He fought the law (and the law won)
It was great to have Joe Strummer back, even if he sold "London Calling"
to Jaguar. Now he's gone, reminding us that rock doesn't matter anymore.
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By John Schacht
Jan. 3, 2003 | Now more than ever, rock music could use a Joe
Just three years after emerging from record-label purgatory and reviving
his decade-dormant career, Strummer is gone again, having succumbed to a
heart attack Dec. 22 at only 50 years of age. But his role and legacy --
the uncompromising firebrand who stakes it all on the transformative
power of rock 'n' roll and its promise to change the world -- is a
conspicuous void begging to be filled.
As the music industry collapses under the weight of its own avarice and
mediocrity -- not just the suits, but the artists and patrons as well --
the drums of war pound ominously, homeland security reads like Orwell,
and the environment is once again available at discount rates. The time
is ripe for an artist or group to emerge that actually matters.
Which is something Strummer and his old band knew a thing or two about:
"We were all waiting for a group to come along who at least went through
the motions of GIVING A DAMN about SOMETHING," the critic Lester Bangs
wrote 25 years ago. "Ergo, the Clash."
In fact, during their heyday in the late '70s and early '80s, the Clash
was often billed as "the only band that matters." Strummer, born John
Mellor, the son of a British foreign service clerk, was the heart,
conscience and primary lyricist for the Clash. The group took the
nihilistic rants and musical simplicity of early punk and channeled it
into a broad, open-minded music palette and political slate that
embraced a spectrum of radical leftist causes without ever losing their
punk anger, energy or DIY edge.
Strummer's agitprop was delivered in an urgent street patois that found
endless fodder in the domestic and foreign policies of conservative
ideologues like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, though hypocrites
and despots of all stripes were fair game. Years before Enron and
WorldCom -- before Michael Milken and junk bonds, even -- Strummer had
turned his withering gaze on corporate life, as in "Midnight Log," from
the three-album set "Sandinista":
"Cooking up the books/ A respected occupation/ The anchor and
foundation/ Of the multi corporations/ They don't believe in crime/ They
know that it exists/ To understand what's right and wrong/ The lawyers
work in shifts ..."
Hardcore political protest music -- as opposed to the cultural protests
of most '60s bands -- had largely been the purview of polite
coffee-house folkies with acoustic guitars; the Clash's music was Us vs.
Them cranked to 11, and it never sounded or looked so good.
"The Clash are now so good they will be changing rock 'n' roll simply by
addressing themselves to the form, and so full of the vision implied by
their name they will be dramatizing certain possibilities of risk and
passion merely by taking a stage," Greil Marcus wrote early in the
But as an iconic figure, and a vocal one at that, Strummer also
epitomized the inherent contradictions -- some would say futility -- of
rock 'n' roll as rebellious act. Some British punk purists cited the day
that the Clash signed with CBS in January 1977 as "the day punk died."
In time, the band's love of Situationist slogans and radical propaganda
often obscured the message and drifted the band toward self-parody.
Despite railing against the excesses of the left, too, Strummer had no
moral qualms about adopting a "terrorist chic" fashion sense for the
But the greatest irony may have been inherent in the nature of the
vehicle with which they chose to broadcast their message. The band's
biggest hit, "Rock the Casbah," decried the oil-sponsored madness in the
Middle East -- yet wound up as the theme song for American troops
smart-bombing overmatched Iraqis during Desert Storm.
The Clash's "commitment to making political pop culture was the defining
mark of the British punk movement," fellow traveler Billy Bragg
eulogized after Strummer's death. "They were also a self-mythologizing,
style-obsessed mass of contradictions ... no one struggled more manfully
with the gap between the myth and the reality of being a spokesman for
your generation than Joe Strummer."
Largely at Strummer's behest, the Clash did their best to live up to the
ideals they espoused. Their double and triple albums sold at single-disc
prices, the band taking huge cuts in royalties to make it happen. The
band was the driving force behind the hugely successful Rock Against
Racism movement in London. On a less publicized but telling level, Clash
fans (and not just the female ones) were regularly invited to share the
group's hotel suites, and Strummer on several occasions clashed with
beefy security guards to safeguard the fans or ensure their right to
Musically, the band -- Strummer on rhythm guitar, splitting the lead
vocals and songwriting with lead guitarist Mick Jones, whose pop
sensibility would eventually drive him out of the band; Paul Simonon on
bass and Topper Headon (and/or Terry Chimes) on drums -- really
practiced what it preached. Their debut album was chock-full of searing
hot punk anthems strong enough to rival those of the Sex Pistols, but it
was the reggae-influenced "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," together
with their cover of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves," that separated
the Clash from their punk brethren and hinted at the band's potential.
"The main thing in town was reggae," Strummer told the British magazine
Uncut in 1999. "It was a total obsession. There was this attitude that
this stuff was too good to ruin. That was the ethos -- 'No one is going
to ruin this stuff by covering it.' ... But it must have taken big balls
to do it at the time."
When the band's two-album masterpiece, London Calling," was released,
critics and fans alike reveled in the amazing mix of styles, and the
expertise with which the band played. Even the staid Rolling Stone cast
its vote with the Clash, later proclaiming "London Calling" the best
album of the '80s. The record, wrote the magazine's editors, was "an
emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that
Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock &
roll needed a good boot in the rear."
