Ex-Clash Singer Breaks Ground

After the TV documentary, the live album and a dozen media retrospectives, is there anything new left to say about the Clash? Maybe not, but the career of Joe Strummer, the man who has always been the band’s figurehead, began long before he joined forces with Mick Jones and the rest, and has continued since their split.

The Clash may be Strummer’s strongest shot at the history books, but his years with the pub-rock band the 101ers and his post-Clash solo career have been unfairly overlooked amid all the recent Clash hype. He recently took the time to put the record straight for RC.

The young John Graham Mellor, as Strummer was born on 21st August 1952, idolised the Rolling Stones and, perhaps surprisingly, the Beach Boys. But his main inspiration was someone who might seem an even less likely inspiration: Woody Guthrie. “It was the wildness of his music, the rambling-round-lifeness of it,” he explains. Despite Guthrie’s example, however, Strummer didn’t begin playing guitar until he was about 20: “I assumed that it was more difficult. Being brought up in the age of Eric Clapton and all that improvising, it was a bit of a put-off.”

His introduction to the instrument came when he made friends with a busker called Tymon Dogg, one of whose songs, “Lose This Skin”, was featured several years later on the Clash album “Sandinista!” “I began bottling for him, collecting money in the Underground,” Joe recalls, “and eventually began to learn chords off him. I’m left-handed, but I started learning to play on other people’s guitars, so I picked up the rudimentary chords the wrong way round. Finally, when I could afford to get a guitar, I was too lazy to start again the right way round. At least I’ve got some sort of unique style, even if it’s a bit grungy or crude.”

Strummer’s first group, the Vultures, I was put together after he was rebuffed by a girlfriend he had travelled to see in Cardiff. Stopping off at Newport to see some old friends from Central Art School (from which he’d been ejected after his foundation year), he decided to stay when he discovered they were putting a band together: “It was kind of a good spot to try to learn how to play with a group.”

Even in thoses early days, Strummer was intent on making a living from music: “I was working for the council, worked in a graveyard for a while, but that’s all I would think about all day long. I was always serious about it.” Strummer estimates that the Vultures, for whom he sang and (less often) played rhythm guitar, lasted nearly a year: “We blagged a gig in Bristol and we couldn’t really play, so a kind of near-riot ensued and we had to leg it. That’s when the Vultures broke up.”

Hitching back to London and finding a squat to live in, he hooked up with Tymon Dogg. “We were busking in London and it was getting really difficult. I saw this Irish trio through the window of a pub, I thought ‘Bloody hell, this looks like a better way to get through the summer than being chased all over the underground by the British Transport Police’. That’s when I started to put the 101ers together and selected the nearest loafers from the squat-rock scene.”

The 101ers, formed in 1974, became part of the pub rock movement, which was a conscious reaction to the rock star excesses of the early 70s. “Dr. Feelgood were the undisputed kings of that scene. We were the latecomers, more like the dirty cousins, because we were squat-rockers and a bit younger and a bit more incapable. We didnt know our chops, as well. Eventually we got skilled enough to be probably the second-best rhythm and blues group in west London after Feelgood, but it took a year and a half to get there. The thrill of discovering old blues numbers and playing them to people and making them groove – to us it was new and exciting.” Strummer admits his sights were initially set no higher than a local pub called the Windsor Castle: ” That was the Wembley Stadium of our horizons.”

Unusually for a band of such modest means, the 101ers carried a horn section for awhile: “Although the terrible things that were happening in Chile at the time don’t bare repeating, there is an upside to them in that we got a lot of Chilean rock ‘n’ roll musicians who had to flee to London to avoid being killed. So I ended up with a fantastic saxophone section from Chile who could actually play. We had them six or nine months, until we started to book gigs in RAF bases in Norfolk. As the gruelling conditions wore on, people would drop out.”

The classic line-up of the 101ers was Mole Chesterton on bass, Snakehips Dudanski on drums and Clive ‘The evil c’ Timperly on lead guitar. Joe Strummer (as he began dubbing himself in early ’75: previously people had called him ‘Woody’ Mellor in reference to his folkhero) played rhythum guitar and sang. It was this configuration which began to make a name as one of the most exciting live acts in London, something Strummer attributes to their naive enthusiasm and the fact that they played almost exclusively full-tilt rock ‘n’ roll numbers: “There wasn’t any introspection going on. It kept the room dancing.”

