Joe Strummer, vocalist and guitarist of the pioneering punk band the Clash,
was found dead in his home in southwest England Sunday, according to a police
spokesperson. The cause of death is unknown, though authorities do not
believe the circumstances to be suspicious. An autopsy has been scheduled for Tuesday. Strummer was 50.
Strummer’s body was discovered Sunday afternoon in his Somerset home by his
wife Lucy, who phoned police. They arrived around 4:45 p.m. and pronounced
him dead at the scene. Officers believed Strummer died from heart failure.
(Read fans’ reactions and share your remembrances of Strummer in You Tell Us.)
Along with the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, the Clash ushered in punk’s first
wave, giving voice to a generation of restless youth that was too nihilistic
for disco’s feel-good vibe and the bloated corporate rock of the day. Unlike
the Pistols, though, who reveled in the anarchy of their loutish behavior as
much as the chaos of their music, Strummer and the Clash harnessed their rage
and ferocity into reggae and dub-influenced political anthems about class and
economic struggle such as “Death or Glory,” “London Calling” and “The Guns of
Brixton.” The results were albums such as 1979’s London’s Calling,
considered by many critics to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, the son of British
diplomat Ronald Mellor, Strummer attended London’s Freeman boarding school in
Surrey as a child, visiting his parents in Teheran and in sub-Sahara Africa
during school holidays.
He began his rise to musical prominence busking in the London subway and in
the cover band the 101ers in the early ’70s. After seeing a performance by
the Sex Pistols in 1976, Strummer broke up the 101ers and set out in search
of a more intense muse.
Joining forces with co-singer/guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and
drummer Topper Headon in West London in the mid-’70s, Strummer was
instrumental in bringing his political, worldly view to one of the most
influential and principled bands in the history of rock. The group performed
its first concert in the summer of ’76, opening for their idols, the Sex
Pistols, in London. A slot on the Pistols’ hectic Anarchy in the U.K. Tour
that fall helped land the Clash a recording contract.
Though they trailed the Pistols in arriving at the punk party, the Clash far
outstripped the sideshow antics of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten with fiery,
passionate songs of righteous protest such as “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,”
“London’s Burning” and “White Riot,” from their self-titled 1977 debut, which
was not released in the U.S. because the band’s American label did not think
the songs were fit for radio. The album was released Stateside in an
altered form two years later.
In part because of Strummer’s peripatetic childhood and his embrace of global
music, the Clash augmented the usual three-chord punk blitz with reggae, dub,
rockabilly, folk and a swaggering, Wild West style and bearing. His
middle-class background mixed with Jones’ working-class Brixton upbringing
made for a volatile combination, which the band played to the hilt in its
image, songs and interviews. For a time, the group’s fearless embrace of
political ideology and cultural diversity earned the Clash the distinction as
“the only band that mattered.”
That status was reinforced with the release of the band’s third record,
London Calling. The double-album is rife with searing, rocking, working-class politico-punk anthems such as the title track, but it also features a
startling array of musical styles: loungey jazz (“Jimmy Jazz”),
rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), ska (“Rudie Can’t Fail”), pop (“Lost in
the Supermarket”), boozy R&B (“The Right Profile”) and even some Stonesy
blues rock (“Lover’s Rock”).
It’s a staggering artistic statement from a group that had only been together
for three years, but had already surpassed its peers in terms of growth and
Through it all, Strummer was the angry young man at the center of the storm.
With a cigarette-scarred, throaty rasp, Strummer stumbled through the Clash’s
reggae cover of the traditional blues number “Junco Partner,” croaking like a
drunken street-fighter hitting daylight. The song sits alongside many of the
classics written by Strummer and Jones on the band’s 1980 magnum opus, the
three-album set Sandanista!. Tracks such as “Somebody Got Murdered” and
“Career Opportunities” decry the plight of England’s youth with a passion and
vigor, as well as a desperate hopelessness, that made Jones and Strummer the
poet laureates of punk. Like London’s Calling, the album, though
packed with songs, was released at a fan-friendly discounted price.
