2003 – The Clash’s Joe Strummer is cremated. The funeral procession takes his remains past the Elgin pub in West London, where The Clash played some of their earliest gigs. John Graham Mellor (21 August 1952 – 22 December 2002), better known as Joe Strummer, was the co-founder, lyricist, rhythm guitarist and lead singer of the English punk rock band The Clash. He was also a member of the The 101’ers, The Mescaleros and (temporarily) The Pogues.
The early years 1952-1976
Joe Strummer was born as John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey on 21 August 1952. His mother Anna Mackenzie, a crofter’s daughter and one of nine children born and raised in the Scottish Highlands, was a nurse. His father Ronald Mellor, was a British foreign-service diplomat who had been born in Lucknow, India. Ronald Mellor had an Armenian maternal grandfather and a German Jewish paternal grandmother.
The family spent much time moving from place to place, and Mellor spent his childhood in places such as Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn. At the age of 9, Mellor and his older brother David, 10, began boarding at the City of London Freemen’s School in Surrey. Mellor rarely saw his parents during this time. He developed a love of rock music listening to records by Little Richard and The Beach Boys as well as American folk-singer Woody Guthrie (Mellor would even go by the name “Woody” for a few years).
By 1970 David Mellor had become estranged from his family and had joined the National Front. His suicide in July of that year profoundly affected John Mellor, as did having to identify his body after it had lain undiscovered for three days. During this time, Strummer shared a flat in the north London suburb of Palmers Green with friends Clive Timperley and Tymon Dogg.
In 1973 Strummer moved to Newport, Wales to attend the Newport College of Art, but soon dropped out. The band played many gigs in London pubs, playing covers of popular American R&B and blues songs. In 1975 he changed his name from “Woody” Mellor to Joe Strummer, and insisted that his friends call him by that name. The name “Strummer” apparently refers to his role as rhythm guitarist, in a rather self-deprecating way. Though left-handed, he was taught to play right-handed by his friend Tymon Dogg; this hampered his abilities somewhat and confined him to strumming chords. Strummer was the lead singer of the 101’ers and began to write original songs for the group. One song he wrote was inspired by his girlfriend at the time, Slits drummer Palmolive. The group liked the song “Keys to Your Heart”, and picked it as their first single.
The Clash 1976-1986
On 3 April 1976, a then-unknown band called the Sex Pistols opened for The 101’ers at a venue called “The Nashville Rooms” in London, and Strummer was impressed by them. On 25 January 1977 the band signed with CBS Records and was now a three-piece after Levene was fired from the band and Chimes quit. Drummer Topper Headon later became the band’s full-time drummer.
The Clash are considered one of the most overtly political, explosive and exciting bands in rock and roll history. The Clash’s influence can be clearly heard in countless subsequent rock bands.
During his time with The Clash, Strummer, along with his bandmates, became notorious for getting in trouble with the law. On 10 June 1977, he and Topper were arrested for spray-painting “The Clash” on a wall in a hotel. On 20 May 1980, he was arrested for hitting a violent member of the audience with his guitar during a show in Hamburg, Germany. This incident shocked Strummer, and had a lasting personal impact on him.
“ I nearly murdered somebody, and it made me realise that you can’t face violence with violence. It doesn’t work. ”
—Joe Strummer ,
Before the album Combat Rock was released in 1982, Strummer disappeared from the group after pressure from the group’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, because tickets were selling slowly for the Scottish leg of an upcoming tour. It was planned for Strummer to meet and stay with one of Rhodes’ friends in secret. However, Strummer, uneasy with his decision, decided to genuinely disappear and “dicked around” in France. During this time, Joe ran the Paris Marathon in April 1982. He claimed his training regime consisted of 10 pints of beer the night before the race. For this period of time, Joe’s whereabouts were not only a mystery to the public, but the bands management as well. Joe later said this was a huge mistake and you “have to have some regrets”. This was in spite of the popular success of the single “Rock the Casbah”. During this time band members began to argue a lot, and with tensions high, the group began to fall apart. “The Clash Mark Two” released the album Cut The Crap in 1985. The album was panned by fans and critics alike and Strummer disbanded The Clash.
