Joe Strummer, once the lead singer and guitarist for The Only Band That Matters, died from a heart attack today in 2002. He was born John Mellor in Ankara, Turkey in 1952. Strummer’s father was a diplomat so the family moved quite a bit and by age nine he and his brother ended up at a boarding school in London. Strummer continued on to art school after graduation and began playing in local bands.
While singing for a rockabilly band called the 101’ers, Strummer shared a bill with a new band called the Sex Pistols. Strummer quickly realized that a massive change in music was coming and he wanted to be part of it. Strummer was contacted by the Sex Pistols manager, Bernie Rhodes, along with Mick Jones from the band London SS about starting a new band. Strummer accepted and The Clash was born.
The Clash made their debut two months after forming when they opened for the Sex Pistols on July 4, 1976. The band honed their chops with a serious practice schedule and gigging on the London punk scene. They signed with CBS Records and released their self-titled debut in 1977. The album was only available in the United States as an import and it became the highest selling import of the year. This caused CBS to re-release the album in 1979, technically after The Clash’s second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.
It was the band’s third album, 1980’s “London Calling”, that broke them through to the mainstream. It also continued The Clash’s tradition of incorporating decidedly non-punk forms of music into their sound. Reggae, rock and pop are all represented on “London Calling” and helped introduce the band to a wider audience. The Clash had acts like Bo Diddley and Sam & Dave opening for them while touring in support of the album. “London Calling” reached #27 on the album chart and sold over a million copies.
Instead of standing pat, The Clash expanded their sound again and incorporated jazz, gospel, funk and rap into their 1980 release “Sandanista!”. The triple-album was packed with Strummer’s politically charged lyrics and the title was a reference to a socialist party in Nicaragua. Triple-albums are expensive and there are two stories about how The Clash ensured that the album remained affordable to fans. One story has the band tricking the record company into thinking it was including a 12” single along with a double-album, and the other story has The Clash giving up some royalty money in exchange for a lower price.
In 1982, “Combat Rock” became the band’s most popular album, reaching #7 and remaining on the chart for over a year. The album spawned the hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go” as well as The Clash’s biggest single, “Rock the Casbah”, which was the band’s only Top 10 single in the U.S. The band was at the peak of their success, opening for The Who and playing with Van Halen and David Bowie in 1983.
The Clash was coming apart at the seams and soon would lose guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones along with drummer Topper Headon. Strummer and the decimated Clash released their final album, “Cut the Crap”, in 1985 and they broke up shortly thereafter. Strummer carried on by working on movie soundtracks, including the biopic on the Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious “Sid and Nancy”, and releasing solo material. He also found time to act in movies and he contributed to Mick Taylor’s new band, Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer founded The Mescaleros in 1999 and was playing with them until his death three years later.
Strummer and The Clash’s impact is hard to calculate but it is immense. They had a profound influence on classic and modern punk as well as garage rock, grunge, pop and rock music in general. A diverse array of bands drew inspiration from The Clash, including politically minded bands like U2 and apolitical party bands like Sublime. Strummer and The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
“White Riot” off the album “The Clash” 1977:
“Tommy Gun” off the album “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” 1978:
“Bankrobber” single 1978:
“Death or Glory” off the album “London Calling” 1979:
“The Magnificent Seven” off the album “Sandanista!” 1980, live on the Tom Snyder Show 1981:
“Straight to Hell” off the album “Combat Rock” 1982: