone magazine.

With a voice full of gravel and fury, and playing his guitar so frantically that he had to tape his wrist so it wouldn't be cut on his guitar strings, Strummer became a driving force behind the band's musical and political development.

Strummer's lyrics blended well with guitarist Mick Jones' arrangements, and he steered the band toward a more overtly political message--as when he convinced Jones to change the song "I'm So Bored With You" (about Jones' girlfriend) to "I'm So Bored With the USA," a scorching rant against U.S. imperialism and arrogance.

"Joe was the political engine of the band," socialist punk rocker Billy Bragg told the British Guardian newspaper, "and without Joe there's no political Clash, and without The Clash the whole political edge of punk would have been severely dulled."

At its best, Strummer's political edge is showcased in songs like "White Riot," a celebration of a Black riot against police brutality, and "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais," about music taking a political stand. "We were trying to grope in a socialist way towards some future where the world might be less of a miserable place than it is," Joe commented in the 1999 documentary Westway to the World.

He returned to recording in 1999 with his new band, the Mescaleros. Though less overtly political, both Mescaleros albums are well-crafted musically and contain left-wing politics--in songs such as "Shaktar Donesk" a plea for immigrant rights. Fittingly, one of Strummer's last performances came when he reunited with Jones in November 2002 at a benefit for British firefighters preparing to strike.

Strummer's influence can be felt in so many bands that followed, including the Dead Kennedys, Rancid, Anti-Flag and the Manic Street Preachers. In 1976, talking about the need for a left-wing voice in punk, Strummer told the fanzine Sniffin' Glue: "Look, the situation is far too serious for enjoyment, man. Maybe when we're 55 we can play tubas in the sun. That's alright then to enjoy yourselves…but now?"

Strummer never got the chance to play a "tuba in the sun"--but somehow, I don't think he would've wanted to.

Home page | Back to the top