Strummer - the gentle rebel of punk music

Issue 

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

Directed by Julien Temple

Dendy Films, 123 minutes

"People can change anything they want to. They can stop following mouse trails. We can take back our humanity. Greed is going nowhere. Without people you're nothing," said Joe Strummer at the end of the marvellous, emotional and moving documentary by Julien Temple.

Temple told Green Left Weekly that Strummer's life is still really important for young people. Throughout the documentary we hear the spoken, eerie words of Strummer as though he were still alive.

Joe Strummer was best known as the singer, guitarist and songwriter of punk-rock group The Clash. He was born John Mellor. He called himself Joe Strummer, in a humble way, because he was left-handed but learned to play guitar as a right-hander would. So all he could do was strum.

Strummer's teenage years were spent in boarding school. His experience at boarding school had a profound effect on him. He felt his parents had abandoned him. He did however, toughen up and develop his social skills. The year 1968, filled with revolts and revolutions, had a marked impact on him. Temple told GLW that Strummer had "smuggled 1968 into punk". Musically the Rolling Stones and African-American performers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley impressed him.

The year 1976, when The Clash formed, was characterised by youth alienation, and unemployment. Many young people felt that they faced a future of nuclear annihilation. The racist group the National Front was running wild.

Strummer was in a few other bands but then formed The Clash after being inspired by the Sex Pistols. The line-up of The Clash settled down to become Mick Jones on guitar and arranging much of the music, Paul Simonon on bass and Nick Headon on drums.

The Clash developed their own unique punk sound. Quick paced, full of adrenaline, roaring guitars, and energetic — like the roar of the city or of the freeway near where The Clash began, the Westaway. A performance was like a rocket lifting-off at Cape Canaveral — smoke, atmosphere burning, thrust and power. Twenty years on, I still play the albums, hear new sounds and learn more about them.

Their third album, London Calling, was voted best album of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine. This album has a range of musical styles like jazz, soul, funk, reggae and rock. The apocalyptic song, "London Calling", with the foreboding bass lines, is about nuclear annihilation but could be about global warming. "The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in/meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin". The Strummer screams and squawks, add to the chillness. The indignant reggae track "Guns of Brixton" and prophetic "Clampdown" are other titles on the album.

After this album came the experimental and sprawling, Sandinista, a triple album for the price of one. Then, arguably the best album, Combat Rock was released. This album cemented their own unique musical style that went beyond their musical influences.

The Clash were much more than the music. They expressed the frustrations of youth and took a stand on issues, even though at times they were loathe to admit it. Issues like police harassment, opposition to the US empire, unemployment, the brutality of concrete cities, conscription, and knowing your rights.

After The Clash, Strummer fell on hard times, he felt lonely and was in a dark space like "Chief Thundercloud".

Throughout the documentary a range of Strummer's friends, lovers and collaborators are interviewed in the glow of campfires, revealing intimate details of who Strummer was. It's a nice touch as Strummer, later in life, loved going to the Glastonbury music festival, chatting, singing songs and getting drunk in front of a campfire. (Most of his friends are in group campfires, but Bono has his own.) Tymon Dogg, a life-long friend, in a book on Strummer by Pat Gilbert, says that "Joe was a sensitive guy. He was funny and gentle, the only man I've ever seen lose an arm wrestling contest to a girl."

In a New Musical Express magazine interview in December 1976, Strummer explained where The Clash stood: "anti-fascist, we're anti-violence, anti-racist and we're pro-creative". Later on his ideas hardened as explained in a NME interview in 1981: "we're getting a lot more political in our old age. I don't believe in Soviet Russia ... I believe in socialism because it seems more humanitarian, rather than every man for himself and all those arsehole businessmen with the loot."

Strummer remained true to these ideals. Throughout the time of The Clash the band played benefit concerts for everyone from Vietnam veterans, to the Anti-Nazi League to the French Revolutionary Communist League. With his band the Mescaleros he sang songs like "Shaktar Donetsk", about a Macedonian refugee trying to get into England. He "hated Blair as a destroyer of liberty", said Temple. It was fitting that one of his last gigs was a benefit for the fire-fighters union. At this gig Mick Jones jumped up and performed with him.

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