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Strummer, Joe [real name John Graham Mellor]free

(1952–2002)
  • Michael T. Thornhill

Joe Strummer (1952–2002)

by Pennie Smith, 1980

© Pennie Smith; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Strummer, Joe [real name John Graham Mellor] (1952–2002), rock musician and songwriter, was born on 21 August 1952 in Ankara, Turkey, the younger son of Ronald Ralph Mellor (1916–1984), a clerical officer in the diplomatic service, and his wife, Anna, formerly Girvan, née MacKenzie (1915–1986), a nurse whose family farmed in the Scottish highlands. John and his brother, David (1951–1969), lived in Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn before moving to Britain for the first time in 1959. Home became a modest bungalow at 15 Court Farm Road, Warlingham, Surrey.

Education and brother's suicide

From 1961 Mellor joined his brother as a boarder at the City of London Freemen's School in Ashtead, Surrey. Owing to their father's postings to Iran and then Malawi they saw their parents infrequently and were left feeling rejected. (If Ronald Mellor in particular seemed unsympathetic, this may have been due to his own experience in an Indian orphanage after his parents—his father was a railway official in the raj—died.) Unusually, it was Mellor who looked after his much quieter older brother, but the relationship was never very close. Mellor made friends easily, increasingly via film and music tastes—Marlon Brando, the Rolling Stones, and, above all, Bob Dylan; David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia was also a favourite. Outsider status was a common thread. According to one teacher Mellor was a likeable but unacademic pupil, constitutionally unable to address any authority figure without casting his eyes downwards (private information). With a penchant for drawing cartoons, he left school in 1969 with two A-level passes in art and history—enough to enter London's Central School of Art and Design in the autumn.

That summer, however, proved highly traumatic. Obliged to move back home, Mellor bristled with pent-up grievances. The combination of private schooling and a relatively humble background had left him acutely class-conscious. He saw his father's career as years of kowtowing, while in turn Ronald Mellor—who was appointed MBE in 1969—struggled to understand his long-haired, hippy son. This strained relationship reached breaking point in July when David committed suicide. Shy and frail, he had left school a year earlier, after which he involved himself with the occult and far-right politics before overdosing on aspirins. Mellor was devastated, blaming himself as much as his parents. Already reluctant to talk about his family, he subsequently clammed up even more. Another development also seems to have been connected to this upset: as a Dylan fan, he understood that escape could be achieved through reinvention. At art college he insisted that people call him Woody (after the folk-singer Woody Guthrie) and started speaking with an Americanized accent.

Drop-out musician

Not one for half measures, Mellor quit his course before the end of the first year, bought a second-hand ukulele, and with it began the life of a busker, soon graduating to guitar. His playing was unorthodox but not ineffective. Although left-handed, he held his instrument as a right-hander would, making his less dexterous hand the one he strummed with. The upshot, explained busking companion Tymon Dogg, was a powerful rhythm guitar style, coupled with a 'sausage-fingered approach to lead work' (Gilbert, 19). A spell in Newport, Wales, with student friends in 1973–4 resulted in the formation of a short-lived rock and roll band, the Vultures, with Mellor on guitar and vocals. About this time he cut his long hair and cultivated a ‘greaser’ look, complete with mutton-chop sideburns.

In the summer of 1974 Mellor returned to London and settled in a squat at 101 Walterton Road, West Kilburn. Several other musicians were also resident and a band was formed—the 101ers. As a bonding exercise the group came up with new names for themselves. Mellor became Joe Strummer, the everyman troubadour—'six strings or none at all' (Gilbert, 68). By 1975 the 101ers were front runners in London's pub rock scene, so-called because of the venues the bands played in. With its emphasis on raw energy and classic R&B songs, pub rock was both a rejection of mid-1970s progressive rock and a precursor of the punk style that followed. Frequent live performances allowed Joe StrummerMellor would answer to no other name—to hone what became his characteristic stage gestures, most notably the pumping right leg and the finger pressed in the ear (as he mangled his lyrics almost beyond recognition).

