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Joe Strummer: the sounds of an urban revolution

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Red Saunders gives his appreciation of Joe Strummer, best known as the lead singer of 1970s punk band The Clash, who died recently.
Issue 1833

‘What the fuck do you want?’ Those were Joe Strummer’s first words to me, backstage at London’s ICA in the winter of 1976. I’d been photographing the gig for the New Musical Express, a revelation of the burgeoning punk scene. Born John Mellor in 1952, Joe Strummer, son of a British diplomat, boarding school, art college, cartoonist, artist, busker, musician, lived for a while in Newport.

There he joined his first band, the Vultures, then returned to London and established his left wing credentials in the squatting scene of the early 1970s. He was spotted and recruited by Mick Jones, and The Clash was formed in 1976. The ‘sound of the Westway’ was revolutionary, mixing reggae, rockabilly and ska into a multicultural rant of anger against poverty and discrimination.

Joe’s solidarity with west London’s multicultural proletariat, it seems to me, was where the roots lay of the many progressive adventures he undertook for the rest of his life.

Remember the times this was all happening. The mid-1970s, huge working class activity, massive racism, the rise of the National Front and resistance to it, tension between the police and black community. All the time The Clash’s music was the backdrop, reflecting and energising these struggles. If ever there could have been a soundtrack to an urban revolution The Clash would have been it.

Their greatest period was between 1976 and 1979 when they toured and played, utterly committed. They played hard, hard sets when they would collapse after the gigs, exhausted physically and mentally, bleeding hands, blistered fingers, lost voices, covered in gob. Strummer actually got hepatitis in 1979 as a by-product of the punk gobbing phase.

Unlike the Sex Pistols’ lurch into dark, drug-fuelled notoriety under the manipulator Malcolm McLaren, The Clash were much more aware of their position as punk rebels.

I saw them from small venues like Aklam Hall in Notting Hill to stunning gigs at the Old Rainbow in Finsbury Park. But I’m biased. The Clash at the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, east London, 1978 was the gig.

It’s gone into mythology now. Us old left cultural foot soldiers don’t have much to brag about, but this was the one-a rare glimpse of what might be. Over 80,000 marched from Trafalgar Square. It was the largest anti-racist march in east London since the 1930s. Its impact was enormous and it was the launchpad for the biggest and most successful youth campaign the left had mounted since the Second World War.

Organising the gig had been a nightmare-groups on/off, the council freaking out. We were amateurs putting the whole show together with two pence halfpenny, a rubber band and a lorry load of anti-Nazi enthusiasm.

Negotiation with The Clash had been slow, but became awkward when we began seeing more of their manager, Bernie Rhodes, than them. He was from the Malcolm McLaren school. He didn’t have a clue, and started babbling on about boring left wing demos.

We asked for a one to one with us and the band, no managers. We met at my old studio. ‘What’s the problem?’ Strummer kept saying. We met again at Jackson’s Lane community centre. My wife, Nina, had just had our first child. We took her along. The room was full of punks and dreads, posing and hanging out.

We walked in with our baby in a little pram, a bit uncool. Strummer broke the ice: ‘Congratulations, hello little ‘un.’ We sorted out all outstanding problems.

A few weeks later Strummer and The Clash joined Steel Pulse in a picket outside the National Front’s London HQ to publicise the forthcoming carnival. That week Melody Maker’s front page was ‘Clash To Headline RAR Carnival’. Black, white, gay, straight, punks, dreads, skinheads, boys and girls, we had totally connected with militant anti-racist youth.

The police looked utterly miserable. I was elated, but also stunned. I was meant to be compering the show and ran onto the stage shouting, ‘This ain’t no fucking Woodstock… This is the Carnival Against the Fucking Nazis!’

I remember the roar of approval from the crowd. The crowds lifted the bands, and vice versa. The sheer energy level of The Clash was awesome. The crowd and the stage were one. We were all on one massive unity buzz. I’d never been so high in my life and I hadn’t touched a spliff all day!

The month before he died Strummer did a benefit for striking firefighters at Acton, west London, with his new band The Mescaleros. It turns out that firefighters’ leader Andy Gilchrist was apparently politicised after seeing The Clash at the RAR carnival in 1978. How fitting then that Strummer could play the benefit.

Strummer, clearly as disgusted with New Labour as the rest of us, was delighted and was joined on stage by Mick Jones. Local firefighters took a fire engine to join his funeral procession.

Strummer was a decent and inspiring man. Since his untimely death, so many friends have remembered him: ‘he had great integrity’, ‘man of the people’, ‘a left wing punk’, ‘he didn’t give up’.

I’d add to that a slogan adopted by the ‘Northern Soul’ scene I photographed in the early seventies at Wigan Casino. I bought the big badge. ‘Keep the Faith’ it said. Joe Strummer did just that. Thanks mate. I’m dusting off the old vinyl right now.

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