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‘Something left for them’: the politics of Joe Strummer

Joe Strummer died at age fifty in 2002, just as he was on his way  to re-establishing himself as a major radical voice in rock’n’roll. The vehicle for his return was his band the Mescaleros, formed after his wilderness years following the collapse of The Clash in 1985.

While Strummer is now frozen in time for the rest of time, his legacy has endured, not least with the establishment of the Strummerville new music foundation in 2003 and celebrations like last year’s Strummer of Love festival.

It is a mark of the man that he has left a potent, vibrant legacy. This was apparent well before his untimely death (not from the excesses of rock’n’roll but a congenital heart defect). Because peers and contemporaries such as Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen have yet to depart this mortal coil, it is not yet possible to fully compare Strummer with them, yet we can still begin to understand why he made such a political and cultural impact.

His influence comes down to a heady cocktail of four basic components – his style (or aesthetic), his mouth, his politics and his worldliness. Put together, they made him a voice for a voiceless generation and a spokesman for the discontented.

Strummer’s style was serious without being macho, ostentatious or affected. He wore black more often than not, in the vein of Johnny Cash singing ‘I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town’. The military-type fatigues gave a sense of fighting a political war. Especially in his Clash days, he wore his politics not so much on his sleeves as on his chest, with T-shirts and stencilled shirts bearing messages and slogans.

Strummer had been the frontman in a band before The Clash. Being a bit older than his contemporaries, he possessed something of an edge. Not only was he a skilled wordsmith (the the main lyricist of The Clash, Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros) who wrote implicitly and explicitly political songs, he regularly harangued and exhorted his audience at gigs and through the media.

At one Clash gig at the US festival in California in 1983, for instance, he opened: ‘Here we are in the capital of the decadent US of A. This here set of music is now dedicated to making sure that those people in the crowd that have children, there is something left for them later on in the centuries’.

There were other such moments.

At a gig in Glasgow in 1984 just before the beginning of the yearlong miners’ strike, he proclaimed ‘become activist … get rid of Thatcher before she gets rid of us’. At his penultimate show (for striking firefighters), he told their union leader he needed to get the nurses out in order to win the strike.

The strike ended up being a glorious defeat.

In other words, Strummer was quintessentially mouthy and mouthy for a political purpose. He covered both cod reggae and the rise of the Nazis in ‘White man in Hammersmith Palais’ (1978), the imperialism of America, Russia and China in ‘Washington Bullets’ (1980), the class system in ‘Know your rights’ (1982) and human waste of unemployment in ‘North and South’ (1985), among other issues.

It would be too much of a stretch to say Strummer was a socialist. His politics embraced a radical form of humanism, compassion and solidarity. Sometimes this sat uneasily with his Englishness. But more often than not his worldly, cosmopolitan nature came to the fore.

For instance, in ‘Shaktar Donetsk’ (2001), he movingly set out the desperate plight of an East European economic migrant coming to Britain. Whether singing or speaking in anger or sorrow, Strummer was believable, and the passion with which he performed led to an intensity that added to his authenticity.

He may not have changed lives but he certainly changed the way that many looked at themselves and the society in which they lived. The aforementioned leader of the fire brigades’ union spoke of the impact it had when, as a youngster, he saw The Clash play at the 1978 Victoria Park Rock against Racism gig. Strummer was an accessible introduction to progressive politics.

Strummer’s worldliness came initially from his love of reggae and American rock’n’roll – later extended to what would subsequently become known as ‘world music’.

There’s no doubt that Strummer was of his time – he came of age at the time of the end of the 1960s and blossomed with the emergence of punk in the midst of social disintegration, resistance to Thatcherism and disillusionment with Blairism. But his concerns were enduring and perennial.

Ultimately, he was able to pack a much bigger punch than most individuals in changing the way people thought about social issues because he fused together style, politics and passion. He provides a template today for any would-be musical radical, in an age when there are too few protest singers and too few protest songs.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and author of An Agency of their Own: Sex Worker Union organising (Zero, 2012).

