“Are ya taking over?

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Epic Records
White man in Hammersmith Palais.
Paul Wong

Or are ya’ taking orders?

Are ya’ going forwards?

Or ya’ going backwards?”

– “White Riot”

John Graham Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer, outspoken frontman of pioneering British punks The Clash, died Dec. 22, 2002 at his home, of heart failure. He was famous for his loathing of cheap sentiment, so I say this as a cold hard matter of fact rather than as the kinda of groveling graveside praise he would have hated; Strummer’s influence as singer, songwriter, lyricist and artist/activist are immeasurable and epitomize the upper most peaks of what popular music is capable. He was the George Orwell of rock, a delicate mix of unforgiving skepticism for both sides and honest empathy for the downtrodden.

The son of a British diplomat, Strummer was born in Turkey in 1952 and received a middle class education at London boarding schools where he first discovered rock and reggae. He got his stage name strumming out Chuck Berry tunes on a ukulele in Tube stations for pocket change.

Strummer fronted the 101’ers, a proto-punk pub rock outfit, who squatted in condemned London buildings before forming The Clash with Mick Jones (guitar) and Paul Simonon (bass) and a revolving door of drummers, before settling on Terry Chimes and then Topper Headon.

For a few all too brief years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, The Clash lived up to their own self-billed title as “the only band that matters.” Strummer and his band didn’t invent punk rock, but more than any other group they defined it, refining and expanding the music and infusing punk with message of intelligent. After The Clash, it wasn’t enough to be just a snotty thug in a leather jacket anymore, detached from the rest of the world, devoid of compassion. You had to create something worth living for. You had to stand for something. You had to think.

While the Sex Pistols preached “No future,” Strummer and Jones’ songs renounced directionless nihilism and reestablished rock and roll as an authentic, compelling form of protest. Unchecked commercialism, imperialism, fascism and racism were easy enough targets in Thatcherist Britain, but Strummer raged against them with a volatile fury that seemed to overflow from every chord he slashed out, each and every word he spat to the mic. At a time when the Left was criticized for losing its nerve, The Clash carried forth a sense of unrestrained righteousness they’d learned from the reggae and dub of Jamaican Rastas.

While Strummer sang out in opposition to these social ills, he never offered a concrete utopian blueprint or trite quick fixes to the evils he rallied against. The Clash weren’t dogmatic or arrogant enough to assume they could lead a generation by the hand. “We were trying to group in a socialist way,” Strummer once said, “towards some future where the world might be less of a miserable place.”

Rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote for England’s New Music Express that he never dreamed it was possible for a rock band to be as good to its fans as The Clash was to it’s fans. It wasn’t just an abstraction of unspoken respect or an extra encore some nights, it was letting hordes of kids sleep in their hotel rooms and going to war with their record company to make sure their triple album Sandinista! sold at below normal prices.

They were major-label punks who spit on “turning rebellion into money” on their first record, a contradiction they were the first to admit but so was white English boys playing a fusion of punk, rockabilly, R&B, funk, reggae and early hip hop in the first place. Like every great band, The Clash’s contractions made it great. It thrived because of them.

Strummer lives on not just because of the thousands of revolutionary blazes he set on stage at filthy clubs and concert halls 20 years ago, but for the millions of tiny infernos The Clash’s music has and will continue to set off on bedroom stereos and headphones continually inspiring people to think for themselves and actually give a shit about the human beings around them. At their best, Strummer and The Clash embodied what will always be the center of any progressive movement; we can do better.

Rest in peace John Mellor, but long live Joe Strummer.

– Scott Serilla can be reached at sserilla@umich.edu

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