Joe Strummer 20 Years Gone
Part 3 of 3: Strummer Lives
Host Johnny Punish welcomes super Strummer Fan Dennis Charles. Dennis tells Punish all about the 28 times he saw the great Joe Strummer perform.
John Graham Mellor (21 Aug. 1952 – 22 Dec. 2002), known professionally as Joe Strummer, was a British singer, musician, and songwriter. He was the co-founder, lyricist, rhythm guitarist, and co-lead vocalist of the punk rock band The Clash, formed in 1976.
The Clash’s second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978) reached No. 2 on the UK charts. Soon after, they achieved success in the US, starting with London Calling (1979) and peaking with Combat Rock (1982), which reached No. 7 on the US charts and was certified 2× platinum there. The Clash’s explosive political lyrics, musical experimentation, and rebellious attitude had a far-reaching influence on rock music in general, especially alternative rock. Their music incorporated reggae, ska, dub, funk, rap, and rockabilly.
Strummer’s other career highlights included stints with the 101ers, the Latino Rockabilly War, the Mescaleros, and the Pogues, as well as solo music. His work as a musician allowed him to explore other interests such as acting, scoring television shows and films, and hosting the BBC Radio show London Calling. Strummer and the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 2003.
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A year after The Clash disbanded, 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 studio album, No. 10, Upping St. (1986), by co-writing most of the songs as well as producing the album along with Jones.
In 1987, he played a small part 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.
Straight to Hell also featured the London-Irish folk/punk band the Pogues, both as actors and contributors to the soundtrack. Strummer joined the Pogues for a tour in 1987/88, filling in for ailing guitarist Philip Chevron, who wrote (in May 2008) on the band’s online forum: “When I was sick in late 1987, I taught Joe all the guitar parts in an afternoon and he was on tour in the US as deputy guitarist the next day.
Joe wrote all the tabs in his meticulously neat hand on a long piece of paper which he taped to the top of the guitar so he could glance down occasionally when he was onstage.” This tour would be the first of several collaborations with the band.
THE MAGNIFICENT JOE STRUMMER
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In 1989, Strummer appeared in Jim Jarmusch‘s film Mystery Train as a drunken, short-tempered drifter named Johnny (whom most characters refer to as Elvis, much to Johnny’s dismay).
He made a cameo 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-inch single limited to a few hundred copies, credited to “Joe Strummer & the Astro Physicians”.
The “Astro Physicians” were in fact the Pogues (“Afro-Cuban Bebop” got a re-release on the Pogues’ 2008 box set). 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 produced a solo record with the band 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.
Strummer was asked by the Pogues, who were fracturing as a band, to help them produce their next album, released in 1990 as Hell’s Ditch.
In 1991, he replaced Shane MacGowan as a singer of the Pogues for a tour after MacGowan’s departure from the band. One night of this tour was professionally recorded, and three tracks (“I Fought the Law”, “London Calling”, and “Turkish Song of the Damned”) have seen release as b-sides and again on the Pogues’ 2008 box set.
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. Although the set appeared impromptu, Strummer and the band had spent days leading up to the event rehearsing and “hanging out” in Prague. The show began with “London Calling” and without pause went into “Brand New Cadillac”.
In the middle of the song, the power went out. Once the power was back on, Strummer asked the audience whether or not they would mind if the band started over. They then began again with “London Calling” and continued on for another half-hour.
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 worked with noted producer and engineer Lee “Scratch” Perry on remixed Clash and 101ers reissue dub material. In collaboration with percussionist Pablo Cook, Strummer wrote and performed the soundtrack to Tunnel of Love (Robert Wallace 1997) which was featured in the Cannes Film Festival in the same year.
In 1997, Strummer played the character of “Brand New Cadillac” songwriter Vince Taylor in F. J. Ossang‘s road movie Doctor Chance .
In 1998, he made a guest appearance on the animated television show, South Park and appeared on the album Chef Aid: The South Park Album featuring songs from and inspired by the series.
During this time, Strummer was engaged in a legal 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 program London Calling. Samples from the series provide the vocals for “Midnight Jam” on Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ final album Streetcore.
The Mescaleros and other work (1999–2002)
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 released 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.
This is my Indian summer … I learnt that fame is an illusion and 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 studio album, Global a Go-Go. The album was supported by 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“. He covered Bob Marley‘s “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash.
On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit show for striking firefighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones was in the audience, and joined the band on stage during the Clash’s “Bankrobber”. An encore followed with Jones playing guitar and singing “White Riot” and “London’s Burning”. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together 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 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 became a vegetarian in 1971 and remained so until his death in 2002.
In 1975, Strummer accepted £100 (equivalent to £1,100 in 2021) to marry South African citizen Pamela Moolman so she could obtain British citizenship (before the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force) to do so.
He used the money to buy his signature Fender Telecaster. In 1978, he started a relationship with Gaby Salter shortly after her 17th birthday. The couple remained together for 14 years and had two daughters, Jazz, and Lola, but did not marry as Strummer had been unable to locate and divorce Moolman.
During his relationship with Salter, he had multiple affairs.