Strummer’s relationship with an Andalucian girl named Palmolive (later drummer of the Slits) triggered his transition from covers merchant to composer. He wrote a song about her entitled ‘Keys to Your Heart’ – not, as it turned out, a half bad entree into the world of songwriting, as Mole agreed. “The worst thing in the world is to play someone the first song you’ve ever written.” Joe explains. “I played it to him and he went ‘Oh, that’s bloody good that is’. That gave me the confidence to try and write another one. If Mole had said, ‘That stinks’, I would have packed it in right there.” Keys to Your Heart duly became a single when, against all expectations, the 101ers were offered the chance to release a record on the Chiswick label. “I thought they were out of their minds,” Strummer admits. ” One night on the South Bank, we were in some university, just blasting out a gig. Ted Carroll and Roger Armstrong saw us and went, ‘How would you like to cut a record?’ I remember looking at Ted, thinking ‘Cut a what?’. You didn’t even bother thinking about making a record.”

Sessions at Pathway Studio produced some good tracks, including another fine Strummer original, ‘Sweet Revenge’, but they weren’t a springboard to fame and riches. The deal was only for one single; and in any event, Strummer was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the 101ers: “We made big inroads for about a year and then Eddie & the Hotrods came along. They were a bit flashier then we were and a bit younger and they got signed by Island. That made me think ‘Well that’s it’, cos we were like rats down in the gutter and it seemed like suddenly a white hand come down and scooped Eddie & the Hot Rods out. There was a long period of maybe nine months, where I felt we weren’t getting anywhere, perhaps because we weren’t doing anything interesting.”

Something that inspired Strummer much more than the struggles of the 101ers was seeing a bunch of young unknowns who supported them at the Nashville on 3rd April 1976. The band went by the name of the Sex Pistols. “I knew something was up,” Strummer explains, “so I went out in the crowd which was fairly sparce. And i saw the future – with a snotty handkerchief – right in front of me. It was immediately clear. Pub rock was, ‘Hello, you bunch of drunks, I’m gonna play these boogies and I hope you like them’. The Pistols came out that Tuesday evening and their attitude was ‘Here’s our tunes, and we couldnt give a flying fuck whether you like them or not. In fact, we’re gonna play them even if you fucking hate them.’ They were a really firing live unit. There was something magical about Steve Jones’ guitar ability – like the sound of ten guys playing the guitar. You had Rotten’s amazing stage presence and Matlock’s a fantastic bass player, as good as Paul McCartney, and then Paul (Cook) hammering. No smoke or mirrors needed.”

Further exposure to the Pistols’ live act convinced Strummer that the 101ers had to change: “I’d started to fuck the band around after seeing the Pistols. Evil C left or got fired, I can’t remember which, and I got Martin Stone in, so the whole thing was impacting anyway. I fired Mole when I shouldn’t have done some time earlier. Then punk hit London and suddenly, which side of the line you were you on? There was Pistols and the people walking around with them – alright, there was only ten of them, but it was starting to mushroom and we were on the very bottom rung, living in the squats, where ideas come in very quickly. There were still a lot of hippies about, so you were either against punks or with them. You couldn’t stand around saying, ‘Well I’m not sure’ So the 101ers really had to fall apart, because most of the group were against punks, and I was with them.”

The 101ers’ fate was sealed when Strummer was approached by Bernie Rhodes, who wanted to set up a band like the one managed by his friend, Pistols svengali Malcom McLaren – and that band, of course, was the Clash. The only commercially available legacy of the 101ers is the 1981 LP ‘Elgin Avenue Breakdown’, a hodge-podge of the Chiswick material and some live recordings taken straight from a cassette tape. Does Strummer think it’s a good summary of the ‘absolutely brilliant’ time he spent in the band? “It has to be, really. There aren’t that many tapes around. I think that’s pretty good. There’s a great Bo Diddley cover from the Roundhouse.”

Leapfrogging over the five albums and numerous singles he recorded the classic line-up of the Clash, Strummer agrees that ‘Cut the Crap’ – the only Clash album released after the sacking of Mick Jones – can be considered his first solo effort. By all accounts, though, the recording process in Munich with producer Bernie Rhodes was strange in the extreme, as it rarely involved the ‘new’ five-man Clash (Strummer, long standing bassist Paul Simonon, guitarists Nick Shepard and Vine White and drummer Pete Howard) working together. “I think Bernie decided to work in Munich because it was away from the studio grapevine.” Strummer reckons. “We can see signs of nerves showing here. He’s always loved a cheap deal, and I think he got one on this studio in Munich. So he just flew people over there.”

