Joe Strummer: Punk-Rock Shapeshifter

Joe Strummer cycled through a wardrobe's worth of personas in his career; but it never changed his fundamental authenticity or optimism.

This article is adapted from the chapter “Mystery Train: Joe Strummer on Screen” in Punk Rock Warlord: The Life and Work of Joe Strummer.

Excepting perhaps only Fats Domino, the Clash’s Joe Strummer had the greatest name in the history of rock and roll. Of course, it wasn’t actually his name. Nobody has a moniker that perfectly suited to their profession, especially in the business called show. After all, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t filled with people named John Smith or Ruth Adams.

Strummer wanted to be a lot of things: writer, artist, revolutionary, world-champion cigarette smoker. But what was probably most important to him was communication, whether about racial equality, how consumerism was crap, or just whatever was running through his roiling mind that week. He wanted to use his songs to get the word out. Rock stars can get the word out; they have a megaphone louder than that of the street-corner busker or pub-rocker that Joe started out as. If he was going to be a rock star, he needed a proper stage name.

And so John Graham Mellor, world-traveled son of a diplomat and art-school student, became Joe Strummer, squat-rocker and consciousness-raising punk troubadour. For a short bit in between, he was even called Woody. In the style of all great self-inventors, though, his names didn’t come out of nowhere; Strummer made them up. Of course, once a new name is set, then the old one simply won’t do. Clash drummer Topper Headon – recollecting in Julien Temple’s wistful documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten – discovered that when he once called out to Strummer, “Oi, Woody!” thinking that he looked like Woody Woodpecker, only to get the snarled reply, “Don’t ever fucking call me that.” After all, personas are only as strong as people imagine them to be.

But if John Mellor could simply up and change into nasaly Dylan-Guthrie rocker and 101’ers frontman “Woody Mellor” – in the grand tradition of Brits hoovering up American roots influences – before slotting himself as “Joe Strummer” into the next big thing (punk) just as it was cresting in 1976, then doesn’t that cast doubts on his authenticity? Because wasn’t it their grounded, honest-to-God sincerity that set the Clash apart from snarkier contemporaries like the Sex Pistols and other carefully grotty gobbers and snarlers?

Like many rockers before and after him, Strummer put up with plenty of carping about his privileged background and how that made him suspect as a standard-bearer for the music revolution. Somehow, the line of reasoning went, because of Strummer’s background, he was a fake.

Lester Bangs wrote about that phenomenon while following the Clash around in 1977 for a series of sprawling pieces that ran in NME (ironically as their protesting-too-much scribes were the ones “sneering” to Bangs about how Strummer was “middle-class”) and were later collected in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Bangs, likely more clued in as an American to the micro-absurdities of British class obsession, thought that yes, maybe Strummer was a fake. But to Bangs, that was okay, given his company:

That only puts [Joe Strummer] in there with Dylan and Jagger and Townshend and most of the other great rock songwriters, because almost all of them in one way or another were fakes. Townshend had a middle-class education. Lou Reed went to Syracuse University before matriculating to the sidewalks of New York. Dylan faked his whole career; the only difference was that he used to be good at it and now he sucks.

Like all the great shape-shifters, Strummer could spot a zeitgeist. In 1976, the 101’ers opened for the Sex Pistols. Strummer recalled later for Don Letts’ near-definitive documentary Westway to the World that he knew within five seconds that “we were like yesterday’s papers. I mean, we were over.”

Strummer saw how the culture was going to be changed by what Johnny, Sid, and the boys were doing with their well-crafted stage personas, faux-Situationist theatricality, fashionably ragged togs, assaultive bang of sound, and snarled lyrics. Not only that, Strummer was savvy enough to appreciate how he could graft that slicing anger and pose onto his own passions to create something: a uniquely hybridized new form.

Following his punk revelation, Strummer dissolved the 101’ers by fiat. Immediately upon leaving he was recruited into the band that Bernie Rhodes was putting together to compete with the Pistols, being managed by his former boss Malcolm McLaren. In later years, Strummer rarely if ever copped to any feelings of regret over this autocratic decision to chuck the 101’ers for the Clash — in fact, his more controlling side (commented on by many who knew him) seemed almost to enjoy it.

Once in the Clash, Strummer changed everything. Gone were the flared trousers and frizzy, woolly shag of hair. Just as Johnny Ramone insisted on his band’s uniform of jeans, leather jackets, and moppy haircuts, and Generation X were brutally honest about auditioning new members more on their look than anything else, the Clash manufactured their own look. As various Clash members pointed out in Westway, the Sex Pistols could get all their fashion needs met through McLaren’s shops like Sex. Strummer and the boys had to manufacture their own idea of what punk was, slashing paint over their clothes and guitars and stenciling titles like “Hate and War” onto the backs of their jackets. It was brilliantly and photogenically militant. And, if nothing else, it put their art-school backgrounds to use.

Strummer’s somewhat cinematic tendency toward adopting new personas became part of the Clash’s identity. The band’s gangster look that can be seen in the video for London Calling was heavily inspired by the film Brighton Rock. It is difficult to look at Strummer’s quasi-military outfits during the Combat Rock stadium tour and not see it as some ill-considered Rambo/ Mad Max mash-up.

After Strummer’s post-Clash wilderness years – those pre-Mescaleros years when he was casting about, recording the odd football-fan song and collaborating with Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch – he fit into his final persona of sage punk-rock emeritus smoothly as a glove. This was the man, after all, who popped up in the late-1970s vaguely-verite goof Rude Boy as a version of himself; still in his twenties, he still comes as the calm, cool, and collected uncle to the film’s angry young nihilistic punk. In this ragged film’s surprisingly soulful moment, Strummer makes the kind of call for collective, human unity that typified the wounded optimism of his later years: “It’s all of us or none.”

If we take Bangs at his thesis, then the following shouldn’t matter one bit: Joe Strummer, the snaggle-toothed punk rock warlord (as he once, joking and yet not, asked to be identified) and onetime squatter who raised the standard high for social justice and revolution and plain old common republican (lower-case “r”) decency, is one and the same as John Mellor, the Ankara-born diplomat’s son who, yes, went to boarding school and then later art school before undergoing his self-styled chrysalis and becoming the mohawked millionaire who toured arenas and groused good-naturedly about being paid to be a rebel.

The stirring humanity and potency that is shot through the Clash’s lyrics like so much rebar changes not a whit whether it is listed in the credits as being done by John Mellor, Woody Mellor, or Joe Strummer. Why he put so much effort into so many different personas, as opposed to just one, is difficult to say. Maybe he just wanted to escape.

Maybe, just maybe, Joe Strummer created himself as a way of denying somebody else that honor