Though the group’s influence was on the wane in England, with the release of
1982’s Combat Rock the Clash finally achieved the American success they long
sought with the hits “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah.”
The Middle Eastern-themed video for the song made the mohawked Strummer an
icon for the MTV generation. (The anti-war track was later played by the U.S. military
as it bombed Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.) The group, however, was frequently
booed off the stage in the fall of 1982 as it made the rounds with the Who on
the venerable English rock band’s first farewell tour.
The Clash’s appearance at the massive US Festival in the summer of 1983 would
mark their last major concert, as the group disintegrated following the
September 1983 firing of Jones, whom the others felt had strayed from the
band’s original ideals. A new lineup toured the U.S. in 1984 and released the
poorly received Cut the Crap album before disbanding in 1986.
Jones and Strummer reunited in 1986 to write a handful of songs for Jones’
band, Big Audio Dynamite, while Strummer began a second career as an actor.
The singer appeared as “street scum” in “The King of Comedy” (1983), a baddie
in Alex Cox’s punk rock western, “Straight to Hell” (1987) and Cox’s
“Walker,” (1987) and played bit parts in “Candy Mountain” (1987) and Jim
Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” (1989). In the latter, he played the part of
“Johnny” a.k.a. Elvis, in the film about a Japanese couple’s obsession with
Strummer released his solo debut, Earthquake Weather, in 1989, which bore the
signature Clash mash-up of dub, reggae, folk and punk rock. After a brief
1991 stint as the touring vocalist and rhythm guitarist for Irish rockers the
Pogues, Strummer receded from the spotlight, performing on Black Grape’s 1996
hit “England’s Irie” and scoring the John Cusack comedy “Grosse Pointe Blank”
(1997). Strummer lent his voice to “It’s a Rockin’ World” from the soundtrack
to “South Park” (1998). He returned in 1999 backed by his new band, the
Mescaleros, with Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, an eclectic album that added
some dancey beats to Strummer’s increasingly world music mix of exotic
percussion and African influences. A second album, Global a Go-Go, followed
last year, and Strummer had been working on a third Mescaleros LP. He had
also recently completed a European tour with the band.
A punk to the end, Strummer had ignored lucrative offers for the Clash to
reunite and steadfastly followed his musical and social conscience. Along the
way, he influenced everyone from former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack
de la Rocha to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and U2’s Bono, with whom he
collaborated on a song for an upcoming concert in South Africa to raise money
to fight AIDS. Along with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, the pair wrote
“48864” — named for former South African president Nelson Mandela’s prison
number — which will be performed at the benefit show on February 2 (see
“Bono, Shaggy, Macy Gray To Play AIDS Benefit In South Africa” ).
Strummer recently filmed a pilot for an MTV2 show, “Global Boombox With Joe
Strummer,” which features clips from a number of world, reggae, pop and punk
artists, including Buccaneer, Capleton, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and
The Clash are scheduled to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on
March 10 in New York (see “AC/DC, Clash, Police To Be Inducted Into Rock Hall
Of Fame” ), and the drums had begun beating for a long sought-after reunion.
Jones and Strummer performed together for the first time in nearly 20 years
on November 16 at a charity gig at London’s Acton Town Hall, playing the
songs “London’s Burning,” “Bankrobber” and “White Riot,” which raised hopes
for an onstage set at the Hall of Fame induction.
Strummer is survived by a wife, two daughters and a stepdaughter, who are all
requesting privacy at this time
[This story was updated on 12.23.02 at 3:25 p.m. ET.]
— Joe D’Angelo and Gil Kaufman
“Westway to the World,” a two-hour documentary on the Clash, will air on MTV2 Tuesday at 11a.m. ET/ 8 a.m. PT, and Wednesday at 12 midnight ET/ 9 p.m. PT.