Tuesday 20 December 2022

Joe Strummer

 John Graham Mellor was born in August 1952 in Ankara, Turkey.  He was the son of a Diplomat (something he tried to live down for large chunks of his life).
He was sent to Boarding School at the age of 9 and rarely saw his parents growing up.
After leaving school he went to London College Of Art, where inspired by a busker he first picked up a guitar (well, a ukelele) and learnt to play with fellow students in support.  He also adopted the name Woody Mellor (in reference to Woody Guthrie).
He then moved to Newport, Wales in 1973 - effectively "dropping out", working as a grave-digger, and fronting a band formed at the Newport College of Art (which he never attended, but spent plenty of time there).
Within a year, he was back in London, living in a squat, and joining up with bands formed by whatever squat-mates he fell in with.  One of these bands - The 101ers - gained a following and reputation, and gave the now re-christened Joe Strummer (so named because of his guitar playing style) his first visit to a recording studio and first single release ("Keys To Your Heart").
In a case of everything aligning at the right moment, in April 1976 The 101ers were supported by the Sex Pistols.  Joe saw "something" that night and was considering how much further the 101ers could actually go.  That same night, Joe was approached by Bernie Rhodes and Mick Jones, and invited to their Camden Town rehearsal rooms to try out as lead singer.
Two and a half months later, with Joe at the front The Clash stepped on stage at The Black Swan pub in Sheffield supporting the Sex Pistols, and then 6 months later the band were signed by CBS Records.
Their debut album came out inside a year of their formation, followed by incessant touring and a second album before the end of 1978 ('Give Em Enough Rope' which also sparked the departure of Manager Bernie Rhodes.  Bernie's absence merely exacerbated The Clash's profile and output, culminating in 1979's near perfect double album 'London Calling'.
Ambition knew no bounds in The Clash camp, and the next album 'Sandinista' was a triple (although, it could easily have been another double of one removes the chaff and filler).
Wanting to keep the price of the album down, The Clash agreed a reduced royalty on 'Sandinista' leading to certain cash-flow and business issues, and Bernie Rhodes was invited back to steer the ship once again.  What Bernie did seem to do though was start sow the seed of division in the band, and the ever trusting Joe went along with it.
The sessions for 1982s 'Combat Rock' were fractious (not helped by drummer Topper Headon's deepening heroin habit), and the tour equally divisive.  So much so, that by autumn 1983 (many reports suggest at Bernie's behest) Mick Jones was sacked.
A new Clash line-up was configured and a back-to-basics, low key, busking tour completed before they decamped to the studio for their next album.
Bernie Rhodes was now in full "divide and conquer" mode, and became Joe's co-songwriter (regardless of musical ability) and producer of the album sessions.
Mick Jones sacking was part personal issues, and part down ti his interest in expanding the sound with drum machines and synthesisers - something Bernie Rhodes (and by association, Joe Strummer) felt was not where The Clash should be going.
So it was all a bit odd when Bernie Rhodes effectively built 'Cut The Crap' in the studio without a real drummer, scant use of the new guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard, and layered on the synths and sampling.
'Cut The Crap' has few moments of worth ("This Is England" being the prime cut, and the last truly great Clash song), and Joe Strummer effectively disowned it upon release, and within 6 months The Clash disbanded.

Without his songwriting foil, band, or guiding hand (or should that be partially controlling co-conspirator?), Joe Strummer moved on from the demise of The Clash and started working with Alex Cox for the music of the film Sid and Nancy.
In a fit of realisation he also sought out Mick Jones, firstly with the intent of re-forming The Clash, but then (once he'd found Mick on a Caribbean island recording Big Audio Dynamite's second album) as s slight rejuvenation of their partnership.  Joe was credited as co-producer and co-wrote half of the album.  One of the telling things he said to Mick when they met up was "you were right about Bernie".

Through the late 80s and early 90s, Joe tried his hand at acting and film soundtracks.  His work in Alex Cox's Straight To Hell led to an association with The Pogues, where he filled in as guitarist in tour, then produced 1991s 'Hell's Ditch', and briefly replaced frontman Shane MacGowan on a US Tour.

Joe's self-confessed "Wilderness Years" were curtailed when he formed The Mescaleros in 1999, and they entered into the write, record, tour cycle.  1999 also marked The Mescaleros appearance at the Glastonbury Festival.  This may have been the only time that Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros appeared on stage at Glastonbury, but the Strummerville gathering of friends and artists was to become a fixture of the Festival.  This extended to the curation of a stage at the Festival - The Strummerville Bandstand.
In November 2002, Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros played at a Fireman's Benefit Show in London.  Mick Jones was in the audience that night and joined the band on stage for the encore.
After the show Joe and Mick had a brief conversation about working together on future projects - Joe had a cache of lyrics that he felt could be used for a new album together (maybe even a new Clash album).

On the morning of 21st December 2002, Joe Strummer took his dog for a walk and then returned home for a Saturday snooze.  A heart attack, as a result of an un-diagnosed congenital heart defect, took Joe Strummer at the age of 50.

Widely respected, cited as an influence by many, but also a very private man, Joe Strummers humanity is celebrated in the Julien Temple film The Future Is Unwritten which serves as a fine legacy, and also in the ongoing efforts of the Joe Strummer Foundation - a registered charity that supports aspiring musicians and funds projects which promote new music. They also operate workshops and rehearsal space (under the name Strummerville Studio) at The Roundhouse in London and The Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast.

"You lit a flame in my heart

And it is burning still

And every time I hear you shout

It still gives me a thrill

I can see you up there

With your right leg pumping"

from Stiff Little Fingers - "Strummerville" 

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Redemption Song

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