NPR logo

Joe Strummer's Life After Death

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Joe Strummer's Life After Death

Joe Strummer's Life After Death

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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.


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


THE CLASH: (Singing) Rock the casbah. Rock the casbah. Sharif don't like it...

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


THE CLASH: (Singing) The king called up his jet fighters. He said you better earn your pay. Drop your bombs between the minarets down the casbah way...

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.


THE CLASH: (Singing) A South Atlantic wind blows, ice from a dying creed. I see no glory. When will we be free? This is England. We can chain you to the rail. This is England. We can kill you in a jail...

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


JOE STRUMMER: We didn't have any solution to the world's problems. I mean, we were trying to grope in a socialist way toward some future where the world might be less of a miserable place than it is. But we did try to put our minds and pose those sort of questions, whatever good that - use that was. We did try.

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.


STRUMMER: Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom. But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control. I quickly realized that you either became a power or you were crushed.

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.


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.


THE CLASH: (Singing) White riot, I want to riot. White riot, a riot of my own. White riot, I want to riot. White riot, a riot of my own. Black man got a lot of problems but they don't mind throwing a brick. White people go to school where they teach you how to be thick...

VITALE: Strummer's social consciousness continues to incite musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, U2, and Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers. The Hold Steady wrote a tribute to Joe Strummer in a song called "Constructive Summer."


THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer. I think he might have been our only decent teacher. Getting older makes it harder to remember we are our only saviors. We're going to build something this 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...


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.


THE CLASH: (Singing) London calling to the faraway towns. Now war is declared and battle come down. 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.


THE CLASH: (Singing) The ice age is coming. The sun's zooming in. Engines stop running. The wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error but I have no fear 'cause London is drowning and I - I live by the river...

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


STRUMMER: My face is buried deep in the mud. You know, I can't see the trees or the wood, or the valley or the hills. You can only follow what's on your mind. In fact, a song is something you write because you can't sleep unless you write it.

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.


THE CLASH: (Singing) Now every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world, ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl. Love...

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


And I'm David Greene.


THE CLASH: (Singing) ...hands that slap his kids around, 'cause they don't understand how death or glory become just another story. Death or glory become just another story. In every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock and roll, grabs the mic to tell us he'll die before he's sold. But I believe in this and it's been tested by research...

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.