In 1993, he began an affair with Lucinda Tait, which finally ended his relationship with Salter. He was married to Tait from 1995 until his death in 2002.
Strummer described himself as a socialist and explained, “I believe in socialism because it seems more humanitarian, rather than every man for himself and ‘I’m alright Jack’ and all those arsehole businessmen with all the loot. I made up my mind from viewing society from that angle. That’s where I’m from and there’s where I’ve made my decisions from. That’s why I believe in socialism.”
On 22 December 2002, Strummer was found dead by his wife at his home in Broomfield, Somerset aged 50, having just returned from walking his dog. An autopsy showed that he died from a heart attack caused by an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
His estate was valued at just under £1 million, and he left all the money to Tait. Strummer was cremated, and his ashes were given to his family.
At the time of his death, Strummer was working on another Mescaleros album, which was released posthumously in October 2003 under the title Streetcore.
The album features a tribute to Johnny Cash, “Long Shadow”, which was written for Cash to sing and recorded in Rick Rubin‘s garage, as well as a remembrance of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 (“Ramshackle Day Parade”), and a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song“, which Strummer had also recorded as a duet with Cash.
The Cash/Strummer duet version appears on the 2003 box set Unearthed.
Strummer and the Mescaleros were scheduled to open for Pearl Jam on the 2003 Riot Act Tour. In November 2003, a video for “Redemption Song” was released, directed by Josh Cheuse. It features how graffiti artist REVOLT painted a memorial mural on the wall of the Niagara Bar in the East Village of New York City.
In 2013 the mural of Joe Strummer outside Niagara bar was destroyed due to construction, and on 19 September 2013, a new mural was unveiled. The unveiling was accompanied by a large celebration, attended by Mick Jones.
Strummer was instrumental in setting up Future Forests (since rechristened the Carbon Neutral Company), dedicated to planting trees in various parts of the world 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.
In his remembrance, Strummer’s friends and family have established the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music, which holds an annual festival with the same name.
In December 2016, a blue plaque was erected by Seymour Housing Co-operative at 33 Daventry Street near Marylebone station where he used to live when it was a squat and the Slits and Malcolm McLaren all lived nearby.
In January 2003, the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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 the same month at the rock club Debaser in Stockholm, some of Sweden’s better-known rock musicians paid their tribute to Strummer by performing songs written by the Clash (the exception was Nicke Borg and Dregen from Backyard Babies, who performed “I Fought the Law“, which the Clash had covered). At the end of the concert, the Swedish punk band Ebba Grön reunited for the tribute, aided by Mick Jones on guitar.
On 22 December 2003, 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 Belfast punk rock group Stiff Little Fingers recorded a tribute song “Strummerville” on their 2003 album, Guitar and Drum. In 2004 Al Barr, lead singer of the Boston punk band Dropkick Murphys named his son Strummer in honor of Joe.
German band Beatsteaks paid tribute to Strummer on their 2004 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”; it is a lyrical co-production with Matt Dangerfield from London’s 77 punk band the Boys. Attila the Stockbroker‘s Barnstormer released “Comandante Joe” on their 2004 album Zero Tolerance.
In February 2005 Cotswold Rail locomotive 47828 was named Joe Strummer by his widow Lucinda Tait at Bristol Temple Meads railway station.
On 22 July 2005 Tait unveiled a plaque on the house in Pentonville, Newport where Strummer lived from 1973 to 1974 and where his first foray into recorded music, “Crummy Bum Blues” was recorded. “That Was Clash Radio”, a 2005 short story that Charles de Lint, wrote in response to Strummer’s death featuring Strummer in a minor role.
New Orleans-based rockers Cowboy Mouth released a song called “Joe Strummer” on their 2006 album Voodoo Shoppe. The Red Hot Chili Peppers also recorded a tribute song called “Joe” as part of the recording sessions for their album Stadium Arcadium, releasing the outtake as a B-side to their single Desecration Smile in 2007.
A play by Paul Hodson called Meeting Joe Strummer premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival and toured the UK the following year.
THE STRUMMER GUITAR
In conjunction with the Strummer estate, Fender released the Joe Strummer Tribute Telecaster in 2007, combining elements of Joe’s main guitars, namely an attempt at the “road worn” finish of his 1966 Telecaster, which he used until his death. The neck profile was an exact duplicate of Joe’s ’66 Telecaster, while the guitar’s finish was an approximation of the wear. The first 1,500 guitars came with a Shepard Fairey-designed “Customisation kit” with stickers and stencils, which resembled some of the designs Strummer used on his guitars.
Boston punk rock band Street Dogs recorded a tribute song called “The General’s Boombox” on their 2007 album State of Grace. New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem recorded the song “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” on their 2008 album Sink or Swim. The Hold Steady reference Strummer’s impact in the song “Constructive Summer” on their 2008 album Stay Positive, singing “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer. I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” In November 2009, Tonara, a town in Sardinia, Italy, dedicated a street to Joe Strummer.
On 22 December 2010, CJAM 99.1 FM, a radio station in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, declared the anniversary of Strummer’s death “Joe Strummer Day to confront poverty in Windsor-Detroit.”
