Punk rock has always meant different things to different people. Just as there were Beatles hippies, Stones hippies, and Who hippies, there were Pistols punks, Clash punks, mod punks, New York punks, London punks, and so on. Indeed, by virtue of its populist politics — one of its few almost universal elements — punk rock as a style, a movement, and a form of music was always certain to embody dozens and dozens of variations. And as it eventually developed in opposition to instead as part of the mainstream music of the period, the grassroots nature of punk rock ensured that it would continue to generate new variations as it spread from town to town, scene to scene, and year to year. In large part, that’s what helped keep the punk fires burning for so many years, whether you track its initial inception to the class of ’77 Brits who catalyzed the first real punk explosion or farther back to American bands like the Ramones in the ’70s and the Stooges in the ’60s. Either way, punk rock showed a tremendous resilience by surviving in the underground throughout the ’80s and then establishing a beachhead in the early-’90s mainstream with bands like Nirvana. And the rise of Green Day and Rancid since has enabled punk to hold onto that beachhead.
But in the wake of the passing of Clash frontman Joe Strummer on December 22, it’s worth pausing to consider the crucial formative impact he himself had on punk rock, both in the relatively short period during which he acted as one of the main creative forces behind one of the only bands who "mattered" in ’77, and over the longer haul as one of the more important voices in rock music at the tail end of the 20th century. Because though punk rock was in many ways a movement whose time had come in socio-economically troubled mid-’70s England, the ways in which punk rock manifested itself as one of the great protest musics of the 20th century had everything to do with the larger-than-life personalities who helped popularize punk. Joe Strummer was among the most dynamic and influential of those persons who stood on the cutting edge of one of rock’s more enduring countercultural movements at that formative period in punk’s history, regardless of when, where, and how you think punk began.
Strummer, who was born John Mellors on August, 21, 1952, may have been an early convert to the cause of rock and roll, but he was drafted into the punk movement by guitarist Mick Jones, who would become both his songwriting partner and his foil in the Clash. A certain degree of controversy has always surrounded the story of Strummer’s early life as he liked to tell it — in his critical biography Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash, British author Marcus Gray goes to great lengths to indict Strummer as a middle-class poseur who merely played the part of the enlightened guttersnipe at the helm of the Clash. Yet in the end, Gray’s truth telling is so much wasted ink — he completely misses the point of the Clash’s mythmaking, and Strummer’s. After all, it was the potency of the cultural stance the Clash took that mattered, not the origins of it. And rock and roll has always supported the same kind of reinventions that poets and artists indulge in. Part of what made Strummer such a compelling figure among the punks who emerged in ’77 England was his innate understanding of this aspect of the movement.
But Robert Zimmerman’s transformation into Bob Dylan would have meant nothing without "Blowin’ in the Wind" — and neither the song nor its singer would have meant as much had they not been linked to larger socio-political forces. Much the same can be said of Joe Strummer, the R&B– and Woody Guthrie–loving frontman who left the obscurity of the pub-rock 101ers to front the Clash at a point in history when the world needed a band like the Clash and a songwriter like Strummer. If Mick Jones, the former glam-rock teen who immediately embraced the fashion aspect of punk, was the rock-and-roll stylist the young Strummer needed in order to put the pop hooks behind the punk passion of a song like "I’m So Bored (with the U.S.A.)," then Strummer was the populist poet that Jones needed in order to make his pop punk. Bassist Paul Simonon, with his legitimate ties to the gritty, reggae-infused streets of Brixton, imbued the enterprise with awkward soul. And Nicky "Topper" Headon gave the Clash the musical backbone they needed to branch out beyond the angry din of early punk. (Original drummer Terry Chimes was forced to play second fiddle to Headon throughout the band’s career.)
But it was the songwriting of the Strummer/Jones partnership that provided the Clash with the raw material of great rock and roll. And it was the tenor of the times that ensured that those songs, from the primal "White Riot" through the darker and more complex "Straight to Hell," would resonate beyond the boundaries of London and the limitations of a music industry that wasn’t quite ready to embrace a new rock rebellion.
