Strummer’s musical experience included membership in The 101ers, Latino Rockabilly War, The Mescaleros, and The Pogues, in addition to his own solo music career and his best known role as a punk pioneer with The Clash. His work as a musician allowed him to explore other interests which included acting, creating film scores for television and movies, songwriting, radio broadcasting, and a position as a radio host. Strummer is one of the more esteemed, influential, and iconic figures of the 1970s British punk movement.
The son of a British diplomat, Strummer and his older brother David grew up in several countries before settling in London in 1959. He developed a love of rock music listening to records by Little Richard and The Beach Boys as well as American folk-singer Woody Guthrie (he went by the nickname “Woody” for a few years). Strummer would later say that “the reason he played music was the Beach Boys.
By 1970, David had become estranged from his family and had joined the National Front. His brother’s suicide in July of that year profoundly affected him, as did having to identify the body after it had remained undiscovered for three days.
As Strummer later explained: “[He] was a year older than me. Funnily enough, you know, he was a Nazi. He was a member of the National Front. He was into the occult and he used to have these deaths-heads and cross-bones all over everything. He didn’t like to talk to anybody, and I think suicide was the only way out for him. What else could he have done?”
After finishing his time at City of London Freemen’s School, Ashtead Park, Surrey that same year Strummer moved on to the Central School of Art and Design in London, where he briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a professional cartoonist, but ultimately completed a foundations course. During this time, he shared a flat in the north London suburb of Palmers Green with friends Clive Timperley and Tymon Dogg, who taught him how to play guitar right-handed even though he was a leftie.
In 1971 Strummer became a vegetarian and remained one until his death. In April 1972 he attended as a fan the Bickershaw Festival in Lancashire, a three day event which was attended by many London counter culture figures and underground magazines. He stated in 1999 that Don Van Vliet’s ( Captain Beefheart’s) performance at the 1972 Bickershaw Festival was the best concert he had ever attended.
In 1973 Strummer moved to Newport, Wales. He did not study at Newport College of Art but met up with college musicians in the Students’ Union in Stow Hill and became the vocalist for Flaming Youth, renaming the band The Vultures. The Vultures included three former members of Rip Off Park Rock & Roll Allstars, the original college band co-founded by Terry Earl Taylor. For the next year he was the band’s part-time singer and rhythm guitarist. During this time he was working as a gravedigger in St. Woolos Cemetery. In 1974, the band fell apart and he moved back to London where he met up again with Dogg. He did street performances for a while, playing rock and reggae, before deciding to form another band, The 101ers with his West London roommates.
The new group played many gigs in London pubs, playing covers of popular American R&B and blues songs. In 1975 he stopped calling himself “Woody” Mellor and adopted his stage name of Joe Strummer, apparently in reference to his role as rhythm guitarist, in a rather self-deprecating way. He also began to write original songs for the group including “Keys to Your Heart”, inspired by his girlfriend at the time, The Slits drummer Palmolive. The group picked it as their first single In 1976, and the 101’ers opened for The Sex Pistols at a venue called The Nashville Rooms in London, propelling him into the punk rock scene and gaining the attention of musicians Mick Jones (from the band London SS) and Paul Simonon, who were in the audience. The three men would coincidentally cross paths the next week while in the unemployment line at the Lisson Grove Dole Office.
Jones, Simonon and Strummer were formally introduced a short time later by friend and eventual manager Bernie Rhodes. It was during this introduction that The Clash was formed (their name was derived by Simonon who mused on how often the term “clash” was used in an edition of the London Standard newspaper). Drummer Terry Chimes and guitarist Keith Levene completed the original Clash line-up shortly thereafter.
According to Simon Reynolds in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again”, Levene was an avid progressive rock fan who had served at age fifteen as a roadie for Yes on their Close to the Edge tour.
The band made their debut on America’s bicentennial (July 4, 1976), opening for the Sex Pistols at The Black Swan (a.k.a. The Mucky Duck, now known as the Boardwalk Sheffield, England), and in January 1977 signed with CBS Records, but became a three-piece after Levene was fired from the band and Chimes quit. Drummer Topper Headon later became the band’s full-time drummer.
