Joe Strummer and Punk Self-Reinvention

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

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.

Bernie Rhodes, tension addict and disciple of the dialectic, might have preferred it if the members of his group had loathed each other. As it was, they formed an artistic brotherhood. In 1977, one minute and 41 seconds into a ranty, we-hate-our-record-company single called “Complete Control,” The Clash accelerated without warning into musical-political space: the drums dropped away, the chordal churn of Jones’s guitar separated into shimmering dub-streaks, and Strummer let out a hoarse, preacherly groan before hailing the world on his own newly discovered frequency. This is Joe Public speaking / I’m controlled in the body, I’m controlled in the mind! It was the first broadcast, as it were, on Radio Clash, which for the next five years would be a stream of sonic possibility, a highly unreliable global news service, a hotline from Strummer’s poetic unconscious, and a vector for the revolutionary stirrings of just about anybody.

The politics were a strange combination of rock-and-roll theater and full-blooded engagement. The Clash’s cultural presence—antiracist, apocalyptically reggae-fied—was a bulwark against the rise of the far right in Britain, and Strummer was outspoken in support of IRA hunger strikers, Latin American leftist guerrillas, and kids without concert tickets. This same wild-eyed humanism possessed the music: The Clash became prolific, recklessly absorbent. The third album, 1979’s London Calling, was a double record—ska, rockabilly, Spector-esque pop, with Strummer spluttering about Montgomery Clift or doomsaying like a sawed-off W. H. Auden. The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Engines stop turning, the wheat is growing thin. The next year’s Sandinista! was a triple record, a fantastic murk of indulgence—children’s choirs, noirish keyboard flits—The Clash wandering unchecked in an Aladdin’s cave of reverb.

The English music press carped continuously and, it might be said, neurotically: How could Strummer sing My daddy was a bankrobber when his daddy was, in fact, an administrator in the British Foreign Office? But The Clash was leaving England behind. Dressed now like fashion-damaged jungle insurgents, the band invaded America. Combat Rock reached No. 7 on the U.S. charts—quite an achievement for a record with Allen Ginsberg on it. (The poet’s intonations can be heard in the background of “Ghetto Defendant.”) Strummer, typically, was grumpy with this enormous new audience: “I s’pose you don’t wanna hear me go on about this and that and what’s up my arse, huh?” he demanded of 150,000 people at the Us Festival in 1983.

And then it was over—the good part, at least. Topper Headon went off the rails (heroin) in 1982; Mick Jones was expelled in ’83. There followed three more years of The Clash—or, as the reconstituted band became known, the “dodgy” Clash—including the release of the coarse and disastrous Cut the Crap. Then it was really over. Strummer entered what he would refer to later as “the wilderness years”—depression, hedonistic flounderings, solo records of fitful quality. The late ’90s found him reenergized, hoisting the tattered standard of his voice over a band called The Mescaleros: the world seemed to need him still. And then, one afternoon in 2002, after taking his dogs for a walk, he sat down on his couch and succumbed to a previously undetected congenital heart defect. One of his last concerts had been a benefit for striking London firefighters.

“Life,” grumbled the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, “cannot be an Idyll any more than it can be an Epic; it is a despicable system of Book-keeping by Double Entry.” For The Clash, in its glory, the entries were all on the epic side. Daring greatness, the band courted preposterousness: the music was worth the risk. For Joe Strummer it was more complicated, it had to be, and the doubleness ran through his days—frightened schoolboy, hero to millions.

Three Essential Not-So-Famous Songs by The Clash 

>“Protex Blue” (1977)

Standing in the bog of a West End bar / Guy on the right leaning over too far … A sneering hymn to condoms, lust, and late-night disgust.

>Groovy Times” (1979)

Wistful bounce, splashed-on harmonica, and a magnificently ragged, wearily ironic performance from Strummer—this one has it all.

>“Sean Flynn” (1982)

A bamboo disco-fugue inspired by Michael Herr’s Vietnam classic, Dispatches, with Strummer in a trance, moaning and mosquito-depleted.