Joe Strummer, singer, guitarist and songwriter for legendary punk band The Clash, died on Sunday 22nd December at his home in Somerset, England of a heart attack due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect; he was fifty. This is a snap shot of his life.
Strummer, the son of a British diplomat, was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, and as a boy, he lived in Mexico City, Cypress and Cairo, in addition to England.
Mellor got ‘turn on” to rock & roll when, at City of London Freemen Boarding School, Ashtead Park, Surrey, he heard the Rolling Stones’ version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away.’
“I remember walking into some horrible room in some horrible school and hearing it blasting out of a huge, wooden radio. The thing moved like a steam train, and that was the moment where I said, ‘Yeah . . . wow!’ “
After School, John decided he wanted to be a cartoonist and registered at the London Central School of Art & Design. He soon discovered what a “Lousy set up” it was. Moving into a squat with art school classmates, he meets a fiddler named Tymon Dogg and Mellor followed him to his London Underground pitches as a busker. Mellor first-ever gig is down Green Park tube station. He played ‘Johnny Be Good’ on a ukulele he got for £1.99 down Shaftesbury Rd.
After being expelled from art school, John, now known as Woody Mellor, spends two years doing “absolutely nothing”. He followed his then-girlfriend to Wales, where he formed a band called The Vultures and worked as a gravedigger. Feeling homesick, Mellor moves back to London and back to the busking scene.
Along with his mates of Maida Hill’s squatting community, he formed his second band, The 101ers (first billed El Huaso & The 101 All-Stars). Their first gig is at the Brixton Telegraph, Sept. 6th 1974. It is also around this time that Woody becomes Joe Strummer.
Strummer had another “wow” moment in 1976 when the Sex Pistols opened for his band.
That gig on April 3rd 1976, brought home to Strummer that the Sex Pistols were inaugurating a new phase not just in popular music but also in his life. “They were like a million years ahead,” he later told his biographer Chris Salewicz. “I realised immediately we were going nowhere; the rest of my group hated them.”
Strummer quit the 101ers and teamed up with fellow punk-minded musicians Mick Jones (lead guitar, vocals), Paul Simonon (bass) and Terry Chimes (drums) to form The Clash, named for what they perceived to be the most common word in newspaper headlines. (Chimes would be replaced by Nicky “Topper” Headon later that year).
During their five years together, the Clash blended punk, reggae and world-beat rhythms with lyrics championing racial unity and combating political oppression and became widely known as “the only band that matters.”
Their five proper albums — including the 1977 self-titled debut and the 1980 epic double album London Calling, stand as punk rock’s most impressive catalogue.
Although their chart success in the U.K. never translated to the U.S., the Clash did break the American Top Twenty in 1982 with the song ‘Rock the Casbah.’ That fall, they toured the U.S. as The Who’s opening act and played to their largest-ever audiences. The Clash’s catchy three-chord bursts, political intensity and, even, Strummer’s mohawk hairstyle would reach the suburbs of America to inspire future punk bands like Green Day and Rancid.
Unfortunately, just as they were ready to explode, the Clash imploded. Headon was kicked out because of his heroin use in 1982, and the following year Strummer and Simonon kicked Jones out because of creative differences. Strummer and Simonon then released the final Clash record, the much-maligned, Cut the Crap, in 1985.
Strummer leapt to the big screen after The Clash acting in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987) and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989).
He released his debut solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989 and produced the Pogues’ 1990 album, Hell’s Ditch. When the band’s singer Shane McGowan fell ill, Strummer filled in as the Pogues’ frontman on their subsequent tour.
In 1998, Strummer formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, a band that continued to explore his taste for exotic, international rhythms. They released two albums, 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and 2001’s Global a Go-Go, and, after their November tour of the British Isles, had just begun recording their third.
Strummer had also recently co-written the song “48864” with Bono and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, which he would have performed at the Nelson Mandela SOS Concert on February 2nd 2003.
The concert was scheduled to take place on the site of the maximum-security prison on Robben Island, South Africa, where Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years.
A month before his death, The Clash was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 2003 — their first year of eligibility — and Strummer expressed a desire to reform the band for the March 10th induction ceremony in New York. Then, during the Mescaleros’ November 15th show at London’s Acton Town Hall, Jones took the stage with Strummer for the first time in nearly twenty years to perform three Clash songs.
“You sort of grow up and stop grousing,” Strummer said of his relationship with his former bandmates. “You bury the hatchet . . . or you just sort of forget what the hatchet was.”
At the time of his death, Joe’s two daughters, Jazz and Lola, were 18 and 16 years old. Their father collapsed at his home after taking his dogs for a walk.
“I remember I was in Oxford Circus trying to do some Christmas shopping,” Lola told The Guardian in a 2012 interview. “I got a phone call saying come home.
“It was such a shock. It wasn’t like he’d been ill. The day before, we’d all had such a great day with him. He had been away on tour, and we hadn’t seen him for a couple of months. So we all met up – our mum, our grandparents, his second wife Lucinda and her daughter Eliza, and we’d all gone out for a meal and then sat in the Groucho [club] drinking champagne. It was a really, really lovely day.”
“I was really miserable, and it was a very tough time. ” Lola Continued. “Jazz was living away from home, and I felt there was no one really around. It changed my life completely. But you do get over it. Death is just a part of life, and you have to accept that.”
RIP JOHN GRAHAM MELLOR 21 August 1952 to 22 December 2002
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