Born John Graham Mellor, August 21, 1952, in Ankara, Turkey; died of a heart attack, December 22, 2002, in Broomfield, Somerset, England. Musician, actor, and activist. As the guitarist, lead singer, and a songwriter for the British punk band the Clash, Joe Strummer brought unique political sensibilities to raucous punk music, as well as diverse musical influences from reggae to rockabilly. Although Clash songs such as "Rock the Casbah" and "Train in Vain," gained the group widespread fame in the United States, the group's most avid following was in Great Britain, where they had 16 Top 40 hits. Upon hearing of Strummer's death, British singer Billy Bragg was quoted in Daily Variety as saying: "Without Joe there's no political Clash, and without the Clash the whole political edge of punk would have been severely dulled."
The son of a British diplomat, Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, and attended several London boarding schools. In the early 1970s, he began performing on London street corners and subway stations and formed the rock band 101ers, which became a popular band in the pubs of England. By then, he had assumed his new name of Joe Strummer, reportedly to reflect his guitar playing. In 1976, he helped form the Clash after seeing the British punk band the Sex Pistols. The band quickly became popular and opened for the Sex Pistols during their infamous "Anarchy tour" in the summer of 1976. But, unlike many punk bands with questionable musical ability, the Clash, thanks to the song writing of Strummer and Clash co–founder Mick Jones, evolved from writing three–chord punk anthems to songs influenced by reggae, blues, and rap.
The band signed with CBS Records and quickly recorded their debut album, The Clash, which Rolling Stone magazine called the "definitive punk album" in 1977. However, CBS Record's parent company in the United States, Columbia Records, refused to release the album in America, partly due to the band's lyrics and its outlaw persona. For example, the British hit, "White Riot," included such lyrics as "all the power's in the hands of people rich enough to buy it."
Despite this setback, the album became a best–selling import in America. A BBC biography of the Clash noted that critics "recognized that they had brilliantly distilled the anger, depression and energy of mid–'70s England" and "had infused the messages and sloganeering with strong tunes and pop hooks."
The band's breakthrough in the United States came in 1979 with their album London Calling, which included their first American hit single, "Train in Vain." The band followed with the albums Sandinista!, which included the title song about Nicaraguan Sandinistas fighting the American–backed enemy, and Combat Rock, which included the hits "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
Strummer and Jones worked both as a team and individually in writing the group's songs, delivering messages of social consciousness and anti–racism. A BBC News article summed up the Clash and Strummer's songs saying that "the message was brutally honest and for those who did not buy into it, there was always the damn good rock music."
Although successful and firm fixtures on the music scene, the band began to undergo internal division until Jones left the band in 1983. The band called it quits three years later in 1986. Strummer continued writing music and performing, including forming the short–lived band Latino Rockabilly War, performing with the Pogues, and releasing a solo album titled Earthquake Weather.
Strummer was introduced to the film world when he wrote two songs for the movie Sid & Nancy, a film about the tragic end of the former Sex Pistols' bass player and his girlfriend. Strummer continued to compose for films and then began acting, appearing in the movies Candy Mountain, Walker, Straight to Hell, and Mystery Train. Strummer reappeared on the music scene in 1999 with a new band, the Mescaleros, and the album Rock Art and the X–Ray Style. They later released Global a Go–Go.
Throughout his career, Strummer never lost his edge in terms of his combative personality and the hard–hitting social commentary in his lyrics. Phil Gallo and Debra Johnson reported in Daily Variety that during a performance in the fall of 2002 at the Troubador, "Strummer proved his punk attitude has never deflated, pulling an abusive patron onstage and challenging him to a fist fight."
Singer Bragg also noted in London's Guardian Unlimited, "I have a great admiration for the man. His most recent records are as political and edgy as anything he did with the Clash. His take on multicultural Britain in the 21st century is far ahead of anybody else."
Throughout his life, Strummer remained active in social causes and outspoken against racism. At the time of his death, he was scheduled to collaborate with Bono from the band U2 on a Nelson Mandela tribute song for an AIDS fund–raiser in South Africa. He was also interested in environmental issues. Future Forests, which Strummer helped found, announced plans to plant trees and name a forest after him, creating a "living memorial on the Isle of Skye in Scotland."
The Clash had often received lucrative offers to reunite, but never did. However, the band was going to perform together again for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2003. An article on CNN.com quoted Bono telling the British Press Association, "The Clash was the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2."
Strummer died on December 22, 2002, in England, of a heart attack; he was 50. He is survived by his wife, Lucinda, and three children. Although Strummer never again reached the fame or audiences that he did with the Clash, his legacy in rock music is unquestionable. Tom Sinclair, writing in Entertainment Weekly, noted that Strummer's musical efforts post–Clash "felt anticlimactic almost by definition. He had embodied rock commitment so completely that no second act seemed possible."
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2600955.stm (February 4, 2003); BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2601287.stm (February 4, 2003); Cincinnati Post, January 21, 2003; CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2002/SHOWBIZ/Music/12/23/obit.strummer (February 4, 2003); Daily Variety, December 24, 2002; Entertainment Weekly, January 10, 2003; Guardian Unlimited, http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/news/story/0,117117,864833,00.html (February 4, 2003).
— David A. Petechuk