Joe Strummer: The passion and the pose

By STEVE SAILER  |  Dec. 24, 2002 at 12:10 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- Joe Strummer, the lead singer and chief lyricist for The Clash, who died Sunday at age 50 in his rural home in the West of England, was a man of passion, paradoxes and poses.

From 1977 to 1982, Strummer and Clash lead guitarist Mick Jones wrote enough great songs to ultimately rank below only Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richard in the pantheon of British rock songwriting duos.

Many rock critics are eulogizing Strummer for being the embodiment of leftist working class surliness and the scourge of neocolonialism in the Third World. Yet, these were largely invented facades. The truth was more interesting.

Strummer was actually a well-bred offshoot of the British Empire. John Graham Mellor (Strummer's real name) was born in Turkey in 1952, where his father was a diplomat. His paternal grandfather had been an official with the Indian railways during the British Raj. Young John spent a cosmopolitan childhood accompanying his father on his postings around the world. He was then enrolled in an old-fashioned English boarding school, where he rose to the exalted position of prefect.

Eventually, he became a street musician, taking the literal-minded name Joe Strummer. He also developed a style of enunciation that sounded like Eliza Doolittle's dad after his teeth have been smashed in during a pub brawl. It has jokingly been said that for Strummer to replace his posh accent with the incomprehensible Cockney with which he gargled out his brilliant lyrics, he had to not brush his teeth for years.

Strummer was almost unique among top rock lyricists in his boyish disdain for love songs, which he treated as if they came infested with girl cooties. While hugely refreshing, this significantly limited The Clash's popular appeal, particularly in America, where they only enjoyed three Top 40 hits:

"Train in Vain (You Didn't Stand by Me)," "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and "Rock the Casbah." And the first two of those were boy-girl songs sung by Jones, who had more normal tastes than Strummer did in song topics.

Strummer was fascinated with subjects that engage highly intelligent 12-year-old boys: fighting injustice and tyranny ("Clampdown"), military history ("Spanish Bombs"), the end of the world ("London Calling"), and heroism ("Death or Glory," perhaps the essential Clash song). He packed his songs densely with allusions that often went over listeners' heads, but made him a favorite of male critics.

There's no doubt that Strummer's idealistically leftist lyrics were sincere, but they also served a convenient purpose in providing a worthy justification for The Clash's furiously aggressive and even militaristic music. Their sound attracted a fair number of thugs. At a 1982 Clash concert I attended in Hollywood, an entire high school football team of guys with necks thicker than their heads showed up and started shoving other fans to the floor.

The band's first album, 1977's "The Clash," was as good as punk rock ever got, but that wasn't good enough for The Clash. With their notorious first single "White Riot," they had launched their career by imitating the power chording of The Ramones. These pathbreaking New York punks had developed an alternative to blues-based rock by stripping away most of the African-American elements of rock and roll, reducing it to its linear fundamentals.

But as more imitators poured into punk rock, The Clash grew impatient with the genre's limits. They slowed their songs down so they could add complexity. And they reopened themselves to black influences. They increasingly explored Caribbean styles such as reggae, ska, and calypso, and American forms such as soul, disco, 50s rock, and rap.

In 1979, they reached a creative climax from which emerged their extraordinarily varied masterpiece, "London Calling." A decade later, Rolling Stone magazine declared it the best album of the 1980s (though it was released in late December, 1979). While it may lack a single truly great cut, it was the most consistently strong double album of the Vinyl Era.

Only 12 months later, The Clash followed up with what perhaps could have been the greatest single album ever. With their artistic progress going to their heads, however, they let "Sandinista" expand into a bloated triple album.

The last Strummer-Jones album, 1982's "Combat Rock," featured one outstanding side and one side of pure self-indulgent experimentalism.

The usual "VH1: Behind the Music" problems broke Strummer and Jones apart after 1983. Lacking his composer and thoroughly burnt out by the 5-year comet ride that was The Clash, Strummer stumbled creatively for years. Fortunately, he found his footing again in the last 3 years with his world-music band, The Mescaleros. Appropriately, his haunting and heroic version of the Celtic folk song "Minstrel Boy" played over the closing credits of last year's devastating war movie "Black Hawk Down."

Strummer died of a heart attack.

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