In fact, Strummer doubts that Howard is even on the finished album – before the sessions, Rhodes created a ‘sketch’ of the album with drum boxes and blocked-in chords. “He probably flew Pete over for a week hanging about,” Strummer says, “Really, it was more like Bernie marshalling his pieces, and using them against each other or one by one in order not to have his authority challenged.” In such an atmosphere, unsurprisingly, White and Shepard’s contributions to songs and arrangements was almost as minimal as Howard’s. More surprisingly, Simonon is reputed to have played on just two tracks, with Norman Watt-Roy appearing in his place.

Even Strummer’s contributions were subject to Rhodes’ machinations, as when Strummer hired a crack session guitarist: “The guy who played the funky guitar on Boney M’s massive hits – I got him in and with a slide guitar we put some really cool air raid sirens over ‘This is England’. When Bernie got back, I think he nixed that, because it was put on when he wasn’t there – like a ‘Let me get control of my project again’ vibe.” When the album came out, the compositions were credited to Strummer-Rhodes. “That surprised me,” Strummer says, though he does admit: “He’d say to me, ‘Put half of that tune with the other half of that tune you’ve got over there’.”

So the recording progresses, Strummer became increasingly gloomy about the prospect of producing a worthwhile product, “I started thinking, this is all my fault, letting this thing happen. Firstly letting Bernie manipulate me into getting rid of Mick – which Mick helped by being the grumpiest sod you’ve ever seen in your life, permanently. Then the actual recording process became more and more horrible as I’d realised what I’d done.”

Finally, Strummer washed his hands of the album, Rhodes and the Clash. “CBS had paid an advance for it so they had to put it out. I just went, ‘Well fuck this’, and fucked off to the mountains of Spain to sit and sobbing under a palm tree, while Bernie had to deliver a record.” Cut the Crap was issued in November 1985 to universal ridicule. Its music was as crass as it’s cringe-making title – a bizzare cross between an attempt to get back to the Clash’s punk roots and an assimilation of more modern trends, with its amateurish horn and synth overdubs, shot through with cartoonish (and somewhat Americanised) punk imagery and Sham 69-style terrace chanting.

Nonetheless, Strummer feels the record isn’t a complete disaster: “I really like ‘This is England’, ‘North and South’ is a vibe. Jon Savage did a nice thing in that book, England’s Dreaming. That was the only good review that album ever got. He called it a slightly over-ambitious sound collage.” But the album now seems to have been erased from official Clash history: not part of the recent Clash remastering programme, it also wasn’t represented on the ‘Clash On Broadway’ box-set, or even mentioned in the booklet. “Obviously ‘Clash on Broadway’ was put together with Mick Jones,” Strummer notes. “I think it was a pathetic attempt not to offend Mick.”

After the album’s release, a press statement was issued bearing Strummer’s name explaining that only he and Simonon would be continuing the Clash, and that their next single would be a song called ‘Shouting Street’. “That sounds like a bit of a Bernie Rhodes – Kosmo Vinyl dupe to me,” he says today, “Because I was well beyond any thoughts of continuing.” And he confirms the rumours that when Rhodes realised he wasn’t returning to the fold, the manager held auditions to replace him: “He did, in fact, hold perhaps two or three auditions. Him, Paul and Kosmo. That definitely happened.”

After the disbandment, Strummer cut a very forlorn future, going so far as to follow Mick Jones on holiday to ask him to reform the Clash. “I was trying to undo my mistake. But Big Audio Dynamite was taking off, so he just laughed at me.” Nevertheless, Strummer and Jones did start to collaborate again, firstly on songs for Alex Cox’s Sid Vicious biopic Sid and Nancy, then on material on the second BAD album, which Strummer co-produced.

Mentally and physically exhausted after the whole Clash experience, Strummer had no inclination to form a band like Jones: “Perhaps what I should have done was held some auditions, got some great players, made a group that would still be going now. But I didn’t have the capacity to think like that.” Instead, he continued his soundtrack work, notably the music to another Alex Cox movie, Walker. Released in 1987, the latin-tinged, all-instrumental album got surprisingly good reviews: “I remember having a bit of a chuckle cos the press had written me off after the ‘Cut the Crap’ debacle. The reviews were incredibly reluctantly good: ‘This shouldn’t be any good but for some reason it seems to be not half bad’. It is a good record. No-one’s ever heard it, but never mind.” A less memorable Strummer soundtrack was for Keanu Reeves vehicle, Permanent Record, even though it featured ‘proper’ songs with lyrics. ” I think they are all pretty sub-standard. It was a quick knock-off job.”