On 16 May 1975 Mellor married Pamela Jill Moolman, a 25-year-old South African social worker, and daughter of Peter Albertus George Moolman, a chief executive in transport. Eager to gain British citizenship, she paid him £100. He spent the money on a Telecaster guitar, which became another trademark. The 101ers went into the studio that winter, but before any records were released Strummer had left the band, breaking it up in the process. Seeing punk trailblazers the Sex Pistols in April 1976 (supporting the 101ers) changed everything. A posthumous 101ers single, 'Keys to your heart', came out later that year—written by Strummer for his Spanish girlfriend, Paloma Romano (who went on to become the drummer for the Slits and the Raincoats under the pseudonym Palmolive)—and was followed in 1981 by Elgin Avenue Breakdown, an album of studio cuts and live recordings.

Punk spokesman

1976 was ‘year zero’ in punk mythology: nothing that came before was relevant. In truth, it was Strummer's performances for the 101ers that brought him to the attention of a punk band being assembled by guitarist Mick Jones. Although at twenty-four he was older than most punks, Strummer nevertheless looked and sounded the part: 'full of bad old teeth and a voice like rust on the underside of an old car' (Elgin Avenue Breakdown sleevenotes, 1981). He even developed a new persona to fit the scene, burying his natural gentleness beneath a yobbish façade, while his voice took on a slurred cockney inflection. After a meeting outside a dole office (punk was a direct reaction to the unemployment of the time) Strummer joined with Jones and the bassist Paul Simonon to form the Clash, a name Simonon suggested after seeing the term used repeatedly in newspaper headlines. Its semantics and onomatopoeic quality fitted perfectly with their overtly political approach, which was encouraged by manager Bernie Rhodes.

Strummer and Jones soon became punk's legendary songwriting partnership. With Strummer mainly responsible for the words and Jones for the music, they focused on the problems of the faltering British state—which since 1945 had promised but not delivered full employment, equality of opportunity, and ‘cradle to grave’ welfare—and created songs that resonated with disaffected youth. While the Sex Pistols peddled nihilism, the Clash offered hope. Strummer's lyrics were often drawn from experience. 'White riot', the band's first single in March 1977, was based on the Notting Hill carnival riots of 1976; Strummer, who had been present, saw the actions of the riled Afro-Caribbean community as the example to follow. Given the prevalent racism of the time, an important feature of the Clash's stance, politically and musically (they pioneered the fusion of punk and reggae), was this positive response to Britain's emergent multiculturalism. The Clash's eponymous début album, released in April 1977, was a defining statement of the punk phenomenon.

Strummer's idealism led him to become the conscience of the band—and not just because he was its vocalist and frontman. This entailed squaring the group's staunch, if somewhat naïve, left-wing politics with the practicalities of being signed to the biggest record company of the day, CBS. The 1978 single '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' directly addressed this problem 'of turning rebellion into money' and was regarded by many critics as one of the Clash's finest songs, as well as being Strummer's own favourite. While royalties were still paying off a £100,000 advance, this dilemma could be held at bay, but Strummer struggled with the contradictory expectations. The band meanwhile developed a uniquely close relationship with its predominantly male audience.

London Calling and Sandinista!

Strummer's creative peak occurred in 1979–80. After an uninspired second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, released in November 1978, the band looked to broaden their musical horizons, a move signalled by the sacking of Rhodes. For Strummer, the shift was prompted by his first visit to America, where his love of blues and country resurfaced. As on previous occasions, a barometer of the change was his hairstyle—a slicked-back 1950s-style quiff became the order of the day. When the Clash first toured the US in early 1979, the sense of liberation from the punk-obsessed British scene was almost palpable. Much to Strummer's delight, Bob Dylan, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Andy Warhol all saw the New York show. A second tour followed later that year and this formed the basis of Pennie Smith's photographic record, The Clash: Before and After (1980), which included commentary from Strummer.

