Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
(Faber and Faber)
At the end of 1976 Don Letts, Leo Williams and a friend named J.R. rented the top two floors of a house in a salubrious part of Forest Hill in southeast London. After the Roxy would close the elite of the assembled multitude might well find themselves squeezing into Don Letts’s Morris Minor and driving back to the Forest Hill flat, where—smoking spliffs and listening to reggae—they would watch the sun come up. A frequent visitor on such occasions was Joe Strummer; after a time he became an occupant of one of the smallest rooms. Although he was there infrequently, for close to a year he paid his small share of the rent. “It was a tiny room, like a closet,” said Don. “But Joe seemed to like small rooms. Everywhere I went, even if Joe was in a big room he’d make it small by making a bunker within it. I didn’t see him that often, he was moving around and going to other places, but I do remember smoking and playing different records with him and that he stole my copy of the Count Ossie and Mystic Revelation of Rastafari triple album. Which I never forgot: Joe, you bastard. Me and my brother Desmond once took him to a black wedding reception, where he was the only white man there. Joe had this way of getting involved and warming to people. He’d engage them in conversation, and in that engagement he’d make that person feel very special, as though they were maybe the only person in the world. All the way through his life he made people feel special, even though they probably weren’t. Joe just seemed to like everybody. He was an equalizer. I dug that about him.”
Don and Leo Williams would drive with Joe to Jamaican reggae clubs like the Bouncing Ball in Peckham or the Four Aces in Dalston, venues with tricky reputations. “He’d be the only white man in the Four Aces, and they’d kind of have to get over his look, because to the people there at first it seemed like some kind of right-wing thing. But when he lit up a spliff they realized that he wouldn’t have been in there if he was like that. Once when he came to the Four Aces the guy on the microphone name-checked him while Joe was making a spliff, which seemed to surprise him so much that he somehow blew the weed out of his hand.
“It’s got to be said that people like Joe Strummer and John Lydon—particularly Joe—were like the punk intelligentsia, they were the thinkers. They were the ones that gave it the depth. With Joe there was no mistaking early on that my man was deep. He knew all the cultural and literary references, all the revolutionary references, and he put it all into context: he wasn’t just an angry young man stamping and screaming. As you can see in his lyrics, there’s a lot more ideas in one of Joe’s rhyming couplets than there are in some people’s entire albums. More than anyone he moved the lyrical goalposts of what contemporary music could deal with. There had been protest songs and anti-establishment songs before, but Joe did it in a way that made it sound exciting and not overearnest. He made it humorous as well. Because it’s about the way you tell ‘em: you’ve got to capture people’s imaginations before you give them the serious input, and he had a great understanding of that. I remember when I first saw the Clash I didn’t actually hear what he was saying—well, no one could understand what Joe was saying—but you knew something was going on because the power and energy were so intense. It just made you want to be involved, and made you realize that you could be part of this too. Joe made me see that you should just get on with it.
“Now that Joe’s dead and gone it’s easy to look at him through rose-tinted glasses,” added Don, “but he definitely had a bastard side to him. When Joe wanted something horrible done, when things happened that he couldn’t deal with, he’d get other people to do it in a really Machiavellian way. He had a cowardly streak about him in this respect. But this is all part of Joe’s humanity, the contradictions. But because he was so extreme it was more noticeable: he’d say one thing and do the opposite, all the time. If ever there was a wrong thing to do you could count on Joe doing it. I almost dug that.
“Joe was a sneaky fuck sometimes. In fact most times. Particularly to women. It must have been harder for Joe because he was supposed to be this right-on guy. But I’ve got to say it makes me love him more.”
