The Omnivore September 2013

Joe Strummer and Punk Self-Reinvention

How a privately educated British schoolboy named John Mellor became The Clash's iconic front man
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Kevin Christy

American shrinks know him well: the English boarding-school boy. Privately educated, privately damaged, culturally overstocked, and twanging with the knowledge of his own separateness. Having made an emigratory thrust westward, he washes up, middle-aged, in the therapist’s chair, head in hands, complaining of a sound, a sound: tires on gravel, and the swish of the family vehicle as it slides off the institutional forecourt, abandoning him to Matron, and cold toast, and the other boys.

Was Joe Strummer, 1952–2002, punk-rock paradigm and (ruefully) self-described “spokesman for a generation,” a standard product of the English boarding-school system? Not quite, not quite. But he bore the mark. Deposited at the City of London Freemen’s School at the age of 9, little Johnny Mellor—as he was then—knew what he had to do. “I just subconsciously went straight to the heart of the matter,” he explained in an interview filmed late in his life, “which was: forget about your parents, and deal with this.” The Strummer-voice, as he delivers this speech, is kicked-back, déclassé, woozily emphatic, with an accent impossible to place. He sounds like a very stoned soccer manager, or an American DJ reading aloud from Great Expectations. “It was either bully or be bullied. I was one of the principal bullies. And there was no protection from anyone.” Johnny Mellor is not remembered as a bully by his schoolmates, so what Strummer is talking about here is an interior process: a self-burying, a hardening-up. It was an operation he would repeat 15 years later, to considerably more dramatic effect, when he became the lead singer of The Clash.

Sound System, a box set released this month featuring remastered versions of the first five Clash albums plus additional material, tracks the progress of this most interesting man in the context of his remarkable band, from the spiky psychic bulletins of the self-titled debut to the geopolitical dreamtime of Combat Rock. The Clash was an idea before it was a group, birthed in the mind of manager/impresario Bernie Rhodes as an agitprop sensation and radical riposte to his colleague Malcolm McLaren’s Sex Pistols. It was 1976, and Britain was falling to bits. “The cozy world we were told would go on forever,” Prime Minister James Callaghan warned his Labour Party Conference, “where full employment would be guaranteed … That cozy world is now gone.” On the horizon was the Tory counterrevolution and the civic unrest that would accompany it, Margaret Thatcher’s consciously lowering her voice so she wouldn’t be called “shrill.” In West London the soon-to-be-mythic Clashscape was already forming: public-housing tower blocks, snotty punk rockers, thundering reggae bass lines. Mick Jones, a rock-and-roll classicist whose instrument nonetheless leaked signals from the future—squalls, alarms, blocks of interference—was picked by Rhodes to be the new group’s lead guitarist. Paul Simonon would be the bassist, in defiance of the fact that he had barely touched a bass in his life—somehow, in his lanky, heavy-jawed splendor, the man embodied bass-ness.

Strummer, the front man, was a late recruit. Self-reinvention was one of punk’s great rites, its voodoo homage to Thatcherism, and no one worked harder at it than he did. Straggle-haired “Woody” Mellor, art-school dropout and part-time grave digger, had already mutated into Joe Strummer, a bequiffed pub-rock shouter “scrubbing his Telecaster” (as one contemporary put it) for a band called The 101’ers. Offered a place in Rhodes’s bristling new thing, Strummer ditched his hippie mates, chopped and dyed his hair, and affixed a street-snarl to his face.

Mad-dog vocals, stamping left foot: the fit was instant. His lyrics were a rock-and-roll marvel—jagged, speedy playground chants apparently purpose-built to conduct the shocks of Mick Jones’s guitar. (In reality, it often worked the other way around: Strummer would type up his words rapidly, Dylan-esquely, “like a newspaperman,” as Jones put it, and then fling the pages at the guitarist, trusting him to find the music in them.) Simonon designed the Clash clothes, spraying on the slogans and sharpening the cut of the pants. (“Like trousers, like brain” was a Strummer maxim.) In photos, they projected a malnourished glamour: Jones sleepy-lidded and baleful, Strummer with his glowing Albert Camus forehead, Simonon a Darwinian apparition of punk-rock bone structure. When tiny, elastic, super-strong Topper Headon replaced Terry Chimes as the band’s regular drummer, the lineup was complete.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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