The musical transformation was mirrored by an opening up in Joe's personal life. In late 1978 he began seeing Gabrielle (Gaby) Salter, a teenager who lived with her mother in a council flat on the World's End estate in Chelsea, and before long he moved in. It was from there that he would cycle to the Clash's Vanilla rehearsal building in Pimlico to write new material. The working day typically started with a couple of hours of musical experimentation—soul, ska, R&B, and jazz were all dabbled with—before band and crew went across the road to play football. Stimulated by the rivalry, more music-making would follow. Material from the Vanilla sessions formed the core of London Calling, a double LP released in December 1979, which was widely considered the Clash's masterpiece. (The American music magazine Rolling Stone voted it the top album of the 1980s and its cover was issued as a Royal Mail postage stamp in 2010.)

Although the band's development continued apace during 1980, again influenced by visits to America, Strummer nevertheless tried to remain true to punk's egalitarian spirit. His personal relationship with Jones suffered as a consequence (Jones had fewer qualms about being a rock star), and in January the creative friction—which was usually characterized by silences—escalated into a dressing room scuffle. (Despite this, Strummer helped Jones with half the songs on his girlfriend Ellen Foley's album, The Spirit of St Louis, which came out the following year.) Meanwhile, the band's punk past reared its head with the cinema release in March 1980 of Rude Boy, a docu-drama detailing the travails of a Clash roadie. Shot in 1978–9, the film contained classic footage of the band, with Strummer often bug-eyed and convulsive with energy, most notably at the huge Rock Against Racism rally in London in April 1978.

In December 1980, the Clash released Sandinista!, an ambitious triple album whose musical canvas included soul, hip hop, gospel, rockabilly, reggae, and even a waltz. Strummer's lyrics ranged equally widely, albeit with a leitmotiv critical of US foreign policy (Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government was at the time being assailed by American-backed guerrillas). British critics initially condemned the record as a rag-bag of styles. Strummer, who had just been turned down for a mortgage, was particularly hurt by the charge of 'bloated arrogance': having effectively waived royalties on British sales so that it could retail for the price of a single album, he felt that he could not win. However, Sandinista! was later viewed more positively, not least because of its influence on such artists as the Beastie Boys (Strummer's rap on 'The Magnificent Seven' was groundbreaking for a white band) and Chuck D of Public Enemy.

'Turning rebellion into money'

1981 was notable for two events which sowed the seeds of the Clash's demise. The first was Strummer's successful campaign to have Rhodes reappointed as manager in February. This altered the dynamic between Strummer and Jones, whose influence in the group diminished. The other event was the American media hullabaloo surrounding the band's seventeen-show residency at Bond's in New York in May–June. According to Pat Gilbert's history of the band, this transformed the Clash from being 'a cool, alternative group in the States into a million-selling act' (Gilbert, 294). Over the next two years it became ever more apparent that Strummer was unable to cope with actually making money.

The release of the Clash's fifth album, Combat Rock, in May 1982 initiated the break-up of the band. With relations already strained over the making of the record, Strummer, secretly encouraged by Rhodes, went missing on the eve of a British tour, in order to drum up publicity. But what Rhodes did not anticipate was that Strummer would vanish completely, causing the cancellation of the dates. Exhausted by six years of being the Clash's frontman, he absconded to Paris, grew a beard for disguise, and took a break from everything. Upon his return a month later, he insisted that the drummer Topper Headon, a crucial element in the band since 1977, be sacked on account of his heroin addiction. (Strummer's own drug use had included amphetamines during the band's early years, but was now apparently confined to marijuana.) Grateful to have Strummer back, Jones and Simonon agreed to the dismissal, but were unhappy about Rhodes's role in the affair. Ironically it was Headon who wrote the music for 'Rock the Casbah', which became the band's first top ten hit, tellingly in America where they had become more popular than in Britain.