The wilderness years 1986-1999
A year later, Strummer worked on several songs for the 1986 film Sid and Nancy, including “Love Kills” and “Dum Dum Club”. Strummer also later worked with Mick Jones and his band Big Audio Dynamite, contributing to the band’s second album by co-writing most of the songs. In 1987 he starred in the film Walker, directed by Alex Cox, as a character named “Faucet” and wrote and performed on the film’s soundtrack. He starred in another Cox film that same year called Straight to Hell, as the character Simms. In 1989 Strummer played a substantial role in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, as a man called Elvis with a drunken temper. He also made a brief appearance in Aki Kaurismäki’s 1990 film I Hired a Contract Killer as a guitarist in a pub, performing two songs (“Burning Lights” and “Afro-Cuban Bebop”). These were released as a promotional 7″ single limited to a few hundred copies, credited to “Joe Strummer & the Astro Physicians”. During this time Strummer continued to act, write and produce soundtracks for various films, most notably the soundtrack for Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).
In 1989 Strummer began producing solo records with a band called The Latino Rockabilly War. The album Earthquake Weather was a critical and commercial flop, and resulted in the loss of his contract with Sony Records. He also did the soundtrack to the movie Permanent Record with this band. In 1991 he replaced Shane MacGowan as singer of The Pogues for a tour after MacGowan’s departure from the band. Strummer also produced the Pogues album Hell’s Ditch. On 16 April 1994, Strummer joined Czech-American band Dirty Pictures on stage in Prague at the Repre Club in Obecni Dum at “Rock for Refugees”, a benefit concert for people left displaced by the war in Bosnia. Backed up by the Pictures, Strummer played a blistering set of Clash songs that he said he had not played in more than ten years. Although the set appeared impromptu, Joe and the band had spent the days leading up to the event rehearsing and “hanging out” in Prague. After these self-described “wilderness years”, Strummer began working with other bands; he played piano on the 1995 UK hit of The Levellers, “Just the One” and appeared on the Black Grape single “England’s Irie” in 1996. In 1997 while in New York City, he had worked with noted producer and engineers Lee Perry & Marty Munsch on a significant amount of remixed Clash and 101’ers reissue dub material.
Also during this time, Strummer was in dispute with The Clash’s record label, Epic Records. The disagreement lasted nearly eight years and ended with the label agreeing to let him record solo records with another label. If The Clash were to reunite though, they would have to record for Sony.
During the nineties Strummer was a DJ on the BBC World Service with his half-hour programme London Calling. Samples from the series provide the vocals for “Midnight Jam” on Joe and the Mescaleros’ final album Streetcore.
The Mescaleros and other work 1999-2002
Strummer and The Mescaleros.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Strummer gathered top-flight musicians into a backing band he called The Mescaleros. Strummer and the band signed with Mercury Records, and issued their first album in 1999, which was co-written with Antony Genn, called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. A tour of England, Europe, and North America soon followed; sets included several Clash fan favourites.
“ This is my Indian summer…I learnt that fame is an illusion & everything about it is just a joke. I’m far more dangerous now, because I don’t care at all. ”
—Joe Strummer to Chris Salewicz – 2000 ,
In 2001 the band signed with Californian punk label Hellcat Records and released their second album, Global A Go-Go. The album was supported with a 21-date tour of North America, Britain, and Ireland. Once again, these concerts featured Clash material (“London’s Burning”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”), as well as covers of reggae and ska hits (“The Harder They Come”, “A Message To You, Rudy”) and the band regularly closed the show by playing The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”. In the same year, somewhat out of character, Strummer and the Mescaleros performed the song Minstrel Boy for the movie Black Hawk Down, a haunting and emotive Celtic tune that is played during the evacuation of PFC Blackburn during the Battle of Mogadishu.
On 15 November 2002, Strummer and The Mescaleros played a benefit show for striking fire fighters in London, at the Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones was in the crowd, and joined the band on stage during the Clash’s “Bankrobber.” An encore followed with Jones playing guitar and singing on “White Riot” and “London’s Burning”. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together on stage. Jones later remarked that it was totally unplanned and that he felt compelled to join Strummer on stage.
Strummer’s final regular gig was at Liverpool Academy on 22 November 2002, yet his final performance, just two weeks before his death, was in a small club venue ‘The Palace’ in Bridgwater, Somerset near to his home. Shortly before his death Strummer and U2’s Bono co-wrote a song, “46664”, for Nelson Mandela as part of a campaign against AIDS in Africa. Strummer had been scheduled to play at Mandela’s SOS fundraising concert in February 2003 on Robben Island. Mick Jones later recorded a version of the song in studio, performing both the vocals and guitar work, that has yet to be formally released.
Death and legacy 2002-present
Strummer died suddenly on 22 December 2002 in his home at Broomfield in Somerset, the victim of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
Throughout his career, Strummer was noted for his devotion to fans. It has been said that Strummer never left a venue until everyone who had waited around got an autograph and talked with him personally, a process which often lasted for hours. In fact, even after being hit in the leg with a cherry bomb in Asbury Park, when he was being driven to the hospital, he made the driver stop the car so he could talk to some fans first.