In his uniform of well-worn black leather jacket, circular John Lennon-like metal-framed spectacles, sprayed-on cotton trousers and blue brothel creepers, the diminutive figure of Bernie Rhodes struck an appealing gnomish posture that was at odds with his efforts to appear as an archetypal twentieth-century revolutionary, a Fidel Castro of Camden Town. It was Bernie who came up with the idea of the three- or four-word taglines with which the Clash would stencil their clothing and equipment: lumps of Clash lyrics—“Sten Guns in Knightsbridge,” “White Riot,” “Knives in W11”—rivaled Jamaican political slogans—“Under Heavy Manners” (the campaign slogan of the ruling People’s National Party)—and mottoes from the individual members’ own particular agendas—“Creative Violence” was urged by Paul, and Joe came up with “Chuck Berry Is Dead,” a clear volteface on his past, and “Hate and War,” the mirror image of the hippie peace-and-love ethic. Joe, whose sixth-form ambition had been to go into advertising, took to this with gusto: in his lyrics, his economy and directness with words always delivered the message—he was almost selling the need for us all to want a White Riot of our own. The elevated, inspired amateurism of the Clash had the benefit of an extreme simplicity of approach and a shocking disregard for the accepted system of strategy and tactics. The Clash was moved, if not sustained, by abstract slogans and symbols. Like contemporary gang leaders, they had to make their authority manifest through bold, unmistakable symbols and dazzling displays of bravura elegance.
For a brief period in January 1977 it looked as though Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes might form a business partnership. Following the national outcry that had erupted after the Bill Grundy interview, the Sex Pistols had been dropped by EMI. Malcolm and Bernie had been to see Maurice “Obie” Oberstein, an American who was the visionary head of CBS Records in the United Kingdom; Obie offered the pair £100,000 to form their own punk label, to be distributed by CBS. The offer fell into a black hole. But Bernie Rhodes set up a meeting with the Clash about this possible label deal, held in the Ship pub in Soho’s Wardour Street. “He said he wanted complete control,” said Joe. “I came out of the pub with Paul collapsing in hysterics over those words.” But that £100,000 figure had been broached by Oberstein, and Bernie Rhodes picked it up and ran with it. On January 27, Joe, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon were collected in a taxi on their way to what they believed would be their destination, the offices of Polydor Records—Chris Parry at Polydor had offered £25,000, plus all recording costs. But the cab took a different route: without their having been told this by Bernie Rhodes, they were heading farther down Oxford Street to the headquarters of CBS in Soho Square, where Bernie had managed to transmogrify Oberstein’s label offer into a deal for the Clash alone. Bernie told the group members that CBS had promised them “artistic freedom”; but it was certainly better financially for Bernie that he could take his 20 percent off the top of the CBS £100,000, instead of off the Polydor £25,000—even though Bernie’s percentage would eat into the money allotted for recording costs that was part of the CBS package. The deal was actually done using a Polydor contract form on which the name “Polydor” was scratched out and replaced with “CBS.”
The Clash celebrated their record deal by going to see the film Midway in Leicester Square. Almost immediately the group members, and everyone working with them, saw a financial benefit. “Everyone was on a wage of twenty-five quid, no matter what,” said Joe. “The dole was ten pounds sixty-four at that time, and now we were on twenty-five quid. I didn’t feel particularly richer. We just kept on squatting.”
That night the Clash went down to the Roxy, putting £500 behind the bar—a colossal amount when you consider it cost just £2 to see the Clash play. Mick and Joe were seen pouring drinks on people’s heads. Paloma at the helm, the Slits stood off to one side, hectoring them for signing to a major label. There were grumblings in the columns of Sniffin’ Glue—if only they’d known what had really gone on. Muff Winwood, the head of A&R at CBS, recalled Maurice Oberstein’s instructions that his employees were to pay no heed to press reports of tension between the group and the company: this was a strategy devised by the managing director to enhance the “street” credentials of the Clash.
On Thursday, February 10, the Clash went into the recording studio, working until Sunday night, with Terry Chimes returning for the sessions. The January 1 date at the Roxy had been the group’s only show of the year— virtually every day since then had been taken up with abortive auditions for a full-time replacement for Terry. They recorded in the strictly functional CBS Studio 3 in Whitfield Street, behind the record company’s Soho Square headquarters, completing the album with similar Thursday to Sunday night sessions over the next two weeks. Joe and Mick were knocked out when they learned that this was the same studio in which Iggy Pop had recorded Raw Power, his inspirational punk blast album. “We didn’t know this at the time,” Joe told Mal Peachy. “It was only afterward when I knew Raw Power had been recorded in that room that I realized there must have been something in that very basic room.”
