A 'Redemption Song' for The Clash's Frontman The Clash was sometimes called "the only band that mattered." They mashed reggae, R&B, and rockabilly into classic three-chord punk rock. Chris Salewicz's Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer offers an extensive biography into the band's enigmatic frontman.

A 'Redemption Song' for The Clash's Frontman

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The Clash was sometimes called the only band that mattered. They were politically passionate and musically adventurous — mashing reggae, R&B, and rockabilly into classic three-chord punk rock. And they were one of the most famous bands to come out of the British punk scene in the late 1970s.

(Soundbite of song "Should I Stay Or Should I Go")

Mr. JOE STRUMMER (Frontman, The Clash): (Singing) So you got to let me know. Should I stay or should I go?

ELLIOTT: But anarchy and success made uneasy bedfellows for The Clash's leader, Joe Strummer. Chris Salewicz is the author of "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer," and he joins us now from our studios in Culver City.

Hello. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRIS SALEWICZ (Author of "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer"): Hi there, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Let's take our listeners back to the 1970s in the birth of British punk. Can you describe the scene that gave rise to the Clash?

Mr. SALEWICZ: Yes, everything in Britain in those days was pretty grim and horrible. There were still bombsites left over from World War II, everything shut down at 11 o'clock at night, there was huge unemployment, and no one earned anything whatsoever. So it was kind of fertile ground for something new to happen.

ELLIOTT: Now where did Joe Strummer's radicalism come from? He had grown up in a middle-class family really. His father was a career diplomat but I get the sense from your book that his father was also maybe a closet socialist.

Mr. SALEWICZ: Yeah, his father was definitely closet socialist. In fact, as a diplomat, he used to have lunch, which consisted of drinking a bottle of Vodka. This was in Ankara with Kim Filby, the famous spy who later defected. So you do kind of wonder sometimes.

But also Joe in his life as a squatter when he formed his first group - the R&B punk rock group, The 101'ers - was kind - a life of kind of a - in some ways, it's rather naive politics but, on the other hand, it's the politics of the street. It's the politics of survival. So on that one hand, he'd be getting lectures from Marxist militants, and on the other hand, you know, espousing, you know, a true anarchic spirit.

ELLIOTT: You make the case though that's its almost by sheer will that John Mellor remakes himself into this street punk, you know. He did not have to live in a squat - he put himself in that environment.

Mr. SALEWICZ: But he kind of did have to live in one for his own sake at that point. And it's worth pointing out that a lot of people living in squats were actually quite middle class - middle-class arty types basically because you could live for nothing. So it was actually fertile ground for, you know, being an artist of any sort whatsoever. I must say much of punk rock came out of that scenario.

ELLIOTT: So how does Joe Strummer go from being a part of this 101'ers group into being in The Clash?

Mr. SALEWICZ: Well, there's a great symbolic moment when his group, The 101'ers, are supported at a show in West London in April 1976 by the Sex Pistols, and suddenly, Joe sees the light. He's very - he's extremely impressed with them and extremely impressed with their stance, their general position with regard to the culture around them.

ELLIOTT: The Clash really comes into its own with the album "London Calling" and the title track is one of the most famous Clash songs of all time. And when you read the lyrics, it seems like maybe Joe Strummer could see the future - the ice age is coming, the sun zooming in Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin.

(Soundbite of song "London Calling")

Mr. STRUMMER: (Singing) Engines stop running, but I have no fear because London is drowning and I live by the river.

Mr. SALEWICZ: Funny enough, I saw Mick Jones a few months ago and…

ELLIOTT: And this was his musical partner who he co-wrote many of the Clash songs…

Mr. SALEWICZ: Exactly, and he's - we were talking about global warming et cetera, and then he said, well, we (unintelligible) past this 25, 30 years ago. Why weren't they listening? Joe and all The Clash were very attuned - Joe and Mick Jones particularly actually were very attuned to what was going on. The news behind the news, as Bernie Rhodes, their manager, once put it so astutely.

