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Joe Strummer's Life After Death

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Joe Strummer's Life After Death

Joe Strummer's Life After Death

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ten years after his death - the anniversary is this coming Saturday - the name Joe Strummer still resonates with musicians and fans around the world. Strummer fronted what his label dubbed, The Only Band That Matters: The Clash. Strummer sang lead and wrote most of the songs, songs spiked with pointed criticisms of authority and injustice.

Tom Vitale reports on Strummer's influence.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Joe Strummer's topical songs written three decades ago continue to resonate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

VITALE: The Clash's biggest single released in 1982 could have been about last week's news from Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

VITALE: In Rock the Casbah, a Middle Eastern sharif or king orders his air force to bomb his own subjects who are rebelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

VITALE: Like the best Clash records, "Rock the Casbah" manages to be a protest song and a pop song at the same time.

CHRIS SALEWICZ: There's a warmth to The Clash's music which I think is part of their great appeal.

VITALE: Chris Salewicz is the author of a 600-page biography called "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer."

SALEWICZ: There's actually great melodies and there's a great immediacy about it, combined with Joe's lyrics. You know, people talk about The Clash as a political group. Now, I never saw The Clash as a political group. I saw them as a satirical group. Their function was really like the underground press used to be. You know, to point out and to make fun really of institutions and authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS ENGLAND")

VITALE: In an interview not long before his death, for the documentary "Westway to the World," Strummer said much the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WESTWAY TO THE WORLD")

VITALE: Joe Strummer was from a middle-class background. The son of a British diplomat, John Graham Mellor was born in Turkey in 1952. He changed his name to Joe Strummer when he was in his 20s, as a joking reference to his self-taught guitar style.

When he was nine years old, his parents sent him to a London boarding school. There, Strummer said, he began to form his political opinions.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WESTWAY TO THE WORLD")

VITALE: Strummer was sometimes criticized as an underclass wannabe. But biographer Chris Salewicz says Strummer came by his beliefs honestly after dropping out of art school.

SALEWICZ: Then he becomes a squatter, squatting in unoccupied houses. And I think that's a kind of great leveler - it's a very democratic society; everyone really is the same. And the reason they're the same is 'cause they're having a really hard time. You know, they're reduced to the real ocean floor of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RIOT")

VITALE: The Clash's first single, "White Riot" released in 1977, was a call to white youths to rise up in protest the way Strummer felt that black youths in the U.K. were already doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RIOT")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CONSTRUCTIVE SUMMER")

TAD KUBLER: The Clash was - they seemed like real people and they were a band for the people. And I hope that that's what we convey, as well.

VITALE: Tad Kubler is the lead guitarist for The Hold Steady. Kubler says what inspires him in the music of The Clash is the beat.

KUBLER: The great thing about Joe Strummer is he had a real signature style, not just of playing but the physical element of it too. You know, with his...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOT TAPPING)

KUBLER: ...left foot always going. You know, it was always moving. And it was really his sense of tempo, meter was phenomenal. And that's why you get songs like "London Calling," and the dant, dant, dant, dant. If you look at him, that's not what he's playing on guitar. That's what he's doing with his body.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

VITALE: The message behind "London Calling," echoes today's concerns over global warming just as much as it did in 1979 when it was written following the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONDON CALLING")

VITALE: In 1999, Strummer told NPR he just wrote what he had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

VITALE: Joe Strummer continued losing sleep and writing songs about things he cared about, until he died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect on December 22nd, 2002. He was just 50 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OR GLORY")

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OR GLORY")

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