One night in February, after an evening at the Roxy, Joe moved on to the Speakeasy, a nightclub in Margaret Street always packed with musicians, behind Oxford Circus. There a ted, a friend of Johnny Rotten’s, followed Joe into the toilet, intent on giving him a beating for having faked working-class origins. In the tiled men’s room he gave Joe a sound thumping, rendering even greater destruction to the Strummer dental bombsite by knocking out part of a front tooth. In an interview that the Clash did with NME writer Tony Parsons the next month, Joe mythologized the incident, claiming that he’d had a knife with him but realized that if he’d “stuck it in him” he’d have gone to jail. The outlaw gang image of the Clash was quickly being cemented into place. Tellingly, Joe said that the beating hadn’t hurt much as he’d been so drunk. With a certain amount of surplus cash in his pockets, Joe was now drinking even more, and also hammering through lumps of hash. Like most punks he could always find a bolstering line of amphetamine sulphate, but Joe was never particularly partial to speed, hating the come-downs and the depression that followed in its wake. “We’d mainly grown out of speed by the time we were in the Clash,” said Mick. But Joe’s consumption resulted in increasingly erratic behavior; he could be snappy, snarling and irritable. The writer Kris Needs, then the editor of ZigZag, recalled that for his first year of knowing Joe he found him slightly frightening. That experience was by no means uncommon—the first time I met Joe, in May that year, we almost had a fight. These were the days when Joe was once found lying drunk in the gutter outside Dingwall’s with rainwater washing into his mouth. “Many was the time we had to carry him home,” said Mick. Life in 1977 was all pretty close to the edge, moving so fast there was hardly time to think—which wasn’t such great news for someone like Joe, who loved to spend time on his own, thinking.
+ + +
Mickey Foote, who’d mixed all the 101’ers shows and had taken on the same job with the Clash, was brought in at Joe’s insistence. And Joe was adamant he produce the record (“It was a matter of go in, set up and keep the overdubs to a minimum. That album couldn’t have been done any other way,” Mickey said). “We were very keen that it didn’t become overproduced. We didn’t want to get compromised by the sound,” Joe told Mal Peachy. “Mick Jones and Mickey Foote were overseeing that end of it.” The mastered record was delivered to CBS on March 3. Mick Jones had dominated the sessions, translating his fascination with all aspects of the pop process to an understanding of how to transfer the group’s music onto tape, which he took to with relish; although he later claimed not to remember working on the record because of his prodigious speed intake, others around the studio recall very little drug use whatsoever. “Any guitar of note on the record is Jonesy,” said Joe. “I’m in there, chundering away with the bass drum and the snare, but I’d say anything you can actually discern must be Jonesy.” The record was to be called, simply, The Clash. There could be no other title.
On March 11 the Clash played what was only their second show of the year, at the Coliseum Cinema in Harlesden. Yet again Terry Chimes was on drums—though this really was the last time he would play live with the group for five years—for a show that got great reviews across the board. In NME Nick Kent, who had been attacked at the 100 Club by Sid Vicious the previous summer, thereby giving him an ax to grind and a chance to get his own back on the Pistols’ camp, completely “got” what the group was about: “Suddenly,” read part of his review,
Joe Strummer stopped between numbers. “Stop throwing beer at me! I don’t like it,” he stated in a decisively no-bullshit way… Strummer dead center, very, very authoritative. Strummer’s stance sums up this band at its best, really: it’s all to do with real “punk” credentials—a Billy the Kid sense of tough tempered with an innate sense of humanity which involved possessing a sense of morality totally absent in the childish nihilism flaunted by Johnny Rotten and his clownish co-conspirators.