During his time with The Clash, Strummer, along with his bandmates, became notorious for getting in trouble with the law. On June 10, 1977, he and Headon were arrested for spray-painting “The Clash” on an outside wall of a hotel. On May 20, 1980, he was arrested for hitting a violent member of the audience with his guitar during a performance in Hamburg, Germany. This incident shocked Strummer, and had a lasting personal impact on him as he admitted in an interview ” I nearly murdered somebody, and it made me realize that you can’t face violence with violence. It doesn’t work. ”
Before the album “Combat Rock” was released, Strummer willfully went into hiding and band management represented that he had “disappeared”. Bernie Rhodes, now the band’s manager, pressured Joe to do so because tickets were selling slowly for the Scottish leg of an upcoming tour. It was planned for Strummer to travel to Texas in secret and stay with his friend, musician Joe Ely. However, Strummer, uneasy with his decision, decided to genuinely disappear and traveled to France, where he ran the Paris Marathon in April 1982 (he’s said to have also participated in the London Marathon in 1981 and 1983). For this period of time, Joe’s whereabouts were not only a mystery to the public, but the band’s management as well. Joe later said this was a huge mistake and you “have to have some regrets”. This was in spite of the popular success of the single “Rock the Casbah”. During this time band members began to argue a lot, and with tensions high, the group began to fall apart.
In September 1983, Strummer issued the infamous “Clash Communique”, and fired Mick Jones. Headon had earlier been kicked out of the band because of his heroin addiction, and replaced with drummer Pete Howard, leaving the band with only two of its original members. Rhodes persuaded Strummer to carry on and added new members.
“The Clash Mark II” released the album “Cut the Crap” in 1985. The album was panned by fans and critics alike and Strummer disbanded The Clash the following year. The disintegration of the band and the reasons behind the break-up are the subject matter of Danny Garcia’s 2012 book and 2013 documentary, “The Rise and Fall of the Clash”.
A year later, Strummer worked on several songs for the 1986 film “Sid and Nancy”, including “Love Kills” and “Dum Dum Club”, and later worked with Mick Jones and his band Big Audio Dynamite, contributing to the band’s second studio album by co-writing most of the songs as well as producing the album along with Jones. In 1987, he played a small part in the film “Walker”, directed by Alex Cox, as a character named “Faucet” and wrote and performed on the film’s soundtrack.
He also starred in another Cox film that same year called “Straight to Hell”, as the character “Simms”. The film also featured London-Irish folk/punk band The Pogues both as actors and major contributors to the soundtrack. Strummer joined them for a tour in 1987/88, filling in for ailing guitarist Philip Chevron, who wrote in May 2008 on the band’s online forum: “When I was sick in late 1987, I taught Joe all the guitar parts in an afternoon and he was on tour in the USA as deputy guitarist the next day. Joe wrote all the tabs in his meticulously neat hand on a long piece of paper which he taped to the top of the guitar so he could glance down occasionally when he was onstage.”
This tour would be the first of several collaborations with the band. In 1989, Strummer played a substantial role in Jim Jarmusch’s film “Mystery Train”, as a drunken, short-tempered drifter named “Johnny” (whom most characters refer to as “Elvis”, much to Johnny’s dismay). He also made a brief appearance in Aki Kaurismäki’s 1990 film “I Hired a Contract Killer” as a guitarist in a pub, performing two songs (“Burning Lights” and “Afro-Cuban Bebop”). These were released as a promotional 7-inch single limited to a few hundred copies, credited to “Joe Strummer & the Astro Physicians”. The “Astro Physicians” were in fact The Pogues (“Afro-Cuban Bebop” got a re-release on The Pogues’ 2008 box set). During this time Strummer continued to act, write, and produce soundtracks for various films, most notably the soundtrack for 1997’s “Grosse Pointe Blank”. While the group started to formulate its roots in the year 1986, he began producing solo records with a band called The Latino Rockabilly War in 1989. The album “Earthquake Weather” was a critical and commercial flop, and resulted in the loss of his contract with Sony Records. He also did the soundtrack to the movie “Permanent Record” with this band.
Strummer was asked by The Pogues, who were fracturing, to help them produce their next album, released in 1990 as “Hell’s Ditch”. In 1991, he replaced Shane MacGowan as singer of The Pogues for a tour after MacGowan’s departure from the band. One night of this tour was professionally recorded, and three tracks, “I Fought the Law”, “London Calling”, and “Turkish Song of the Damned”, have seen release as b-sides and again on The Pogues’ 2008 box set. On April 16, 1994, Strummer joined Czech-American band Dirty Pictures on stage in Prague at the Repre Club in Obecni Dum at “Rock for Refugees”, a benefit concert for people left displaced by the war in Bosnia. Backed up by The Pictures, Strummer played a blistering set of Clash songs that he said he had not played in more than ten years. The show began with “London Calling” and without pause went into “Brand New Cadillac”. In the middle of the song, the power went out.
