Today is the 11th anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death aged just 50.
I’m not one of those people who get all het up when a famous person dies. As soon as a celebrity death is announced, everyone seems very keen to be seen to be the first person to post their pithy tribute to the deceased. That’s all very well and maybe I’m just a cold-hearted bastard but I’m not usually that bothered. People die all the time, so what. That may sound harsh but it’s still true.
There are some exceptions to this of course, people whose deaths I genuinely felt shocked and upset about. Often these are people I have been lucky enough to meet, for example Kirsty MacColl, Douglas Adams and one of my biggest footballing heroes QPR legend Alan McDonald.
I never met Joe Strummer but I can remember exactly where I was (in my flat in Kensal Rise) when I heard on the radio that he’d died 11 years ago today.
I’m a bit too young to really remember The Clash clearly. I was 11 when “Combat Rock” came out and being an avid listener (and home taper) of the Top 40 every week, I quite liked “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” but that was the only song of theirs I knew. I didn’t know enough about them to know that they’d come out of the punk scene and compared to the other “new wave” bands I liked (Dexys, The Police, Blondie), they sounded more like a rock group. (Still not particularly keen on “Should I Stay…” even now).
So I didn’t really discover The Clash’s music until 1986 when I was 15 and there were lots of pieces in NME / Sounds / Melody Maker celebrating 10 years of punk. There was also lots of stuff about punk on Channel 4. (Many miles away from us teenagers in Sussex, another group of teenagers in South Wales were being inspired by the same source material.) Back in those days, there was some half-decent arts programming on that channel, before it started churning out endless “reality” bilge and freakshow shockumentaries. (“Did you see that thing last night about the little boy with a pig’s trotter for a face? Wasn’t it awful? That poor little thing. Really makes you think, doesn’t it!” NO IT FUCKING DOESN’T!)
Inspired by this punk DIY spirit me and 2 of my mates from school decided to start our own band. There was me (guitar), Colin (bass) and Mark (drums). When we started, none of us could play our instruments at all, in fact Colin didn’t even own an instrument, it was perfect!
A big influence on us was a tape given away with the NME called Pogo a Go Go. We listened to this over and over and it was our gateway into The Damned, The Pistols, The Buzzcocks but especially The Clash.
We practiced a lot (“I practiced daily in my room”) and got pretty good. Soon we were joined in the band by another mate from school, Robin, a proper musician who could actually play. We got gigs in Sussex pubs playing our own stuff mixed in with some covers. We rehearsed in a garage so of course we played “Garageland”. After a while, this morphed into a kind of Clash medley which we called “The Clash Thrash”. Can’t really remember what songs we put into it but “I Fought The Law”, “Brand New Cadillac” and “Police On My Back” were definitely in there, along with bits of “Tommy Gun”, “White Riot”, “Safe European Home” and plenty of shoutouts of “you’re my guitar hero”, “Johnny Johnny!” and “elevator, going up!”
It was a highlight of every gig we played.
Other touchstones for us were a well-watched VHS copy of “Rude Boy” and a couple of interviews Joe gave around the time of “Walker” / “Earthquake Weather” and the “Straight to Hell” film. There was this one with Magenta Devine but it was the one below that we watched over and over again.
We used to imitate Joe’s speech and the way he talks with such passion, placing emphasis on unexpected syllables. (Yes I know we sound like sad gits, but who amongst us wasn’t a sad git when they were teenagers?)
As much as Mick, Paul and Topper were important, it was the force of Joe’s personality that made him stand out. Mick was unquestionably a more talented musician but Joe was the heart of the band. Recently I listened to a BBC Front Row interview the remaining bandmembers gave to promote the new Clash re-issues and whilst it was interesting, it only really comes to life when you hear Joe’s voice. Do yourself a favour and set aside half an hour to listen to it here.
In 1988, I saw Joe play live with his band the Latino Rockabilly War, twice at an Amnesty International Festival of Youth in Milton Keynes Bowl (they played both days). Then again on the Rock Against the Rich tour at the Brighton Dome (same venue where Abba won Eurovision with “Waterloo” in 1974, fact fans!)
