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Joe Strummer, Punk Iconoclast

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Michael Putland

Joe Strummer, Punk Iconoclast

Today in 1977, The Clash released their first single. To mark the occasion we profile the late Joe Strummer, co-founder of the influential punk rock outfit.

Born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952 to a nurse and a British diplomat, Strummer spent his early childhood shuffling around the globe as his father worked posts in Egypt, Mexico, and Germany. Along with his older brother, David, he returned to London at age 9 and rarely saw his parents for much of his youth. Strummer later characterized his boarding school as a brutal place run by bullies while teachers turned a blind eye. He escaped through rock 'n' roll, listening incessantly to artists including Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones.

“After I heard the Rolling Stones’ 'Not Fade Away,' I never paid attention to anything in school,” he told an interviewer. “Music was everything.”

Woody Guthrie records also helped him develop his political consciousness, and he clashed with his older brother when David joined the National Front, a far right U.K. political party often characterized as neo-Nazis. In July 1970, David died by suicide in London’s Regents Park. An 18-year-old Joe had to identify the body and felt “completely destroyed,” citing it as the moment his adolescence came to an end.

Strummer enrolled in art school, hoping to become a cartoonist, worked part-time jobs as a gravedigger and carpet salesman, and busked in London subway stations. He also started playing in pub rock bands, appearing as a guitarist for the Vultures and the 101’ers under a moniker chosen for his aggressive if primitive style of rhythm guitar playing.

“I could play all six strings or none,” he said. “Which is why I called myself Joe Strummer.”

In 1976, he and a few of his bandmates were preceded onstage by a new act that would soon become infamous throughout England – a group called the the Sex Pistols. Strummer was blown away by the band’s energy and the sense of danger their shows created. After speaking with Mick Jones in a meeting arranged by Malcom McLaren managerial associate and self-proclaimed “inventor of punk rock” Bernie Rhodes, Strummer left the 101’ers and formed the Clash. As punk rock quickly became the biggest thing in England since the Beatles, the Clash found themselves swept up in the cultural moment. Less than a month after their formation, they were opening for the Sex Pistols. They hadn’t played even a year when they were signed by CBS records to a £100,000 record contract. But the record company money was well spent – the Clash’s first single, “White Riot,” would spend 40 weeks on the U.K. Singles Chart.

Despite their first album being a hit, CBS pressured the band to adopt a cleaner sound in hopes of converting an American audience yet to be won over by punk rock. The band resisted, but it exposed rifts between ideology and practice every successful punk band would deal with in one way or another. How do you maintain artistic integrity in the face of commercial pressures? And how do you maintain a tough street pose and sing about the struggles of the oppressed common man when you’re becoming a millionaire and being treated like a pampered rock star – the very entity punk rock defined itself against? How do you not, to paraphrase a famous Strummer quote about the Clash’s eventual demise, become the kind of people you are trying to destroy?

The Clash navigated the contradictions better than most, managing not to immediately implode like many of their contemporaries (the Sex Pistols, X Ray Specs, the Slits, Subway Sect) in part because they were more ambitious. While they could do concussive, three-chords-and-a-stompbox rock with the best of them, they also incorporated elements of reggae, ska, funk, and rockabilly. And though many punk bands in the early U.K. scene espoused an adolescent brand of shock value nihilism, the Clash were at their core left-wing idealists bold enough to believe rock music and youth culture could make a positive impact on the world. Rather than just sing about what was happening on Piccadilly Circus, Strummer’s lyrics were outward gazing.

"I never knew who the Sandinistas were or where Nicaragua was,” U2’s Bono said in "The Future Is Unwritten," a Joe Strummer biopic. “The lyrics of Joe Strummer were like an atlas. They opened up the world to me and other people who came from blank suburbia."

Atypical though they may have been, the Clash eventually disintegrated amid the usual substance abuse issues, artistic differences, and personality conflicts. Contractual problems with Epic Records prevented Strummer from leaving the label as a solo artist (he was let out of his contract eight years after the Clash dissolved), so Strummer composed music for movies, providing tracks for "Sid and Nancy," and even acted in a few movies, most notably his memorable performance in Jim Jarmusch’s indie classic "Mystery Train."

He also replaced Shane McGowan in the Pogues for a brief time before forming the Mescaleros in 1999. Though he occasionally played Clash songs, and though there was talk of a Clash reunion when it was announced the band were to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the reunion never came to pass.

“I don’t want to look back,” he said in an interview shortly before his death in 2002. “I want to keep going forward. I still have something to say to people.”