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Book Review: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer by Gregor Gall

This year marks 20 years since the death of Joe Strummer – the revered punk icon and frontman of The Clash, Mescaleros and Latino Rockabilly War and there is no shortage of books, articles, and retrospectives on the man and his substantial legacy.

Considered an authentically political figure who has had a vast influence on generations of individuals not just musically but politically, there has been surprisingly little in the grand scheme of things that examines the inner and outer political world of Strummer- what he thought and how his world view developed. This is the gap that the new book by Gregor Gall aims to fill.

Bringing together an impressive amount of research, Gall examines in meticulous detail many aspects of the political psyche and personality of the Clash frontman, charting his political development from his Clash heydays and then beyond. The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer is not just for hardcore Strummer fans (although, if you are, then this book is a must), but anyone interested in the political impact of music will find Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer insightful and comprehensive.

The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer takes things topic by topic- looking at defining the terms commonly associated with the punk singer (such as Socialist, Revolutionary, Activist) and interrogating how accurately these terms can be applied to him. It also looks at how many may come from projection from those who were either slightly misconstruing Strummer’s views or keen to appropriate him for their cause or group. 

“The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer is not just for hardcore Strummer fans (although, if you are, then this book is a must) but anyone with an interest in the political impact of music will find this book insightful and comprehensive.” Punktuation! Mag.

There is a sense of objectivity in the book- this is not an uncritical look at Joe Strummer; instead, his inconsistencies and his shortcomings (particularly in terms of attitudes towards women and gender) are documented and confronted fairly, which is a breath of fresh air when talking about Strummer who has gained icon status for so many, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is beyond reproach. 

Focusing on some specific moments in his career, such as the Rock Against the Rich tour of 1988 and tracing his political development from general liberal pronouncements to socialist to humanist are examined in the book.

There are some uncovered gems in terms of quotes from interviews and from contemporaries of Strummer, which are a treat for anyone wanting to hear about things from the man himself or from those who were closest to him.

The research and analysis that has gone into the book are immense, and it seems no stone has been left unturned in an attempt to ensure each assertion and statement is evidenced. In this respect, Gall has done the rest of us a service by trawling the archives and presenting the need-to-know quotes and excerpts. That cannot have been an easy feat, as Gall states:

“If you want to know about JS, there is a lot out there to read. I have selected all the things that are out there and taken out the most important things, and put together into something accessible. The writing of the book took about four years, but it is also drawing on things I have remembered from when I read NME or Melody Maker throughout my years as a fan.

“I Also benefitted from people making things available online, such as on YouTube and the Black Market Clash website for press cuttings.

Another key part of the book is analysing the impact that Joe Strummer has had. It is common to hear people claim that he changed their life or at least significantly impacted them, but what does that mean? How do people’s lives change by meeting, listening to or interacting with Joe Strummer and his music? This is a question that Gall has been pondering for some time:

“I feel there is sufficient robustness to say there are many people still alive and active in campaigning who were teenagers when Clash were at their peak, and they take forward that influence and pass on to children. I would say there is a continuing influence.”

But why is that? What is it about this complex yet inspirational man who has contributed to this legacy with all his flaws?

joe strumer book

“People would say, ‘why is this guy still relevant? In a nutshell, the things he cared about and wrote about…. those things are still present in the world we live in. Environmental destruction, racism, war, issues of human rights and social justice. These are the things that, no matter how much we think the world has changed, we still live in a capitalist system, so only the details on the margin have changed. Society is still the same. When people are interested in politics, they are not going to read das Kapital; they are going for something more accessible.

“With songs like Washington Bullets or Spanish Bombs raising certain themes, before the age of the internet, people would go to the library and try and find books on these topics. So, in that sense,  he played the role of an educator.”

Twenty years on from the loss of Strummer, The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer reminds us of the immense role the man had in the lives of multiple generations of punk fans and the principles he stood for. 

The book is released on 22nd June 2022 by Manchester University Press. Click button to pre-order your copy!

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