Careening between reggae, rock, rhythm and blues, ska, rockabilly, punk
and even jazz, "London Calling" -- and the three-disc set that followed,
"Sandinista," even more so -- was the work of a band in love with
musical possibilities, not units sold. Later, during their historic
15-day run at Bonds in Times Square in 1980, the band tried
(unsuccessfully) to introduce their fans to the new sound, a then-local
phenomenon called rap, by having Grandmaster Flash open some of the
"We weren't parochial, we weren't narrow-minded, we weren't little
Englanders," Strummer said in "Westway to the World," the recent
documentary on the Clash. "At least we had the suss to embrace what we
were presented with, which was the world in all its weird varieties."
There was a certain Cold War ethos to the Clash which they happily fed
off, and were it not for the excellence of their music, it might have
made them a dated artifact, the musical equivalent of a brick from the
Berlin Wall or Country Joe McDonald spelling F-U-C-K at Woodstock. But
the primary subjects of Strummer's songs with the Clash -- injustice,
poverty, and war -- didn't disappear when the band broke up (after "Cut
the Crap" in 1986) or the Wall came down.
But putting aside the activism of artists like U2's Bono and REM's
Michael Stipe, political dissent is today virtually nonexistent anywhere
near mainstream rock. Rage Against the Machine lacked the musical
sophistication, subtlety or wit to make a difference while bludgeoning
their fans with left-wing propaganda. The Manic Street Preachers don't
have the versatility or chops to draw much attention to their message.
Bragg is too bloody British -- and too busy resuscitating the legend of
another musical revolutionary, Woody Guthrie -- to reach a big audience.
Alleged renegades like alt-country's Steve Earle, whose recent album
"Jerusalem" offers a few relatively tame vignettes about the Middle East
and John Walker Lindh, represent the extent of protest music on the rock
And even the Strummer that emerged from a decade of musical limbo was a
kinder, gentler version of the earlier battle-scarred campaigner;
Strummer lite, if you will. On the two records made with his new group,
the Mescaleros -- "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style" and "Global a Go-Go" --
Strummer was more concerned with promoting international brotherhood
through music than with tearing down the status quo. The same sense of
experimentation was there, only this time combining techno/dance beats
with his more traditional interest in world music and the old standbys:
rockabilly, reggae and rock 'n' roll.
Both records met with relatively positive reviews, though the musical
blend was hardly revolutionary. Even if the firebrand Strummer had
mellowed, it was good to have him back in any form whatever. Then of
course there was the Jaguar ad.
On a recent Sunday, flipping between National Football League games, the
familiar opening chords of the title cut from "London Calling" -- is
there a stronger album opener in all of music? -- reverberated through
living rooms across America. A spit-take later came an ad for Jaguar
motorcars, filmed on a London street, announcing to the world that the
British carmaker was selling its high-end autos here in the States to
those sophisticated enough to recognize the brilliance of its automotive
tradition. Once, those chords alluded to the decline of Western
civilization and the coming apocalypse; now they were hawking an
advanced suspension system and a hushed, leather interior.
There's nothing wrong with an artist selling his work to make a living;
in an age when the radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications -- in
de facto collusion with the record executives and marketers -- basically
determines what gets played on the radio, it's becoming more common for
artists to use the TV commercial as a way to get exposure. But even
though the Clash had, years earlier, sold Jones' hit "Train in Vain" to
Levi's for a denim jeans promotion, there was still something
fundamentally disturbing about "London Calling" appearing in an ad. On
the Mescaleros' Web site, Strummer defended the band's decision in a
"Q: 'London Calling' has been recently used to advertise Jaguar cars in
"Strummer: Yeah, I agreed to that. We get hundreds of requests for that
and turn 'em all down. But I just thought Jaguar ... yeah. If you're in
a group and you make it together, then everyone deserves something.
Especially 20-odd years after the fact. It just seems churlish for a
writer to refuse to have their music used on an advert and so I figured
out, only advertise the things you think are cool. That's why we dissed
Coors and Miller. We've turned down loads of money. Millions over the
years. But sometimes you have to earn a bit, so everybody gets some.
"Q: There's no feeling of compromise, doing this? "Strummer: Well,
putting your music to an advert is a compromise. But a good advert with
cool music can turn on a lot of people. I know that when I'm watching TV
and you get a good ad, it's an up.
"Q: We were getting e-mails saying it was a dubious thing to be doing.
"Strummer: Yeah, well you'll always get that. They should realize that
we didn't sell loads of records back then."
While Strummer's reasoning was perfectly sound, there's little doubt
that the Strummer of 1977 would have blanched at such rationalizations
and probably skewered them in song. Now it just points to the need for a
new torch bearer, another young, smart idealist creative enough to
revitalize rock 'n' roll and use it as a force for change. Someone's
going have to shake the music industry out of its doldrums, and one
place to start is to question the very paradigm on which it is based. As
long as the profit motive fuels the "industry" -- and again, we're not
just talking about the suits -- there may never be another band that
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About the writer
John Schacht writes about music for Paste Magazine, Swizzle-Stick.com,
Musicomet.com and the Charlotte, N.C., weekly Creative Loafing.