“White Riot,” the Clash’s first single, came out seven days later, on March 18, and the album itself was released on April 8. CBS wanted to get a move on: what if this punk thing died on its feet? The picture on the front of the cover of The Clash, one of the archetypal images of rock ‘n’ roll, set the template; it had been taken by Kate Simon for a Sounds article in late 1976 around the back of Rehearsal Rehearsals. If you didn’t know anything about them, you would have imagined the group was a three-piece—there is no drummer in this shot. (Terry Chimes was credited as Tory Crimes on the sleeve.) Mick Jones, standing to the right of the picture, has his head angled to the left and slightly down, looking vulnerable, almost depressed; Paul Simonon, to the right and a step ahead of Mick, has an air of moderate aggression and seems fed up, almost as though he is trying to fight his way out of the picture; Joe Strummer, as befits the group’s front man, is behind and between both of them: his hair is dyed blond and he wears white trousers, a light-colored grubby jacket and paint-spattered shirt with a loosely knotted tie—Joe was not always the most dapper of the three, but this time his clothes are perfect; because of his position at the rear of the picture he looks as though he is shorter than he even is—he was the smallest of the trio. But the certainty of self about him is unmistakable: it is Joe Strummer who is the towering presence in Kate Simon’s photograph. “He understood like Bob Marley or Patti Smith how to have a great picture taken,” said Kate. And it is Joe who in that cover shot holds the three of them together.
Despite being allegedly some vision of a dark, dystopian future, from the moment The Clash kicked off with “Janie Jones”—recorded almost live, with none of the double-tracking or overdubbing of some of the other songs—to its finale of “Garageland,” the record managed paradoxically to be warm and all-embracing, a perfect summer album, one whose fourteen songs rang out across the two sides throughout the hot months that were like part two of the previous year’s heat wave. A rush of pure energy and positive feeling, The Clash was one of the best long-playing records that had ever been made, a stunning piece of art. Privately, rock critics would suggest that the Clash could only proceed if they employed a proper producer on their next record; and you’d think, “What are you talking about?” You just had to make a few adjustments to the different cultural parameters of the sound—like listening to a Jamaican record—and how that sound is perceived and achieved. The only variant on The Clash from the live set was the group’s version of Junior Murvin’s 1976 reggae classic “Police and Thieves,” included after considerable debate—it had been used to warm up at rehearsals. “That was really the first time any white men had attempted to cover a reggae hit,” Joe told me. “We used to discuss this with Johnny Rotten, because everyone was really into reggae, but especially Rotten most of all, and Paul Simonon. It was considered a little bit naff if you were trying to copy that style, but I think we did it in a way that lent something of our own to it. I remember being frightened as hell listening to Junior Murvin’s feathery voice, floating high above that track, and then thinking, ‘God, I’ve got to go sing this with my useless voice.’”
Parts of The Clash were often hilariously funny, a reflection of the deep absurdist vein of humor shared by all three of the group’s front men. Sometimes it was the choice of phrasing from Joe, sometimes the actual lyrics themselves, sometimes simply the way he had structured the words. “Yeah, we tried to crack a few jokes,” Joe said to me about that first album. “I think because of our general aggressive stance, people can only accept one kind of thing at a time and sometimes missed it. Anyway the lyrics are always pretty indecipherable because my diction isn’t the best in the world. So when we shouted out about Greeks and kebabs, it was often lost in the chaos of the music. But we were excited to have our jokes in there.”
The record went straight into the U.K. charts, but it wouldn’t be released in the United States for two years. The Sex Pistols hadn’t even got a second single out, yet already the Clash had an album not only in the shops but one that had reached the edge of the Top Ten. Now who was the underdog? Predictably Rotten sniped at them for having recorded “Police and Thieves.” Joe celebrated the release of the album by taking his old school-friend Annie Day to see Arlo Guthrie, the son of Woody, in the film Alice’s Restaurant.