Strummer was instrumental in setting up Future Forests (recently rechristened The Carbon Neutral Company), an organization dedicated to planting trees in various parts of the world in order to combat global warming. Strummer was the first artist to make the recording, pressing and distribution of his records carbon neutral through the planting of trees. Many other artists such as Foo Fighters, Coldplay and Pink Floyd have followed suit and fans can visit the Carbon Neutral Company website to buy trees to be planted in their favourite artist’s forest (Strummer’s being christened “Rebel’s Wood”, a specially selected section in Orbost, on the Isle of Skye). In his remembrance, Strummer’s friends and family have established the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music.
At the Grammy Awards in February 2003, “London Calling” was performed by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Dave Grohl, Pete Thomas, and Tony Kanal in tribute to Strummer. In March 2003, The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At the time of his death, Strummer was working on another album, which was released posthumously in October 2003 under the title Streetcore. The album features a tribute to American music icon Johnny Cash (“Long Shadow”), which was actually written for Cash to sing and recorded in Rick Rubin’s garage, as well as a remembrance of the 11 September 2001 attacks (“Ramshackle Day Parade”), and a cover of Bob Marley’s classic “Redemption Song”, which Strummer had also recorded as a duet with Cash. (The Cash/Strummer duet version appears on the 2003 box set Unearthed).
Memorial to Strummer on 7th Street at Avenue A, New York City.
November 2003 saw the release of a video for Redemption Song, directed by Josh Cheuse. The video features the painting of a memorial mural on the wall of the Niagara Bar in the East Village of NYC.
On 22 December 2003, exactly a year after his death, a tribute show/benefit was held at Irving Plaza in NYC. Bands that played were Ari Up; Clem Snide; The Detachment Kit; Dirty Mary; Hammel on Trial; Jesse Malin; New Blood Revival; The Realistics; Eugene Hütz; Radio 4; Secret Army; Ted Leo; Vic Thrill + The Saturn Missile. The show was videotaped by punkcast.com but is as yet unreleased.
Let’s Rock Again! poster
A documentary by Dick Rude titled Let’s Rock Again! was released in 2004. The film, completed after Strummer’s death, chronicles life on tour in the United States with the Mescaleros to support Global a Go-Go. The Belfast punk rock group Stiff Little Fingers also recorded a tribute song “Strummerville” on their album, Guitar and Drum. Al Barr, lead singer of the Boston punk band Dropkick Murphys, named his son Strummer in honor of Joe. German punk band the Beatsteaks pay tribute to Strummer on their album Smack Smash with the song “Hello Joe”. In 2004, German punk band Die Toten Hosen released an EP called “Friss oder stirb” which included a tribute song for Strummer called “Goodbye Garageland” which is a lyrical co-production with Matt Dangerfield from londons 77 punk band The Boys (UK Band). Boston Punk Rock Band Street Dogs recorded a tribute song called “The General’s Boombox” on their latest album State Of Grace, and New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem recorded the song “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” on their album Sink or Swim (Gaslight Anthem album).
On 12 February 2005 the Class 47 locomotive 47828 was named “Joe Strummer”. The nameplates were unveiled by his widow Lucinda Tait in a ceremony at Bristol Temple Meads railway station.
New Orleans-based rockers Cowboy Mouth released a song called “Joe Strummer” on their latest album Voodoo Shoppe. The song tells the story of a man who had to break up with his girlfriend because “…she didn’t know who/Joe Strummer was.” The popular track is a tongue-in-cheek salute to Strummer and the Clash that received significant radio play in 2006.
In addition, the Joe Pernice-penned “High As a Kite”, included on The Pernice Brothers 2006 album Live a Little, was, in part a tribute to Joe Strummer. Lyrics included, “Heavy downbeat of one and the show began/London calling, strike up the contraband” and the memorable opening to the chorus, “We wore pictures of Strummer.”
Strummer’s impact is referenced by The Hold Steady in the song “Constructive Summer” (“Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer. I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.”).
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, a documentary film directed by Julien Temple about Joe Strummer, premiered on 20 January 2007 at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Marriages and relationships
In 1975, after being offered £100, Strummer married Pamela Moolman, a South African citizen, so she could obtain British citizenship. He bought his signature Telecaster, later painted black, with the money.
In 1978 Strummer started a relationship with Gaby Salter shortly after her seventeenth birthday.
In 1993 Strummer began an affair with Lucinda Tait, which finally ended his relationship with Gaby Salter. Strummer and Tait married in 1995 and remained so until his death in 2002.
Strummer was also godfather to singer Lily Allen.