For 24 hours, the station played nothing but Strummer-related music, wrapping the sounds around reports about poverty in the Windsor-Detroit region.
CJAM (which is located near the banks of the Detroit River, a kilometer from downtown Detroit) has since decided to make it an annual event and hosted its 10th annual Joe Strummer Day on 22 December 2019.
In January 2011 a motion was started to grant Strummer his own street in the Spanish city of Granada.
On 21 August 2012, which would have been Strummer’s 60th birthday, Hellcat Records released an exclusive 57-song digital download album titled Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, The Hellcat Years. The album features Strummer’s three Hellcat albums along with various b-sides and live songs, including Strummer’s 15 November 2002 concert with Mick Jones. In September 2012, Hellcat announced the re-release of remastered versions of Strummer’s three Hellcat records on both CD and vinyl. Hellcat released Strummer’s 15 November 2002 concert, Live at Acton Town Hall on 23 November 2012.
In January 2013 Joe Strummer had a plaza named in his honor, Placeta Joe Strummer, in the Spanish city of Granada, about 650m south of Alhambra.
In June 2013 a mural of Strummer was unveiled on the corner of Portobello Road and Blenheim Crescent and attended by a number of Strummer’s former friends including Mick Jones and Ray Gange.
In an October 2013 interview, Mick Jones confirmed that Strummer had intentions of reforming the Clash and that new music was even being written. In the months prior to Strummer’s death, he and Jones got together to write new music. Jones said at the time he assumed the new songs would be used on albums with the Mescaleros.
A few months following their work together, Jones ran into Strummer at an event and asked him what he intended to do with those songs. Strummer informed Jones that they were going to be used for the next Clash record.
In 2016, actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayed Strummer in the film London Town which tells the story of a Clash-obsessed teenager who crosses paths with Joe Strummer by happenstance in 1979 and finds his life changing as a result. The film was met with mostly negative reviews.
It was discovered following Strummer’s death that he was an archivist of his own work, having barns full of writings and tapes. Over 20,000 items were stored in the Joe Strummer archive and on 28 September 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released.
The album, which was overseen by Strummer’s widow, Lucinda, and producer Robert Gordon McHarg III, features 32 songs, 12 of which had never been released. The set spans Strummer’s career from the 101ers to the Mescaleros and features some unheard demos from the Clash following the departure of Mick Jones, along with an unreleased song recorded by Jones and Strummer in 1986. The set also features two of Strummer’s final recordings.
In September 2018, Warner/Chappell Music signed a publishing contract with the Strummer estate. The deal includes Strummer’s solo career, Cut the Crap by the Clash, the soundtracks to three films, and his compositions with the 101ers and the Mescaleros.
Strummer’s main guitar throughout his career was a 1966 Fender Telecaster that he acquired in its original sunburst finish during the middle of 1975 when he was playing with the 101ers.
After joining the Clash, the guitar’s body and pickguard were refinished in grey auto primer and then painted black. Over the years, the guitar would see numerous sticker configurations, with the most prominent and longest-lasting one stating “Ignore Alien Orders”. Years of heavy wear and taped-on set lists remain on the guitar to this day, and the only known modifications to it included the installation of an individual, six-saddle bridge, and Fender “f-style” tuning machines.
The Fender Custom Shop created a Joe Strummer tribute Telecaster in 2007 with a reliced flat black finish and an exact replica of the neck profile of his ’66 Telecaster.
Strummer was naturally left-handed but was taught to play guitar right-handed by his friend Tymon Dogg. Strummer had reckoned his left-handedness on a right-hand guitar as a drawback and claimed it caused him to be underdeveloped as a guitarist, although his style of playing was unique.
He also used three Fender Esquire models, one from 1952, a white blonde with slab fretboard from the mid-1950s, and another from the early to mid-1960s with a white pickguard and rosewood fingerboard.
The Esquire is a one-pickup version of the Telecaster. Prior to using any Telecaster-oriented guitar, before buying his 1966 model, he used as his main guitars a Gretsch White Falcon and a 1964 Hofner Verithin.
For amplification, Strummer was known to use amplifiers such as a Roland Jazz Chorus, a Selmer Bassman while he was in the 101ers, a Vox AC30, and various Marshall amplifiers, but his main amplifier was a Music Man HD 212,150.
Strummer commented on his choice of the amplifier “I don’t have time to search for those old Fender tube amps. The Music Man is the closest thing to that sound I’ve found” and that the “plastic motif on the front is repulsive.”
In his remembrance, Strummer’s friends and family established the Joe Strummer Foundation (initially known as Strummerville), a nonprofit organization that gives opportunities to musicians and supports projects around the world that create empowerment through music.
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Johnny Punish is the founder and owner of VT. He is also a writer, global citizen eco-activist, visionary, musician, artist, entertainer, businessman, investor, life coach, and syndicated columnist. Punish was educated at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (1980-81) and California State University Fullerton (1981-1984) with studies in accounting and business. Before the “internets” had been invented, he owned and ran (5) national newspapers in the United States of America from 1987-1998
Punish has over 100 original songs written. He records and produces music. A member of ASCAP, Punish has several songs placed in feature films. His music is promoted worldwide and played on all digital networks and net radio.
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