Meanwhile Combat Rock was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, its critique of imperialism—particularly the Vietnam war—striking a chord at the time of the Falklands conflict. When the Clash toured America that summer Strummer sported a Mohawk haircut, influenced by the Scorsese film Taxi Driver. (Detractors scoffed that he was more affected by Hollywood-mediated history than the events themselves.) These dates were followed by a support slot on the Who's ‘farewell’ stadium rock tour. To some commentators the Clash seemed poised to replace them, a prospect that acutely worried Strummer. In September 1983, after months of fretting about becoming a 'professional rebel', he sacked Jones for 'rock star' behaviour and in so doing effectively destroyed the band. But the truth was that Strummer could not handle material success—Combat Rock had sold a million copies by 1983—even though it finally enabled him to secure a mortgage for a house at 37 Lancaster Road in London's Ladbroke Grove.

After the Clash

For the next two years Strummer vainly tried to return to the values of the early days of punk via a new five-piece Clash line-up, and he was busy touring when his father died in February 1984. Although a rapprochement had taken place (Ronald Mellor was very proud of his son's achievements), Strummer did not fully appreciate his father's accomplishments and personality until he became a father himself. He and Gaby Salter had two daughters, Jazz (b. 1984) and Lola (b. 1986). To make matters worse, Strummer's mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, to which she succumbed in December 1986. With his heart clearly not in it, Strummer's new Clash released an appropriately titled album, Cut the Crap, in October 1985 and promptly broke up. The only thing he enjoyed from the whole experience was the band's busking tour of Britain in June 1985, which recalled his pre-101ers days.

Strummer spent the next few years regretting his decisions. An unsuccessful attempt to persuade Jones to reform the Clash at least helped to mend fences and Strummer co-wrote songs for No. 10 Upping Street (1986) by Jones's new band, Big Audio Dynamite. Film work also offered a distraction. Strummer starred in Straight to Hell (1986) and Mystery Train (1989), but remained realistic about his acting abilities and concentrated on film scores. His most accomplished effort was for Walker in 1987; other notable contributions included Sid and Nancy (1986) and Permanent Record (1988). He released an underappreciated solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989 but his record label was more interested in a Clash reunion, having released The Story of the Clash Volume 1 the previous year.

The early 1990s were, by Strummer's own admission, a 'dark night'. While guest slots and production work were always available (he deputized in the Pogues in 1987 and 1991), he could not release music under his own name owing to a contractual dispute with CBS. In 1991 a reissue of 'Should I stay or should I go' topped the British charts following its use in a television commercial. A year later, after one of his daughters found a syringe in a playground, Strummer moved away from London to the Hampshire village of Newton Stacey, but soon afterwards he and Gaby separated. This unhappy period ended when he met Lucinda Clare (Luce) Henderson, née Tait (b. 1962), daughter of the architect Gavin Nicholas Tait, and they married in London on 31 May 1995. Strummer, Luce, and Luce's daughter, Eliza (b. 1992), from a previous marriage, resided at Ivy Cottage in Heckfield, Hampshire, before settling at Yalway Manor in Broomfield, Somerset, in 1997.

Rebirth and death

Revitalized by his domestic life and enthused by collaborations with Black Grape (1996) and Fat Les (1998), Strummer assembled a new band—the Mescaleros—and in 1999 released Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. With its blend of R&B, Latino vibes, and African beats, Strummer had clearly found a new niche as an elder statesman of ‘world music’. Not that senior status diminished his vitality. During tours, band mates half his age took turns to stay up with him, as he quaffed red wine until dawn (the affectionate expression for this was 'you've been Strummered'). The old hippy in him resurfaced at music festivals when he would establish his own encampment for friends and fans to meet and chat. In the late 1990s he also hosted a radio show, London Calling, for the BBC's World Service. Interest in the Clash continued with the release of a live album, From Here to Eternity, in 1999 and the airing of a documentary, Westway to the World, the following year. In 2001 Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon received the Ivor Novello award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for the Clash's outstanding contribution to music. Strummer's renaissance continued with another album, Global A Go-Go, that same year. In 2002, with work in progress on a third Mescaleros record, Strummer joined up with ailing country legend Johnny Cash to record a memorable cover of Bob Marley's 'Redemption song'.

