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.