Rock musician Joe Strummer, whose band the Clash helped bring punk rock into the mainstream and expanded the genre’s artistic range, died Sunday of a heart attack at his home in Broomfield, Somerset, England. He was 50.
Like Bob Dylan with folk music and the Beatles with early rock ‘n’ roll, the Clash took the raw material of punk rock and made it a vehicle for ambitious artistry, giving the music a future beyond the hard-core underground.
In their 1979 landmark album “London Calling,” they linked punk’s raw energy with rockabilly, blues, pop and jazz roots. The move risked rejection by their audience but opened new vistas for bands. In the process, they went from rowdy rebels to one of the foundations of rock.
Responding to Strummer’s death, U2’s Bono called the Clash “the greatest rock band,” adding, “They wrote the book for U2.”
The Clash’s influence resonated in the music of Nirvana and the other grunge bands that shaped rock in the ‘90s, and today’s rock radio playlists are packed with groups that follow the Clash blueprint of social commentary delivered in unvarnished, aggressive form.
That’s a far cry from punk’s original position as a noisy irritant to the staid music industry of the 1970s, when major record companies and radio stations ignored the music. The growing popularity of the Clash was key in breaking down that door, opening the field for acts such as Offspring and Green Day.
A recent concert celebrating punk rock’s legacy, headlined by the reunited Sex Pistols, drew about 30,000 fans to Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began welcoming the punk generation last year, when it inducted the Ramones. The Clash was named to the hall last month and is scheduled to be inducted on March 10 in New York.
Along with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and the Ramones’ Joey Ramone, the ragged-voiced, snaggletoothed Strummer was one of the archetypal figures of the punk movement.
All were instrumental in punk’s revitalizing of popular music, but while the Pistols quickly flamed out and the Ramones remained benignly cartoonish, the Clash conducted an eventful, decade-long career during which Strummer, who savored the role of outsider, saw his band become one of the most commercially successful of the punk-rock generation.
Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in 1952 in Ankara, Turkey, where his father worked for England’s foreign service. He also lived in Egypt, Mexico and Germany before attending boarding school in England. Strummer started his music career busking in London’s subways, and in the mid-'70s, he led a pub-rock band called the 101ers, playing in an early rock ‘n’ roll style.
Inspired by the Sex Pistols in the ferment of London’s punk-rock explosion in 1976, Strummer formed the Clash with another singer-guitarist, Mick Jones, and bassist Paul Simonon. Guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Terry Chimes were in the original lineup, but Levene soon quit. Chimes would be replaced by Topper Headon in late 1976.
The Clash opened for the Pistols on the famed “Anarchy in the U.K.” tour and signed with CBS Records in 1977. Their U.S. label, Columbia, considered their debut album, “The Clash,” too raw to release here, though it’s said to be the best-selling import album ever, with sales of more than 100,000. The company eventually released the album in late 1978, after putting out “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” earlier the same year.
In contrast to the Sex Pistols’ nihilistic view of “No Future,” fiery anthems such as “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” captured the discontent of their generation and sought to spur their peers to action.
“The ideals that still motivate me as an artist come not from punk, not even from the Clash, but from Joe Strummer,” English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg wrote in an appreciation on the BBC News Web site.
“Were it not for the Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers. Instead, the incendiary lyrics of the Clash inspired 1,000 more bands on both sides of the Atlantic to spring up and challenge their elders, and the man that we all looked to was Joe Strummer.”
But being categorized as a “political band” didn’t always sit well with Strummer, one of rock’s most colorful and candid figures, and one who resisted being pigeonholed.
“I often felt that all got a bit unbalanced,” he said, looking back on the Clash legacy in a 1988 interview. “I kept trying to stress that -- ‘Hang on, we’re bebop guys.... We’re not in there with John Reed and “Ten Days That Shook the World.” ’ ... I often felt worried that people thought we were Che Guevara.”
The Clash was an unstoppable force on stage, with Strummer delivering his vocals like a blowtorch and the music inspiring anarchic scenes on the dance floors. The band’s artistic breakthrough came in 1979 with “London Calling,” which expanded the punk vocabulary. It reached No. 27 on the U.S. chart, and was named in many critics’ polls as the best album of the year.
The Clash responded to their success with an anti-commercial gesture, a three-album collection called “Sandinista!” Released in 1980, it was a sprawling, eclectic set that introduced funk and hip-hop elements to the repertoire of the Clash, a band that had always had a soft spot for reggae and other forms of “rebel music.” In 1982, the more cohesive “Combat Rock” made the Top 10, and included the hits “Combat Rock” (written by Headon) and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
But things were unraveling. Headon was fired because of his heroin habit, a move that Strummer later pinpointed as the beginning of the end for the Clash. In 1983, Strummer and Simonon threw Jones out of the band.
Strummer led a new lineup in a final Clash album, 1985’s “Cut the Crap,” then kept a low profile for several years, releasing a solo album in 1989 but concentrating on movie scoring and acting in such films as Alex Cox’s “Straight to Hell” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train.”
After clearing himself of Clash-era contractual obligations in 1997, Strummer formed the Mescaleros, which released two albums on L.A.-based Hellcat Records. The sound blended rock with world-music grooves and electronics. Strummer and the band had been working on a third Mescaleros album, but a Hellcat spokesman said Monday that a decision about its release will be made later.
Speculation about a possible Clash reunion had increased in anticipation of the upcoming Hall of Fame induction and in the wake of a recent teaming on stage of Strummer and Jones at a Mescaleros show.
“I never say never about nothing,” he said in a 1999 interview. “But I’m not going to re-form for money. The only thing that would make it happen is if Topper Headon got off heroin and the four of us got some tunes together and started to hang out and had a reason to believe in each other.... There’s no way we’re going to suddenly snap back into life because some guy’s written a check.”
Strummer is survived by his wife, Lucinda, two daughters and a stepdaughter.