JOE STRUMMER died ten years ago tomorrow. He was a spokesperson for a generation, and a very radical and authoritative one at that.
His platform was not just as the provider of the lyrics of The Clash and his last band, the Mescaleros, but also as someone prepared to use his public profile to further progressive causes and to ask awkward questions of people and society.
It did not take dying early – just past his 50th birthday – to assure him of this accolade and achievement. This was patently apparent during his lifetime, from the explosion of punk in 1976 onwards. What is little known is that in retrospect, his Scottish heritage helped him make sense of his politics of humanitarianism, egalitarianism and social compassion.
This seems strange for a person who passionately supported the English football team in the 1990s and had earlier penned what is recognised as the last great Clash song, namely, ‘This Is England’, from the 1985 album, Cut the Crap.
But in one of the many contradictions within his life, it took him until the end of his life to recognise the full extent of this Scottish heritage.
His mother, Anna Mackenzie, was a crofter’s daughter who was born and raised in Bonar Bridge. Yet Strummer was born (as John Graham Mellor) in Ankara, Turkey and lived in Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn as a child before being sent to board at the City of London Freemen’s School by his parents while they continued moving around as a result of his father’s diplomatic postings. His father was a lower grade civil servant, something maybe attributable to his strong left-of-centre convictions and his penchant for making these clear when he had had a drink or two.
Musically and politically, Strummer came of age at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. These were tumultuous times and they provided him with his means of connection to people and places. His worldview was heavily shaped by these times of protests against the war in Vietnam and racism, and of squatting. Yet in the spirit of punk, 1976 was something of a year zero. As he wrote on the B-side to The Clash’s first single, White Riot, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones… in 1977” and he junked his nickname of “Woody” (in tribute to his hero, Woody Guthrie). Indeed, Strummer left his own pub rock band, the 101ers, to join The Clash even though untried and untested just at the time the 101ers were beginning to be successful. The cultural past was put in the dustbin marked “the past”.
But his politics were not a rejection of the past. They were to be found as a continuation of the radical tradition and formed an alternative to the then present period of growing inequality, the grip of austerity and the threat of fascism.
In one of the most obvious gestures against racism and fascism, The Clash played at the Rock Against Racism concert in 1978. This was the beginning of many benefits gigs Strummer played, along the way including the Rock Against the Rich tour in the 1989 and for the striking firefighters in 2002 at Acton Town Hall (which turned out to be his penultimate gig).
Important as these were in putting his money where his mouth was, he reached many more by writing lyrics which imparted a political education. He unashamedly said the anger of disaffected young at home was legitimate but critically needed to be creatively directed. It was a case of “don’t just get angry – get even”. As a citizen of the world, Strummer also wrote trenchant criticism of imperialism, dictatorship, war and militarism, especially of the American-sponsored variety.
And in his late flowering with the Mescaleros, he used the melodies of world music to underpin his understanding of the desperate plight of economic migrants and the peoples of Britain as a mongrel nation.
As a radical musician, Strummer was also ahead of his time when he came to the environment. This was more than just in his lyrics. He was instrumental in setting up Future Forests, an organisation dedicated to planting trees in various parts of the world in order to combat global warming, and was the first artist to make the recording, pressing and distribution of his records carbon neutral through planting of trees. In recognition of this, Rebel’s Wood in Skye was planted in his honour by Future Forests.
Because of the power of the lyrics and associated actions, he was often told by fans and followers that he had “changed their lives”. Underneath all of what said and did were two fundamental questions – why are things the way they are, and do they have to be this way? This meant that social change for the better was at least possible because, he insisted, “the future is unwritten”.
What made these messages all the more potent was that Strummer was not the aloof and detached rock star as a result of his fame and fortune. Fans would be let in through back windows to gigs, invited to after show parties, and the price of records deliberately kept down.
But there was more to his appeal that just the ability to empathise. While he could be like his fans as the “ordinary Joe” who was good at listening to them and their tales, he also had the ability to be very different to them as the confident, sometimes cocksure, radical spokesperson. It was for both these reasons that he had fans and that these fans looked up to him
Despite his estrangement from his parents and then his depression in his self-proclaimed “wilderness years” from The Clash’s end in 1986 to the Mescaleros’ founding in 1999, he was moved towards the end of his life to discover his Scottish roots. It was a way of trying to make sense of his life and a finding of his spiritual home. It was a similar process to his acknowledging all of his various musical influences once the Stalinism of the punk period subsided.
It was the sense of social ease, compassion and respectfulness in the family and community on his mother’s side that Strummer became so endeared to. Socialising, drink and music were the lubricants to these components that made up a community of “Jock Tamson’s bairns”. Added to them was being at peace with the physical surroundings provided by nature.
Three weeks before he died, at a family wedding in Bonar Bridge, Strummer told his cousin, “I’ve been a terrible Scotsman, but I’m going to be better.” He was alluding to the neglect of his past, his rediscovery of it and an attempt to quickly rectify this. This was not to be. As his biographer, Chris Salewicz commented, Strummer’s Scottishness “in later life came to mean much more to him”.
Yet in his legacy and enduring influence such as this year’s “Strummer of love” festival and the Strummerville new music foundation, an element of the socially progressive sense of what it means to be “Scottish” can still be discerned. For that, Strummer will remain a radical cultural and political icon.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org) and is working on a book called ‘The Politics of Joe Strummer: radicalism, resistance and rebellion’.