Joe Strummer, the frontman for the legendary rock n' roll band The Clash, would have turned 60 years old this month. He died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect 10 years ago this December, but is arguably more relevant today than at the height of his popularity.
Strummer, after all, is the man who penned the lyric, "All the power's in the hands, of the people rich enough to buy it." Occupy, anyone? Citizens United? The Clash's masterpiece -- London Calling -- comes off like it was written for the summer of 2012, with pounding, staccato chords that capture our collective anxious mood, and apocalyptic lyrics that reflect contemporary fears of economic and environmental collapse: "The ice age is coming/the sun's zooming in/meltdown expected/the wheat is growing thin..."
But like some of his heroes, including Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, Strummer's reach extended beyond his music. In his short life, he matured from young firebrand into a battle-hardened rock n' roll Wiseman and humanitarian, and in the process inspired countless other musicians, artists and fans to live a life filled with purpose and passion. He went from howling with frustration that he wanted "a riot of my own," in 1977, to more serenely, but just as sincerely, saying in a documentary shortly before his death that "people can do anything, this is something that I'm beginning to learn... it's time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain't going anywhere."
The Clash are often labeled as a British punk bank, and to be sure, they were at ground zero of that movement when it exploded onto the scene in 1976, giving a jolt to a music industry and culture that had grown cynical, corporatized and complacent. They challenged rock n' roll to live up to its ideals and early revolutionary promise, bringing a political edge and sense of purpose back to the music.
But while much of punk reviled in nihilism -- think the Sex Pistol's sneering "No future!" The Clash were rebels with a cause. "This is a public service announcement -- with guitars!" Strummer declared at the opening of Know Your Rights The same could be said for half the band's catalogue. They made it clear where they stood. Some punk bands dabbled in Nazi imagery for shock value. The Clash, for their part, played Rock Against Racism gigs at a time when the right-wing British National Front party was gaining momentum, even among some within the punk movement. (It hit close to home for Strummer. His own brother had joined the neo-fascist group and committed suicide while they were still both teens.)
Musically, Strummer and his band mates had influences and tastes that went far deeper and took them well beyond first wave punk's narrow borders. From rockabilly, to reggae, to rap, they were musical and cultural omnivores who sucked up everything around them and re-imagined it through their own form of raw, inventive rock n' roll that has stood the test of time, instead of curdling like so much early punk. And their influences extended beyond music. With the song "Straight to Hell," they distilled the trippy horror of Vietnam movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and the book Dispatches by Michael Herr, into a strange, otherworldly, but utterly compelling, pop song. "It could be anywhere/most likely could be any frontier/any hemisphere/no man's land," Strummer sang. Like Afghanistan or Iraq.
Another Clash song, "The Magnificent Seven," was something of a cultural watershed -- one of the first major rap songs by white artists. Astonishingly, it was recorded in 1980, just months after the release of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first rap song to hit the top 40. The Clash did this in an age when the racially-tinged battle cry of many rock fans was that "disco sucks!" As Marcus Gray pointed out in his superb biography of the band, The Last Gang in Town, The Clash went against the dominant grain to become among the first rockers to champion what would become "the most innovative, influential and commercially successful force in the popular music of the eighties, nineties and noughties."
Strummer and his bandmates, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon, dabbled in various genres without coming off as cheap or gimmicky. As the late great rock critic Lester Bangs wrote, "The Clash are authentic because their music carries such brutal conviction." In a way, with their wide palate, they prepped us for our current cultural moment, when the Internet has made music more technologically accessible than ever and broadened our tastes through an explosion of cross-pollination. Their wicked sense of humor and wide-eyed enthusiasm made it all go down smooth.
In turn, The Clash's influence on music was far reaching, from classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen, who recently played London Calling live, to hip-hop artists like the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. The latter's frontman, Chuck D, has said hearing the Clash's political bent caused an "awakening" in him, and he went on to change the course of hip-hop with his own socially-conscious rap. Sri Lanka-born pop star M.I.A. sampled "Straight to Hell" as the foundation for her breakthrough hit, "Paper Planes."
You would think Bob Dylan's son, Jakob, had all the inspiration he needed at home. But he said it was seeing a Clash show as a kid that made him go out and buy a Fender Telecaster. Dylan's current single namechecks "The Mighty Joe Strummer" while channeling the Clash sound circa 1980. An indie band currently receiving a lot of buzz, New Jersey's Gaslight Anthem, wrote an entire song that pays homage to Strummer, with lyrics describing the discovery of the Clash as "a shot through my skull to my brain." And The Hold Steady, another terrific indie band based in Brooklyn, sums up the lasting influence most succinctly with a song that urges, "Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer. I think he may have been our only decent teacher."
For a time, the Clash were called "The Only Band That Matters," and while they may have failed to live up to that lofty label in an enduring way, they were as beautiful and valiant in their failure as the Rolling Stones became grotesque in their success. The Stones, once "The World's Greatest Rock n' Roll Band," metastasized into a multi-million dollar corporation that, as New Yorker editor David Remnick recently observed, still "come together only to pad their fortunes as their own cover band." Strummer and his mates took idealistic -- and perhaps naive -- stances to side with their fans over the record industry, which ultimately helped contribute to the band's destruction.
The Clash demanded that their masterpiece double album, London Calling, and its triple-album follow up, Sandanista, be sold at the price of a single album, and made similar decisions on touring to keep costs down for fans. It put them deeply in debt. That, combined with typical VH1 Behind the Music pitfalls for rock bands -- internal strife over drugs, creative control and ego -- led them to implode as they were poised on the brink of superstardom. They could only sit back as lesser imitators inspired by them, such as U2 and The Police went on to much greater fame and riches in the 1980s.
Strummer largely dropped from public view while he moved to the British countryside and raised his daughters. He remained passionate about music, and even hosted a BBC radio show that showcased his ample record collection, eclectic taste and seemingly endless curiosity. He started new projects that explored music from around the world, and was recording an album called Streetcore with his band the Mescaleros shortly before his death. On the final cut, a twangy cover of an old Bobby Charles number, "Silver & Gold," he crooned, "I do a lot of things, I know is wrong. I hope I'm forgiven, before I'm gone."
Despite their do-it-yourself ethos and amateurish roots, The Clash went on to become accomplished musicians and were no strangers to commercial success, as evidenced by major hits such "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "Rock The Casbah." They could have become a cash-cow conglomerate. Instead, Strummer died with relatively modest holdings by rock star standards, according to published reports, but his integrity firmly intact.
A few years before his death, a GQ writer asked Strummer if he had any regrets. "No," he said. "I never think like that. Never." He added, "And anyway, the hell with it. Life's about your friendships, the way you love your partner, the way you care for your children. that is what life is about. Not anything about earning a hundred zillion dollars..... I want life to be about creativity." He told another interviewer simply, "Don't forget you're alive." We won't forget, Joe. We won't forget.
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