Once the power was back on, Strummer asked the audience whether or not they would mind if the band started over. They then began again with “London Calling” and continued on for another half-hour. After these self-described “wilderness years”, Strummer began working with other bands, playing piano on the 1995 UK hit of The Levellers, “Just the One” and appearing on the Black Grape single “England’s Irie” in 1996. While in New York City in 1997, he worked with noted producer and engineer Lee Perry on a significant amount of remixed Clash and 101’ers reissue dub material. In collaboration with percussionist Pablo Cook, Strummer wrote and performed the soundtrack to 1997’s “Tunnel of Love” that was featured in the Cannes Film Festival that same year. In 1998, he made a guest appearance on the animated television show “South Park” and appeared on the album “Chef Aid: The South Park Album” featuring songs from and inspired by the series.
Also during this time, Strummer was in dispute with The Clash’s record label, Epic Records. The disagreement lasted nearly eight years and ended with the label agreeing to let him record solo records with another label. If The Clash were to reunite though, they would have to record for Sony. During the nineties, Strummer was a DJ on the BBC World Service with his half-hour program “London Calling”. Samples from the series provide the vocals for “Midnight Jam” on Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ final album “Streetcore”.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Strummer gathered top-flight musicians into a backing band he called The Mescaleros. Strummer and the band signed with Mercury Records, and released their first album in 1999, which was co-written with Antony Genn, called “Rock Art and the X-Ray Style”. A tour of England, Europe, and North America soon followed; sets included several Clash fan favorites.
In 2001, the band signed with Californian punk label Hellcat Records and released their second studio album “Global a Go-Go”. The album was supported with a 21-date tour of North America, Britain, and Ireland. Once again, these concerts featured Clash material (“London’s Burning”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”), as well as covers of reggae and ska hits (“The Harder They Come”, “A Message to You, Rudy”) and the band regularly closed the show by playing the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”. He covered Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash. In the same year, somewhat out of character, Strummer and the Mescaleros performed the song “Minstrel Boy” for the film “Black Hawk Down”, a haunting and emotive Celtic tune that is played during the evacuation of PFC Todd Blackburn during the Battle of Mogadishu and again over the end credits.
On November 15, 2002, Strummer and The Mescaleros played a benefit show for striking firefighters in London, at the Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones was in the audience, and joined the band on stage during the Clash’s “Bankrobber”. An encore followed with Jones playing guitar and singing on “White Riot” and “London’s Burning”. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together on stage. Jones later remarked that it was totally unplanned and that he felt compelled to join Strummer on stage.
Strummer’s final regular gig was at Liverpool Academy on November 22, 2002, yet his final performance, just two weeks before his death, was in a small club venue “The Palace” in Bridgewater, Somerset near to his home. Shortly before his death on December 22 from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, he and U2 singer Bono co-wrote a song, “46664”, for Nelson Mandela as part of a campaign against AIDS in Africa. Strummer had been scheduled to play at Mandela’s SOS fundraising concert in February 2003 on Robben Island. Mick Jones later recorded a version of the song in studio, performing both the vocals and guitar work, that has yet to be formally released.
“Let’s Rock Again!” is a one-hour music documentary, directed by Dick Rude, that follows Joe Strummer as he tours across America and Japan with The Mescaleros. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, May 2004. “Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer”, a biography of Strummer by Chris Salewicz was released in 2006, and another documentary “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten” by Julien Temple (comprising archive footage of him spanning his life, and interviews with friends, family, and other celebrities) debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
A documentary focusing on Strummer’s politics “Let Fury Have the Hour”, written, directed, and produced by Antonino D’Ambrosio and executive produced by Rob McKay and based on the book of the same name by Antonino D’Ambrosio, debuted at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival featured in the Spotlight section where the high-profile films screen. Legendary MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer composed the score and the soundtrack includes music from The Clash, Public Enemy, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and many others.
The songwriting collaboration between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is often compared to the chemistry between legendary duos such as Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. The pair wrote songs about political and social injustice, cultural apathy, repression, and militarism. Songs such as “White Riot,” “London’s Burning” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” have become punk rock anthems. As front man, writer and motivational force behind The Clash, Joe Strummer and his band became one of the most influential, expansive and enduring groups to come out of the 1976 British punk rock explosion.
Strummer and The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 2003. In his remembrance, Strummer’s friends and family have established the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music, and each year there are many festivals and both organized and spontaneous ceremonies worldwide to celebrate his memory.