On Sunday 22 December 2002 Strummer collapsed and died at his Somerset home. He had just taken his dogs for a walk and was sitting on the sofa in the living room. His post mortem revealed that he had suffered from an intra-mural coronary artery, a rare congenital condition whereby one of the heart's main blood vessels grows inside the muscle wall; the result was a fatal restriction of the circulation. It could have killed him much earlier. His death was a major news story across the world. The irony in this was that Strummer had remained largely unrecognized in Britain, except to a niche audience, even in the Clash's heyday. In part this was because he had never been a tabloid punk rocker like Sid Vicious, but it was also due to the Clash's refusal to appear on the main TV music show of the time, Top of the Pops, owing to its insistence that acts mime. The prominence given to his death was thus more a measure of his influence than a reflection of his celebrity. In the pantheon of politicized popular music, he was placed on a par with Guthrie, Dylan, Lennon, and Marley. During his public funeral service at Kensal Green cemetery on 30 December (a private ceremony took place later that day at West London crematorium) his coffin was adorned with a sticker that urged 'question authority'. While a last testament to his career was the release of the Mescaleros album Streetcore in 2003, continuing tributes to his inspirational personality included the naming of a locomotive train after him in 2005 and a square in the Spanish city of Granada in 2013. A charity, Strummerville, was established the year after his death to help young artists develop and promote their music. As for his longer-term legacy, he may well be remembered as a leading advocate of multicultural society at a time when the racialism associated with Britain's imperial past was still rife.

Sources

  • P. Smith, The Clash: before and after (1980)
  • A. Transom [J. Strummer], The story of the Clash (1988) [sleeve notes]
  • J. L. Yewdall and N. Jones, Joe Strummer with the 101'ers and the Clash, 1974–1976 (1992)
  • L. Bangs, Psychotic reactions and carburetor dung, ed. G. Marcus [new edn] (1996)
  • J. Green and G. Barker, A riot of our own: night and day with the Clash (1997)
  • M. Gray, The Clash: return of the last gang in town (2001)
  • B. Gruen, The Clash, ed. C. Salewicz (2002)
  • P. Gilbert, Passion is a fashion: the real story of the Clash (2004)
  • A. Davie, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: vision of a homeland (2005)
  • K. Needs, Joe Strummer and the legend of the Clash (2003)
  • A. D'Ambrosio, ed., Let fury have the hour: the punk rock politics of Joe Strummer (New York, 2004)
  • C. Salewicz, Redemption song: the definitive biography of Joe Strummer (2006)
  • J. Strummer and others, The Clash (2008)
  • M. Gray, Route 19 revisited: the Clash and London calling (2009)
  • The Times (24 Dec 2002)
  • Daily Telegraph (24 Dec 2002)
  • The Guardian (24 Dec 2002)
  • The Independent (24 Dec 2002)
  • private information (2006) [Lucinda Mellor, widow; C. Salewicz; G. R. Vowles]
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, Planet rock profiles, ITV, 30 Oct 2000
  • BFINA, In profile, ITV1, 25 Oct 2002
  • BFINA, ‘Joe Strummer’, S. Rowley (presenter) Channel 4, 15 June 2003
  • BFINA, current affairs footage
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, performance footage
  • Westway to the world, Don Letts (director), 1999
  • Let's rock again!, Dick Rude (director), 2004
  • The future is unwritten: Joe Strummer, Julian Temple (director), 2007

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview with A. Whiting, 1CDR0019454
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • P. Smith, group portrait, bromide fibre print, 1976 (the Clash), NPG
  • photographs, 1976–2001, Camera Press, London
  • photographs, 1976–2002, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1977–2002, Getty Images, London
  • P. Smith, bromide fibre print, 1980, NPG [see illus.]
  • Zeitlhofer, photograph, 1981, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1986–2002, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London
  • photographs, 1999–2002, Empics, London
  • photographs, Redferns Music Picture Library, London
  • photographs, repro. in Smith, The Clash
  • photographs, repro. in Yewdall and Jones, Joe Strummer