Strummer finally returned to the rock world with 1989’s ‘Earthquake Weather’, recorded with his new group Latino Rockabilly War. Although he says he mixed his vocals down from insecurity, he asserts: “There’s some great tunes on it, like ‘Shouting Street’, ‘Dizzy’s Goatee’, ‘Jewellers and Bums’, ‘Leopardskin Limousines’, ‘Sleepwalk’ – those are five tunes that are as good as any tunes on any album by anybody.” However, the band that made the album were not long for this world; ” We did quite a vicious tour, all around America, all around Britian, all around Europe, and at the end of the tour I was completely exhausted and the accounts were £24,000 in the red. I remember looking at this sheet and I thought, ‘Well why didn’t I just sit here and tear up £24,000 and be really fit and happy?’ Also the record sales were absolutely dismal.

Ironically, riches could have been Strummer’s for the taking if he had agree to reform the Clash which, around this time, Mick Jones was now suggesting to him: “It was when the first Big Audio Dynamite had left Mick, maybe about that time.” The proposal foundered over Strummer’s (some might say astonishing) insistence that Rhodes be brought back as manager: “I’m terribly loyal in a stupid way and I knew that the best combination was Strummer-Headon-Simonon-Jones on the floor and Bernie Rhodes managing it. I’d got Bernie back in when we were faltering somewhere in the middle period to manage us for the final two years of glory. I didn’t really want Mick’s manager to manage the Clash.”

Although Strummer kept bust acting, doing more soundtracks, producing other artists and building his own 8-track home studio, it was amazingly ten years before his next solo album. One major reason was a Mexican stand-off with Sony, who now owned his CBS contract: “They took up the option to make another record. But then they realised that, because I had a descendant of the Clash contract, if I went into a studio that was the contractual signal of them having to cough up the advance. And they realised after ‘Earthquake Weather’ that the advance was way too big for returns. So they were not keen on me to go into the studio at all cos I would kick in a new phase of the contract. I realised, ‘Hey, they don’t want me to succeed anyway cos it’s not in their interests.’ So for the next eight years I figured out how to get out of the contract. I realised I was kind of fucked, and I decided to bore them out. I got them to let me go on the grounds that if the Clash ever got back together, then we’re contracted to Epic, but on solo stuff I could be free.”

Strummer was now able to put together a new recording unit, although there were a couple of false starts, firstly a collaboration with Richard Norris: ” We had a group called Machine, but because he was coming from acid house and I was coming from punk, we had to bridge a lot of ideological gaps. We both fought our corners very hard and eventually we fell out, although we’re mates now. I think it was just too much of a bold manoeuvre.” Another group which would have included Happy Monday’s Bez, also foundered.

Finally, he formed the Mescaleros: “We started on valentines day last year, me and Anthony Genn. We started to record and we began to assemble them from that minute.” The Mescaleros’ first album ‘Rock Art & the X-Ray Style’ was released in November 1999 to favourable reviews. Three track on the album ‘Yalla Yalla’, ‘Sandpaper Blues’ and ‘Diggin The New’, all originated at the Machine sessions.

Another song was actually written for Johnny Cash. Strummer explains: “Rick Rubin put out the word, ‘Anyone got a tune for Johnny, cos they’re going to do a Johnny Cash comeback record?’ So I leapt at it, knocked out ‘Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and sent it to Rick. I tried to imagine Johnny singing it and wrote it that way. Finally, I met Johnny after a gig a year or so later, Rick said, ‘Oh, this is Joe, He’s the guy thay sent us that ‘Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ song.’ Johnny turned round to me and bent over – cause he’s like ten feet tall – and went, ‘You really confused me with that song, boy’.”

As well as further music with the Mescaleros, Strummer intends to renew his song writing collaboration with former Stray Cat Brian Seltzer, whose recent ‘Guitar Slinger’ album he contributed to. As for working with the former Clash members, his Sony contract prohibits even informal collaboration: “They’ve put into the contract that if I’m in the same studio with Paul, for example, then that thing is called the Clash and owned by Epic, and if I’m in the studio with Mick, it’s a similar thing.”

Not that Strummer, who simply exudes happiness about the reception to the Mescaleros and the current state of his recording career, is particularly anxious to do anything with the Clash on a formal basis. “I’d say, ‘let it be’, to quote the Beatles, What was, was. At least if you saw the Clash live at the Manchester Apollo in 77, that’s something that’s always yours. Because people live their lives for it, and with it, and to it, and by it, and it’s a serious thing. I’m really conscious to keep that from being besmirched or cheapened.”

Strummer says, half-jokingly, that it took him ’11 years’ to come to terms with the fact that the Clash were history. Now, it’s time for the rest of the world to realise that for the rest of his career, he will be Joe Strummer, solo artist.

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