No Ordinary Joe

The Clash, 1977: No hippies here

The Clash, 1977: No hippies here

Joe Strummer dead at 50. It’s customary at these moments to express shock, but anyone who ever saw the Clash wondered how he made it to 30. Watching him howl into the microphone and pummel his Telecaster, one expected that vein throbbing in his temple to explode and his limbs to fly off in every direction.

Strummer performed as if his life depended on it, but then most of the punkers did. Why then did so many of the others seem callow, even laughable? Attitude will take you a long way but not all the way. It helps to have talent, and Strummer had lots. He was one of the great masters of the 45 RPM single. Nobody did fast, loud, simple and short better than he. I realize I’m indulging in the customary rock crit diminishment of Mick Jones, but the Clash always worked best when Jones was Strummer’s preening foil. Jones was seriously lacking in judgment. “Stay Free”? What a simpering sentiment. (As everyone pointed out at the time, it was the perfect soundtrack for its feminine hygiene homonym. And it’s not too late; “London Calling” has been pimped to sell Jaguars.)

The Clash’s eponymous first album (UK edition) is a serious contender for the most exciting record ever made. Strummer never made a better album than this; not surprising, since he became trapped in a political prison of his own making and never really developed as a songwriter.

The Telegraph obituary declares that Strummer “became the punk movement’s voice of anti-Thatcherism.” This is a serious historical error. Margaret Thatcher did not become Prime Minister until May 1979; by then punk was exhausted. English punk rock was a protest against the Britain of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the slow-motion nightmare of national collapse that characterized the period. Johnny Rotten sneering “No future for you” was no pose when national repossession by the IMF was a distinct possibility.

Such bollocks is talked about punk rock now. It was thoroughly apolitical at first; only later did it become ideological. Mick Jones would probably not like to be reminded that his group immediately prior to the Clash was called the London SS. As it included Keith Levene (later of the Clash and Public Image and subject of “Deny”), however, it seems safe to conclude it did not proselytize neo-Nazism.

Few are willing to remember this now, but at the time flirtation with Nazi iconography was a commonplace. To give just five examples, the Dictators, the Blue Öyster Cult and the Ramones—bands with Jewish members, management and record company CEOs—all did so. Siouxsie Sue and Sid Vicious wore swastikas. It wasn’t all play-acting, either. The National Front enjoyed significant popularity in urban Britain in the mid-1970s and quite a few bands, Sham 69 in particular, enjoyed significant patronage from NF supporters.

Britain was sleepwalking into chaos. The comparison to Weimer Germany became a cliché. Even as the Pistols sang of “Anarchy in the UK,” everyone longed for order—of one sort or another. Also forgotten is that Thatcherism had its punk-rock supporters as well. Paul Weller made known his intention of voting Conservative in the next election”—a gaffe for which he as spent the rest of his life grovelling.

According to the Telegraph obit:

Billy Bragg, the singer and songwriter who followed in their political footsteps, said last night that the Clash had given punk its “political edge.”

“Were it not for the Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers,” he wrote in an appreciation posted on the BBC website.

This is true and revisionist at the same time. The Clash’s look, engineered by manager and Malcolm McLaren acolyte Bernie Rhodes, was critical to their success. Who was the enemy? Wankers like Yes, with their 80-minute concept-album “suites.” (Rick Wakeman made a famous intervention to get the Pistols off his label, A&M.) How did Yes dress? Like a bunch of faggot hippies. So how did the Clash dress? Sharp, tough and male. Long hair, for so long de rigeur, became the ultimate faux pas. Rhodes was not above flirting with political ambiguity as well. Paul Simonon sports a Union Jack on the first Clash album; then as now, this flag was (mis)understood as the unacceptable symbol of British racialism.

The serious British music press was, as they say, shocked and appalled by the inchoate irruption that was punk rock. I remember well Tony Parsons (now the beloved lad novelist) sneering of Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides” that Howard Devoto should “get down on his knees” in gratitude for all that socialism had done for him. One also remembers his then-wife Julie Burchill (now the beloved spent volcano of the Guardian) sneering that the Pistols’ “Bodies” was just the sort of anti-abortion tirade that one could only expect from a Catholic Irishman like Johnny Rotten ( Lydon).

They were Trotskyite to a man and woman, these angry young journos, and they bent punk rock to their agenda, at the cost of its charisma. Thus it lost its power as a unifying force. Later, of course, Mrs T would become a unifying anti-force; the punching bag they could always smack for easy applause, even as they all became rich, even as she accomplished what the Labour Party never could—destroying the class system.

The Clash knuckled under. The punk movement became a mere adjunct of the Socialist Workers Party. They touted Rock Against Racism, Rock Against Sexism, rock against every ism except Boringism. “Political correctness” became a catchphrase. You could never be ideologically pure enough.

As I discovered to my bemusement. I knew most of Vancouver’s punkers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. One night after some gig I found myself at a party in some dive face to face with Gerry Useless ( Hannah), bass player and political commissar of the Subhumans, a band still remembered fondly in these parts. Like DOA, they traded in Mannerist Marxism but were rather more earnest. I was disgusted by Mr Useless’ ignorant attitudinizing and let him have it with both barrels. I was fiendishly subtle. I delivered a wholly false but passionate and closely reasoned diatribe against “left-wing Communism, an infantile disorder.” Mr Useless was quite shaken. When I was done, he asked, “Who are you?” (It helps if you picture me wearing a bespoke suit, which was my style at the time. I enjoyed the tension.) “Just a Leninist,” I replied brusquely, turned and walked away.) The Subhumans broke up, and the next I heard of Gerry Useless he had been arrested. He had foresworn music for a group called Direct Action—the infamous Squamish Five. No poseurs they; they bombed porno video stores and a BC Hydro substation in Vancouver and a weapons-system plant in Ontario. Useless was sentenced to 10 years. Sorry guy, it was just a drunken prank; I never figured you’d take me seriously.

Joe Strummer was as obvious a nom de punque as Joan Jett, of course, but we never realized it; we were all rather earnest then. He was a diplomat’s son and attended the City of London Freemen School. He died in Somerset, a Telegraph reader. The apple never falls far from the tree, I suppose. I wonder how much of a Red he ever was. Anyone who’s ever seen Rude Boy will remember the scene where Ray Gange catches Strummer in a Red Brigade shirt and insinuates he’s a communist. “They shoot Communists,” Strummer responds, but he seems as unpersuaded as Gange (and the audience) is.

Strummer was later to record the deathless classic Sandinista!, and isn’t it a good thing that conservatives aren’t rock and rollers? Can you imagine having to live down the shame of once having owned an album called Violetta! or UNITA!? Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

So farewell then, Joe Strummer. I’m not going to hold your politics against you. I prefer to remember you as you were in 1977—one of the greats. Rest in peace.

Kevin Michael Grace, 3.51 a.m., December 24, 2002