Terry Chimes came back yet again on Sunday, April 3, to record two more new tunes: “Capital Radio,” a number based on Mick’s song “Deadly Serious,” and “Listen,” an instrumental; the tunes were featured on an EP for which NME readers could send off. The rest of the EP consisted of extracts from an interview with the Clash that had been held on the Circle Line of the London Underground. The idea behind “Capital Radio” was amply explained in its (relatively clear) lyrics: it was an attack on the London commercial music station of that name, which, since it first went on the air in 1973, had consistently followed a safe, dated musical policy: no punk rock on the station that boasted it was “in tune with London.” Joe’s contempt is great: “Capital Radio / In tune with nuffink.” To underline his point, Joe went off on a mission: “As a promotional exercise I decided to spray-paint Capital Radio and the BBC with WHITE RIOT in six-foot letters in red paint. I was quite surprised when this didn’t result in any airplay, but you live and learn.”
The interview on the NME free EP was by the paper’s punk young gun, Tony Parsons, extracts from the dialogue of an article that appeared in the April 2, 1977, edition of NME: the three Clash members appeared in profile on the cover of an issue that carried the caption “Thinking Man’s Yobs.” Parsons had no truck with the intellectual niceties of punk; passion and a pulp style were the journalist’s all. In the article he steamed in, all preconceptions blazing, in a piece that would set the template for the general public’s initial vision of the Clash. “Parsons framed them with his NME article in April 1977,” said Jon Savage, “which fixed the perception of them as a working-class political group—and made his reputation. But really he was projecting his own fantasy onto them.” Parsons’s words painted the group as the quintessence of street-hip: Mick’s tower-block existence; Paul’s past life as a football hooligan; Joe’s fight with the ted in the Speakeasy toilet. Unemployment-line doldrums. There was no mention that each of these three contenders had been to art school and were partially living out an artist’s romantic vision of a “guttersnipe” existence. It wasn’t all Parsons’s projection: both parties were co-conspirators in a clever piece of mythmaking.
Although he didn’t appear in that NME cover shot, a drummer who could hold down the Clash gig finally had been found. The search had begun to look hopeless: over two hundred prospective candidates had been auditioned. But on March 24 Mick had bumped into former London SS member Nicky “Topper” Headon, at a Kinks show. Topper had joined a group called Fury, but CBS executives, offering the group a deal, thought that Topper didn’t hit the drums hard enough and demanded he be axed. So when he went along to Rehearsals for an audition he pounded those skins with all his might. “I thought, ‘Whatever I do, I’m going to have to smash shit out of these drums,’ and that was exactly what they wanted. We did ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Police and Thieves’ because they wanted to see if I could play reggae. I did the audition and I thought, ‘Fuck me: this is great!’”
At the audition, Joe offered Topper a cigarette. “I said, ‘No thanks, I don’t.’ He said, ‘You will.’ When I joined the Clash I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t smoking, wasn’t doing anything. In ‘77 we were unknown and in ‘82 we were one of the biggest bands in the world, and we hadn’t stopped working. It’s not as if we had had time off or anything. If it weren’t for the chemicals I don’t know if we would have gone as long as that. Everyone was fucked up, whether it was drugs or drink or whatever. The thing was, when I joined the band it wasn’t a band that was formed out of friends—the Clash were put together, really.”
From the start Topper found Joe erratic and difficult. “He and Mick were running it, but you never really knew where you stood with Joe. One minute he’d be all over you, your best mate, and the next he’d be snarling at you. But all that tension made the band musically really good: it would all come together on the stage and it would be dynamite, and then it would dissipate again. Joe used to call the drum riser ‘the engine room’—my hands would be bleeding after a gig.” Topper paused, before sardonically summing up his time in the Clash: “I was very important onstage—although offstage I wasn’t.”
* * *
Excerpted from REDEMPTION SONG: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz, published this week by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Salewicz. All rights reserved.
- Exclusive podcast of Part 2: Under Heavy Manners [1976-1977] MP3
- Multiple videos PopMatters Media Center
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.