I remember people trying to smash up the seats at that one and also being given a Class War leaflet on the way out. In there was a page saying that the way to get the revolution started was to hit a copper on the head with a brick. The teenage Chorizo thought “yes, maybe if we’re all going to hit coppers with bricks, then fine I’ll join in, why not. But can you let me know exactly when I need to do this. I don’t want to start hitting coppers too early before the revolution has actually started.”
The setlist was a mixed bag of songs from “Earthquake Weather”, the under-rated “Permanent Record” soundtrack and songs Joe had co-written with Mick for the 2nd B.A.D. album. They played some Clash songs but they were mostly songs The Clash had covered (I Fought The Law, Armagideon Times, Brand New Cadillac, Police and Thieves) rather than Strummer / Jones originals.
After the Latino Rockabilly War era, Joe didn’t play tour for nearly a decade. He didn’t even have a band.
During these years, I met his old compadre and fellow QPR fan Mick Jones a few times in the Blue and White Bar in the ground. Most of our conversations were about football but I do remember telling him what a big influence The Clash’s music had been on me. He was very gracious about that but I reckon he must get blokes of a certain age saying “The Clash changed my life” to him every single day.
The next time I saw Joe was at Glastonbury in 1998 which was probably the least enjoyable Glastonbury I ever went to. It was ridiculously wet and muddy, I somehow managed to miss loads of the bands I wanted to see and did I mention the mud? The highlights were seeing Tony Bennett and not seeing Robbie Williams. On the last night, I chose to give main stage headliners Pulp a miss and go to see Joe DJing on the Other stage. It was great to see him again but I can’t remember any of the songs he played. He had Bez onstage with him doing his freaky dancing and Keith Allen coming on sometimes to rant incoherently.
The following year Joe was properly back with a great new album “Rock Art and the X Ray Style” and a new band The Mescaleros. I went to see them at the Astoria and it was great to see that old battered old black Telecaster with its “Ignore Alien Orders” / “Trash City” stickers. That right arm was still pumping, that left leg still stomping and the voice still had that same fight and passion in it. They played White Man In Hammersmith Palais, Tommy Gun, Rudie Can’t Fail, London Calling and more (see full setlist). A great, great night.
Soon after that, I saw them again supporting The Who at Wembley Arena, a venue I’ve been to many times over the years. But the massive size of the place means that unless you’ve got really good seats, most gigs there are pretty crap. The only exceptions I can recall are Prince, k.d. lang and that Who gig.
On the day that Joe & The Mescaleros released “Global A Go Go”, their second album, and in my opinion their best, they played a set in the HMV shop on Oxford Street. Entry was for competition winners only but fortunately for me, I had an old friend who worked there who got me a couple of wristbands. We got right to the front and I took the photos below. The band, now featuring Tymon Dogg Joe’s old busking partner from the pre-101ers days, played a set of songs all from the new album which went down a storm even though none of the audience had heard those songs before. I particularly remember the songs “Shaktar Donetsk” and “Bindi Bhagee” standing out.
Here are some photos I took that night (click to see them bigger)
When the band had finished playing, Joe was signing copies of the new album. Looking at the length of the queue, me and my mate decided to just buy the album at the other counter and go down the pub. What a pair of idiots. We missed the opportunity to shake the hand of a hero. Definitely one for the gig regrets list.
After Joe’s death, Topper Headon said: “It’s taken Joe’s death to make me realise just how big The Clash were. We were a political band and Joe was the one who wrote the lyrics. Joe was one of the truest guys you could ever meet. If he said ‘I am behind you’, then you knew he meant it 100 per cent.”
A couple of months after Joe died, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt paid tribute to him at the Grammys. It’s a well known clip that you’ve probably seen before but watch it again because it’s bloody great.
And lastly, here’s a good video put together by a guy called Kevin Richards. We still miss you Joe.
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