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  1. I honestly do not understand what these two sentences – ‘His politics embraced a radical form of humanism, compassion and solidarity. Sometimes this sat uneasily with his Englishness,’ mean. Can you please clarify? What is ‘Englishness’ in this context? I’m English, I followed the Clash all through their career, I was at the 1978 Rock Against racism gig you mention – and lots of other subsequent gigs where the Clash played. I and many others shared Joe’s politics – as you describe them – I don’t recall them sitting uneasily with anything.

  2. Fionnula – I mean the following by Englishness, for example – being proud of the British Army in the late 1980s, feeling a rush of pride when English football hooligans tore up some foreign towns and being involved with an England world cup song. This was not quite the attempt as Billy Bragg made to take the sense of Englishness away from the right/far right. Hope that gives some clarification.

    • Yeah, I’m aware of the ideas around what constitutes socialism, I’m just wondering what your evidence is. In regard to Strummer’s ‘Englishness’ I think his late 1980′s and 1990′s activities probably have a lot more to do with the state of his mental health at the time rather than any conscious politics. The years post-Clash are usually referred to as the ‘wilderness’ years as though he were Moses or something and in the Mescaleros he was reborn. My take on the various interviews I’ve seen of him post-Clash was that he was profoundly depressed and destabilised and most likely in the throes of a breakdown that went on for some time – at least a decade would be my guess. Strummer always seemed a bit evasive about this period – perhaps because he may have been sometimes suicidal – but said enough about it for me to suspect all this is true. Even toward the end of his life he was still clearly distressed by the breakup of the Clash (see the ‘Westway’ doco). The Mescaleros were a sign that he was getting better I think, but not that everything was suddenly Ok. Because it wasn’t. When someone whose identity and politics are very clear suddenly does something weird, it’s worth asking what events might be causing such a warping. Clearly partaking in a World Cup song etc etc are signs to me that he was not well, and probably for a long time. I don’t think some latent ‘Englishness’ had anything to do with it. For me that would be more an indicator that a man who spent his childhood being dragged across the globe and didn’t have any real home, and whose lyrics are obsessed with real and imaginary locations, was trying to find a base where he could stick feeling as he was so seriously psychologically bereft. The fact that he grabbed at world cup songs or whatever is sign enough for me that something was seriously wrong.

    • Thank you Gregor – that does indeed clarify – and I agree with Stephen that Strummer’s ‘Englishness’ was probably more to do with mental health issues than conscious politics. I also agree that Strummer was more anarchic than socialist – as compared with Billy Bragg for example – who was always a union/Labour man and therefore ‘socialist’ within the Marxist definition. Lorne Johnson’s comments make me reflect on that ‘personal/political debate’ that raged in the UK in the 70s and 80s. A great piece Gregor – I really liked it and it’s got me thinking. Thank you :)

  3. Stephen – the reason I would not describe Strummer as a socialist was not that he wasn’t leftwing but that he was never conscious of workers being the social agency to bring about socialism. That make sound a bit arcane but Marx did make socialism depend upon the emancipation of themselves being an act by themselves and only they could bring about a social revolution to end capitalism.

  4. “Well there’s a lot of things that should be said, (said) so we’re hammering six strings,
    Machine gun in audible voices, this is the party we came for.”

    The word ‘instead’ should be inserted somewhere there, and to see the audience at the Key Club is like witnessing a National Front rally.

  5. Cool piece, Gregor. Thanks. I met Strummer post a Mascaleros gig in 1999. He was cool, removed, vague; he complimented my Dubwiser (Dreadzone reference) t-shirt. I think people love to put Strummer up as a poster boy for socialism, guerilla tactics, revolution etc. I don’t think he saw himself this way. He was not hugely political in his actions – a rock against racism gig or two doesn’t constitute the man being a revolutionary and political dynamo. His lyrics certainly pushed the need for civil rights, personal liberty and equality, but how overtly political were they? He was never a depressed or suicidal character; he was always fully alive, pro-creative and interested in everything. He cared for everyone, much like Bob Marley. He chased women, disappeared for ages like some nomad, smoked shit, carried on a treat, was often indifferent re. his family. So, a faulty man, not a god. Whatever, he defined cool and made, with Mick Jones, some of the finest Brit music ever. I advise that anyone keen on Strummer read Chris Salewicz’s insightful, detailed bio on him. Lorne Johnson

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