5 Fascinating Facts About The Clash’s Joe Strummer

John Graham Mellor had been using the nickname “Woody” for a few years before taking on a whole new moniker while singing and playing guitar in the pub rock band The 101ers. He told musician Don Letts, “I still can only play all six strings or none, and not all the fiddly bits, which is why I called myself Joe Strummer.” The guitarist went on to join The Clash, and while he may not have been as flashy a player as Mick Jones, he sure had plenty to say. Let’s look at five fascinating facts about Joe Strummer.

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Strummer Left The 101ers Before Their Debut Single Was Released

The 101ers were performing in different clubs around London. On April 3, 1976, a new band opened the show at The Nashville Room. When the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene, Strummer felt everything else was irrelevant. He told journalist Chris Salewicz, “They were like a million years ahead. I realized immediately we were going nowhere. The rest of my group hated them. The Pistols had to come in and blow everything away. They were the stun grenade into the room before the door could go. They came out of nowhere, and they came to support us one night in The Nashville Room. It was electrifying. It was that different. They were like a million years ahead. They destroyed everything that was going on in town it was completely over the second they came out on stage.”

The two bands performed together again three weeks later, and by this time, Strummer was ready to leave his band. In 1977, he told author Caroline Coon, “I know The 101ers were good. In fact, as far as sound and excitement went, we were much better than Eddie and the Hot Rods. The other guys in the group were 25 and 26, and they played good because they’d spent a few years getting that far. But they were just too old. What I really wanted was to get in with some young yobbo’s who I was more in tune with.”

The 101ers released “Keys to Your Heart” on Chiswick Records when Strummer had already accepted an offer to join a new group with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Keith Levene. They would call themselves The Clash.

The Clash Recorded Their First Album over 3 Weekends for £4,000

The Clash made their debut performance on July 4, 1976. They opened for the Sex Pistols. Strummer told Letts, “The day I joined The Clash was very much back to square one, year zero. Part of punk was that you had to shed all of what you knew before. We were almost Stalinist in the way that you had to shed all your friends, or everything that you’d known, or every way that you’d played before.”

CBS Records released The Clash’s debut album on April 8, 1977. The company decided not to release the record in America, causing it to be the biggest-selling import in the States that year. Strummer and Jones co-wrote the songs. In 2006, Jones said, “Joe would give me the words, and I would make a song out of them.” The Clash recorded their first album over three weekends at a cost of £4,000.

The left-wing messages were a recurring theme in the band’s music. Their lyrics spoke of career opportunities, unemployment, speaking out against racism and oppression, and other social problems. In 1976, Strummer told the NME, “We’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist, and we’re pro-creative.” 

When London police confronted Black youth at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, it inspired Strummer to write “White Riot.” The Clash used images of the confrontation on their album’s back cover, stage backdrop, and t-shirts.

In May 1977, The Clash took the White Riot Tour across England. It featured Buzzcocks, The Jam, Subway Sect, The Slits, and The Prefects. Fans erupted at the Rainbow Theatre in London on May 9 when they ripped up seats and caused a riot of their own. Strummer told Salewicz, “That was the night punk broke. … We were in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.”

Strummer Felt the Audience Was the Most Important Part of the Equation

The whole key to punk rock is that anyone can do it. If you have something to say, you can start a band. Strummer certainly had something to say. He couldn’t stand to see security using force on audience members. “I couldn’t sing if I felt like people were being brutally mistreated,” he said. “The audience are your friends, and you’re no better than them.  We were one with the audience. You should never feel above anyone.”

The band released their second album in the U.S. but failed to make much of an impact on the charts. It wasn’t until their third album, London Calling, that they broke through to the American audience. “Train in Vain” went Top 30, and the band continued touring worldwide. In 1980, they released Sandanista!, a three-record album for the price of one. Their most significant success came with their 1982 album Combat Rock.

The Clash opened a U.S. leg of a tour by The Who, and they reached the Top 10 with “Rock the Casbah.” The band’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, inspired the song’s theme. Drummer Topper Headon came up with the music, and Strummer provided the lyrics. Said Strummer, “Bernie came in, and he said, ‘Why does everything have to be a raga? Everything’s going on for six minutes. How are we gonna get this stuff on a record?’ And then he left, and we started to laugh about the raga. I went back to the Iroquois Hotel on 44th, and it was already daylight again. I had a typewriter in the room, and I went over to the typewriter, and I typed, ‘Now, the king told the boogie men. You have to let that raga drop.’ I was tired out of my mind, and that paper sticking out of the typewriter was irresistible. I just sat down and did the whole lyric to ‘Rock the Casbah.’ There’s no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism. That’s what I was trying to say in ‘Rock the Casbah.'”

The Clash Co-Headlined the 1983 U.S. Festival

The band was feeling the strain of nonstop touring, and after co-headlining the 1983 U.S. Festival in San Bernardino, California, Strummer and Simonon decided to continue without Jones. They recruited several new members and released one more album, Cut the Crap. It failed to generate the same excitement. The band officially disbanded in 1986. Jones had success in Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer pursued acting and appeared in movies like Straight to Hell, Mystery Train, and Doctor Chance.

Strummer Started a Band as a Result of a Film Soundtrack

Strummer continued exploring different musical styles while working on movie scoring and soundtracks. He told Don Letts, “I put together a nice little group for this Permanent Record film. I called it the Latino Rockabilly War. I wrote the music, and then I went out for three nights looking in all the little clubs and bars and little underground scenes that were happening in Los Angeles. I just picked the musicians from watching them, from jazz clubs and Bohemian dives.”

Strummer died in 2002 at his home in Broomfield, Somerset, England, of a heart attack caused by an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. He was 50.

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Photo by Keith Bernstein/Redferns

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