Let’s Rock Again! is a one-hour music documentary, directed by Dick Rude, that follows Joe Strummer as he tours across America and Japan with The Mescaleros. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, May 2004.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary about Joe Strummer by Julien Temple. It comprises archive footage of him spanning his life, and interviews with friends, family, and other celebrities. It debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
A documentary on Strummer’s politics Let Fury Have The Hour, produced by Tim Robbins and based on the book of the same name by Antonino D’Ambrosio, is due out in 2008. NYC band Radio 4 are supplying soundtrack music.
Strummer’s main guitar throughout his career was a 1966 Fender Telecaster that originally came in a three-color sunburst with a white pickguard. Strummer acquired the guitar in middle of 1975 while playing with 101ers. After joining the Clash, the guitar’s body and pickguard were refinished in grey auto primer and then painted black. By 1979, the word NOISE was stenciled on the upper part of the body, a rasta flag sticker was placed at the horn of the pickguard, and a “Ignore Alien Orders” sticker was placed above the bridge. By the release of Give ‘Em Enough Rope the guitar was fitted with a bridge with individual saddles and the original Kluson tuners were replaced with later model tuners and a large question mark was spraypainted on its back. The guitar would remain in this configuration throughout his career with the addition of different stickers on its body. The guitar’s black paint became worn down due to Strummer’s playing and on many places the original sunburst finish and bare wood shines through, except for the square where Strummer taped his setlists.
For amplification Strummer has been known to use amplifiers such as a Roland Jazz Chorus, a Vox AC-30 and various Marshall amplifiers,
For recordings made with the Clash, please see The Clash discography.
With The 101’ers
Year Album Additional information
1981 Elgin Avenue Breakdown Compilation album with material recorded from 1974 to 1976.
Year Album Additional information
1986 Sid and Nancy Soundtrack Soundtrack for the film Sid and Nancy, featuring 2 songs by Strummer.
1987 Walker Soundtrack for the film Walker, scored by Strummer.
1987 Straight To Hell Original Soundtrack Soundtrack for the film Straight to Hell, featuring 2 songs by Strummer.
1993 When Pigs Fly Soundtrack Unreleased soundtrack for the film When Pigs Fly, scored by Strummer.
1998 Chef Aid: The South Park Album Features “It’s A Rockin’ World”, performed by Strummer, Flea, Nick Hexum, Tom Morello, DJ Bonebrake, and Benmont Tench.
2003 Unearthed (guest appearance) A duet of “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash.
2004 Black Magic (guest appearance) Strummer performed the song “Over The Border” with Jimmy Cliff.
With The Latino Rockabilly War
Year Album Additional information
1988 Permanent Record Original Soundtrack Features songs by Strummer and The Latino Rockabilly War.
1989 Earthquake Weather Strummer’s only full-length studio album with The Latino Rockabilly War.
With The Mescaleros
Year Album Additional information
1999 Rock Art and the X-Ray Style Strummer’s first album with The Mescaleros.
2001 Global a Go-Go Peaked at #23 on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart in the US.
2003 Streetcore Strummer’s last album, released posthumously.
Year Title Role Other notes
1980 Rude Boy Semi-Documentary Subject
1983 Hell W10 Writer and director Silent film
1983 The King of Comedy Street Scum non-speaking cameo
1987 Walker Faucet
1987 Straight to Hell Simms
1988 Candy Mountain Mario
1989 Mystery Train Johnny aka Elvis
1990 I Hired A Contract Killer Himself by Aki Kaurismaki
1997 Docteur Chance Vince Taylor
2000 The Clash: Westway to the World Documentary Subject
2003 End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones Documentary Subject
2004 Let’s Rock Again! Documentary Subject
2007 Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten Documentary Subject
2008 The Clash Live: Revolution Rock Documentary Subject
In other media
* The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, by Irvine Welsh, has a fictional Joe Strummer being implicated in a paternity scandal.
* “Johnny Appleseed” is featured as the theme song to the HBO series John From Cincinnati.
* Strummer is referenced by The Hold Steady in the song “Constructive Summer,” in which the band sings “Raise a toast so Saint Joe Strummer. I think he might have been our only decent teacher.”
* Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros appeared on the British musician Jools Holland Show “Later” on about 4 May 2002. Strummer, Warren Zevon, and Traci Chapman, as well as an ensemble cast, sang “I Fought the Law ” at the finale. The show, and this episode, is occasionally shown on Ovation TV.
* A play called Meeting Joe Strummer has played at the Edinburgh Festival and has toured England, it is not a play directly about Joe, instead about two men who share a passion for Joe’s music