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.