Whether in its earliest, less commercial form as a British import or in its later, more commercial form as a proper American release (both of which have been reissued on CD), the Clash’s homonymous 1977 debut is a portrait of a work in progress. The various elements that would coalesce into the band’s distinctive rebel rock sound — the raw, R&B-tinged rock and roll, the sophisticated, syncopated rhythms of reggae, the populist politics, and the pop hooks — haven’t found quite the right balance just yet. And that’s a big part of what gives this album its lasting value: it stands as a pregnant promise of all that is to come from this fertile partnership. Although "Clash City Rockers" and "Garageland" can rank with the most forceful punk-mission statements the Clash ever made, The Clash is overshadowed by the more ambitious triumphs they were yet to enjoy.
Their oft-maligned sophomore disc, Give ’Em Enough Rope, which they threw together just a year after the release of the debut, has only grown in stature since its ’78 release. In part that’s because it was dismissed by some at the time as a sellout, since the band had the audacity to get the same Sandy Pearlman who’d produced Blue …yster Cult help them beef up their own studio sound. Given the degree to which punk-styled music has infiltrated the mainstream, it seems almost quaint that anyone would object to Pearlman’s presence. Yet to lose sight of what a big deal something as small as that was in ’78 is to ignore the degree to which the Clash were breaking new ground as they set out to conquer the world in the name of punk. Isolation itself is one of the universal themes Strummer and Jones address on Give ’Em Enough Rope, specifically in "Safe European Home" and "Last Gang in Town." And the tensions between art and commerce embodied by the album speak to one of the most important issues punk has always faced.
Give ’Em Enough Rope also hints at the great strides the Clash would make the next time they went into the studio. London Calling still stands as one of punk rock’s greatest statements. More important, it marks one of those moments in rock and roll when a band came together to create a musical document much, much greater than the sum of its parts. If the individual tracks — the title song, "The Guns of Brixton," "Death or Glory," "Four Horsemen" — capture the apocalyptic malaise that had set in after three decades of Cold War posturing as the world hurtled on toward an Orwellian 1984, the album as a whole showed just how versatile punk could be as a medium for fighting back feelings of hopelessness and despair.
That would also seem to be a pretty good definition of the blues, and the Clash acknowledge the point by covering the R&B tune "Brand New Cadillac" hot on the heels of the disc’s title track and then swinging their way into "Jimmy Jazz." By the end of London Calling, punk has been redefined as a new folk idiom — as populist a song form as the acoustic strumming of Woody Guthrie or the young Bob Dylan. And Strummer comes full circle, back to the folk and the R&B music that inspired him to pick up a guitar. But thanks to Strummer and the Clash, folk, R&B, and music in general would never be the same again. They would always carry the mark of punk, not as some anarchist fashion trend that stormed out of London in ’77 but as an approach to art, politics, and society that transcends easy categorization.
From that point on, the Clash didn’t go downhill as a band so much as they faced an uphill battle. The times were a’-changin’ once again, and though they would have greater commercial successes (the final album for the Strummer/Jones Clash, 1982’s Combat Rock, yielded their biggest hits), they would never matter quite as much as they did in the late ’70s. That’s what ultimately tore the band, and the Strummer/Jones partnership, apart after a short but fruitful five-year recording career. And that’s largely what kept the humbled Strummer silent for so long after striking out with his own Clash in 1985 and then embarking on a solo career that remained largely unproductive through most of the ’90s. But buoyed by the success of neo-punks like Rancid, a reinspired Strummer came out of hiding in 1999 and proved that he could still mean business on Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and then 2001’s Global A Go-Go (both Hellcat/Epitaph). By then, his place in rock history had been assured. But it was sure good to hear him play some of those Clash tunes one last time when he came through on what proved to be his final US tour. At the very least, he’d earned that right.