Belfast Festival: Joe Strummer
As the festival hosts a special talk to mark ten years since the death of Joe Strummer, Michael Conaghan looks at the life and enduring legacy of a punk icon
I first came across Joe Strummer and The Clash in the customary fashion of the late Seventies, by hearing them on the John Peel Show on a weekday — and knowing exactly what I was going to spend my pocket money on at the weekend.
Though the inkies carried regular features on the band, their association with punk meant a limited amount of radio airplay, and a self-imposed exile from TOTP in those pre-video days led to a leggy interpretation of their song from the show's dance troupe, a cast iron guarantee of subsequent chart oblivion. I bought White Man in the Hammersmith Palais, a coruscating mash-up of reggae and power chordage that was arguably the band's finest single, and left it in the back window of the family car where the sun warped the vinyl into mush. It remains one of my great musical regrets.
Because in many ways The Clash were The Last Gang in Town. Though they grew out of punk they were a classic outlaw rock and roll band. Their masterpiece, 1980's London Calling LP, was built on a slew of different influences from reggae to rockabilly to straight pop. Perhaps only they could have followed it up with a triple album (Sandinista) of bewildering eclecticism which they insisted be sold at the same price as a single album.
But Strummer's Clash had already made a particular impact on Belfast. Due to play the Ulster Hall on October 20, 1977, insurance cover was withdrawn at the last moment and the gig cancelled. This caused one of the few riots in town that had nothing to do with either politics or religion. For punks it was “a riot, a riot of our own”. The Clash meanwhile took the opportunity to have themselves photographed with surly armed soldiers and beaming urchins. Combat rock was born.
Despite the radical politics, Strummer could hardly claim to be one of the shock troops of the working class. Born John Graham Mellor in Turkey in 1952, he was the son of a British diplomat who boarded for much of his school life. His estranged brother David became a member of the National Front before committing suicide, which may explain why Strummer embraced anti-racist causes with such fervour.
The Clash never did play Belfast in their classic line-up, but made the Ulster Hall during the ill-fated Cut The Crap tour of 1984 which featured only Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon from the original band. A Mohicaned Strummer berated the audience for spitting, and their middle-class tendencies: “I thought Belfast was more like Glasgow than Edinburgh,” he declared.
It was an Elvis in Vegas moment that Strummer would have appreciated. Despite announcing themselves as “bored with the USA” in 1977 The Clash went out of their way to embrace it, cracking the States through hard work.
The Clash eventually cracked under the strain of maintaining a high level of success with being beacons of punk integrity, Strummer for a time leaping out of the frying pan of the band into the fire of The Pogues, not so much the last gang in town as the last person to leave the pub.
But he always remained a personification of punk's undersold moral backbone. If Joe backed your cause, you knew there was something to it. Which is why this December, on the tenth anniversary of his untimely death, many an old punk will be raising a glass and wiping away an unmanly tear in his memory.
> Joe Strummer - 10th Anniversary Talk|by Chris Salewicz, November 3, Elmwood Hall