Less Rotten than reasonable: Joe Strummer and my punk Damascus

Although I saw Joe Strummer in action many times, I only met him once and, embarrassingly, confused him with someone else. In early autumn 1976, as term at Sheffield University unfolded, news of the arrival of the most talked about gig of the year filtered through the underground grapevine. The Anarchy in the UK tour, bringing the nascent fury of British punk to the nation, wended its uncertain way through the country, uncertain, because where-ever the entourage set up camp, there was imminent danger of the local council denying the potential hell-raisers a performing licence.

And so it proved in the northern city of Sheffield. Hours before the concert was meant to proceed, with Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the Buzzcocks due to deliver their psychotic symphonies for a new age, the authorities pulled the plug on the event.

We were in the student union bar, early that evening, barely a soul around in fact, the garish fluorescence of beer pumps glimmering and the ring and chatter of the pinball arcade, where I all too often made my home, competing with the crackle and creak of the Wurlitzer jukebox.

The era of the hippie was far from over. Long-haired and duffle-coated, a head with beatnik trimmings, I had begun to absorb the sound and fury of the battalion of young bands that were leading the charge against progressive rock and heavy metal. In recent months, we’d seen Daniel Adler’s remarkable band Roogalator and, on a couple of occasions, the raw and raging rockabilly of a group called the 101’ers.

A venue called the Black Swan in the town centre had, for a year or so, been giving space to a series of London acts with small yet growing reputations, largely linked to the pub rock revival — Kokomo, Chili Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Graham Parker and the Rumour and others — and Roogalator and the 101’ers seemed to be part of that scene.

But when that bar embraced a combo called the Sex Pistols it became evident that a fresh wave of, principally metropolitan, agitators were shaking off the dust of the good-time bar bands and forging something more sinister, more dangerous, more thrilling.

It wasn’t long before Joe Strummer, the frenetic frontman of the 101’ers had re-emerged in a band destined to challenge the Pistols’ ascendancy in the punk cavalcade. When the Clash were included on the Anarchy bill it was plain that Rotten and co were not the only shock troopers ready to take on any establishment — political, musical, media — they could identify.

But the establishment, in any its guises, was not willing to roll over quite so passively and the evidence was there to see on the Sheffield campus that long ago night. In the student bar, we were idling away the time, knocking back a drink or two, contemplating a night without the rock’n’roll apocalypse we’d been promised, when we spied, half-way into the deserted stalls, a pair of unlikely looking figures, refugees from A Clockwork Orange, close-cropped aliens in a land where long locks and flared jeans still ruled the roost.

I walked over and chatted to the one I thought I recognised. Johnny Rotten, it had to be. We exchanged a few words. He was quiet but not sullen, introspective but actually polite. He confirmed the gig was off, explained why he thought it had been called off, and found some kind of gentle solace in a pint and this impromptu conversation. He looked intimidating yet he was not unresponsive, willing to share his thoughts, the intimidating armour of combat jacket, pencil thin Levi’s and Doc Marten boots misleadingly menacing.

In the days that followed I became a minor celebrity among my student mates — the one who had engaged with Rotten, the anti-christ, the demon, the force of darkness, and survived to tell the tale.

But the truth, when it slowly emerged, was, in the end, just as interesting. It had, in fact, been Strummer whiling away the moments, swallowing his pint and his disappointment, in the deserted calm of that bar. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Rotten, all snarl, all spite, would have been quite so civil to the Lennon lookalike in the battered Jesus boots.

The revelation that I’d been wrong didn’t make me an instant Strummer fan but it wasn’t long before I’d been convinced that it was the Clash rather than the Pistols who were the torch-bearers of potential transformation.

The Pistols had their incandescent moment, but the Clash burned brighter, longer and I probably saw Strummer’s crew in their classic form three times, at least, after that and added everything they did to my record collection. They certainly became my favourite punk band, maybe my favourite band for some little while.

As my shoulder length hair was chopped back to new wave proportions, as my billowing loons straightened, the night in the Sheffield student bar had been a sort of Damascene encounter. Strummer, not Rotten, had opened my eyes to the punk insurrection.