(Soundbite of song "London Calling")

Mr. STRUMMER: (Singing) London calling. I never felt so much alike, alike, alike…

ELLIOTT: So The Clash comes on - becomes very popular after "London Calling," even in the United States - a much wider audience…

Mr. SALEWICZ: Yeah, but don't forget that the Clash's first album, which was not released in the United States initially and only released in a modified form at all was the biggest selling import album ever at that point in America. But "London Calling" does certainly cements their position and their glory.

ELLIOTT: It also sort of takes them out of the gutter - they're making money. Did the success of The Clash cause problems?

Mr. SALEWICZ: Yes, it caused him a huge confusion because, on one hand, he wants to be, you know, hugely successful. He wants to be, I think like many, you know, artists of the kind that get up on stage. He wanted to feel validated as a human being. He wants to feel his voice was literally heard. But it's very confusing being the man of the people and then suddenly having, you know, a ton of money in your bank account.

ELLIOTT: You write about how Joe Strummer was wonderful to fans and strangers but sometimes it could be hard to be his friend, and he had a particularly uneasy relationship in the end with his musical partner Mick Jones…


ELLIOTT: …who was the guitarist and co-writer in the band. What happened finally?

Mr. SALEWICZ: Well, people asked me what happened to The Clash. Why did - and I always say, well, they went mad, and they - people think I'm joking but I'm not joking. Because I think when groups get to a certain point, this is the Combat Rock Tour really. It's - post-Combat Rock, which has been hugely successful, the top five album all around the world and that transported to much higher level. It's nonstop.

I mean, this is a kind of truism of groups generally, you know, you go on the road and then there's a party afterwards and you can't - you don't sleep properly and the next night is more of the same and it gets into a complete vicious circle.

But with Joe, this is particularly difficult because the amount of adrenalin that he put out on stage in those incredible performances, these pieces of performance art where he's charging around the stage, diving and diving backwards into the drum kit, never smiling, of course. But the amount of adrenalin that he puts out means it's very, very hard to come down.

So I'm just saying that Joe is in a very rarified point in - within himself by the time that they're at the stage. And I think he lost the plots(ph) really. Mick Jones would be accused of rock star behavior because they'd arrived at a gig and he'd order a meal from room service. Joe was outraged by this. I mean, I think we see all the conflicts that we're just been talking about within Joe.

ELLIOTT: And this leads to the breakup of the band.

Mr. SALEWICZ: There was lots of confusion about who kicked Mick Jones. Was it a conspiracy with Bernie Rhodes, the manager, with whom he had fallen out earlier. No, Paul Simonon said, it was not Bernie, it was me and Joe that got rid of him.

ELLIOTT: And this was something that troubled Joe Strummer until the day he died. He thinks he made a mistake.

Mr. SALEWICZ: Yeah, not at first but quite quickly. Quite quickly he realized he's made a classic error, and I did have this moment with him in a bar in Notting Hill, which was where they all lived in 1985, when he sat down with me and after several hours of drinking says, I've got a big problem. Mick was right about Bernie and, you know, oh dear.

ELLIOTT: But why did you call your book "Redemption Song?"

Mr. SALEWICZ: I called my book "Redemption Song" for several reasons, one of which was it got me away from every Clash cliche that people wanted me to call it, because Bob Marley was a huge influence on Joe Strummer because "Redemption Song," and his duet with Johnny Cash was the last single that Joe Strummer released posthumously, of course, and also because Joe's life certainly post-Clash was a struggle for redemption certainly with himself.

ELLIOTT: Chris Salewicz is the author of "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer." Thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. SALEWICZ: Thank you, Debbie.

(Soundbite of song "Redemption Song")

Mr. STRUMMER and The MESCALEROS: (Singing) So won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? Cause all I ever have redemption songs, redemption songs.

ELLIOTT: To read an excerpt from "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer" and hear more of his music, go to npr.org/music.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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