Joe Strummer, The Clash and ‘The Future Is Unwritten’.
Above Photo: Joe Strummer in Mystery Train
I recently watched a superb documentary about Joe Strummer, called ‘The Future is Unwritten’. Produced by Julian Temple, it was released in 2007 to critical acclaim, winning awards at film festivals around the world.
It was interesting to hear Strummer narrating his childhood; his world travels with his Diplomat father and his time at Public School, which he hated. He learnt from his upbringing that “Authority was to be avoided; attacked, if possible…”
The Rolling Stones featured early in his musical journey. He called them “a sound of another world” which jarred with the one he was living in at school.
He described the impact the year 1968 had on him: the Paris riots, the Vietnam War, Anti-Vietnam riots in London, the Cold War, the Counter-Culture – he said these gave him an edge to put into Punk.
After school he was kicked out of art college, worked in a carpet shop, as a grave digger, and then travelled around England and Wales visiting friends.
Back in London he got into the squatter scene, when squatting was a political act. The city had thousands of empty, rotting homes yet there was a chronic homelessness problem.
He then formed a band called the 101ers (named after his squat in 101 Walterton Road, Maida Vale). The 101ers was driven by enthusiasm more than skill initially, and they played wherever they could, learning their trade by playing to friends and audiences made up of other squatters in rooms above London pubs.
He was spotted by Mick Jones and Paul Simonon when he was playing for the 101ers, who were rapidly making a name for themselves on the London music circuit. The Sex Pistols, who Strummer described as “coming out of nowhere” supported them one night and the scales fell from his eyes.
Strummer said: “Being in the right place, at the right time, with the right shit – it’s just explosive.”
The rest is well-documented musical history as far as the Clash goes, but about Strummer himself, less so.
The documentary contained interesting interviews with people who knew him back at school, at art school, who’d shared squats with him, many of whom he’d turned his back on when he found Punk and left the R & B world of the 101ers.
Some footage really stood out for me – in a New York press conference, Strummer ripped into a journalist as he protected drummer Topper Headon, who was ill: “Shut up will you, you stupid cunt….What do you think we are? You think this is 1976 and you’re taking to the Sex Pistols? If you haven’t got something serious to say, piss off”
Strummer observed that the Clash, by the end, had become the type of band they’d started out hating. He said he’d rather go back to busking and being nobody rather than what they’d become.
After the Clash’s demise, Strummer made more music but nothing which touched the Clash’s heights, and locked in a slow death spiral with his record company Epic, he said he decided to “bore them out” of their recording contract – which apparently took him eight years.
During this time he seemed increasingly depressed to those around him.
He appeared in a few films, including Mystery Train, a Jim Jarmusch film, released in 1989, starring Steve Buscemi.
In 1999 Strummer formed the Mescaleros, who had some great musical ideas. He produced three albums with them, and said playing with the band exorcised the ghosts of the Clash’s demise.
The documentary contained fantastic footage of Strummer and Mick Jones playing ‘White Riot’, which was totally unpremeditated, at a Fireman’s Benefit gig in November 2002 at Acton Town Hall, arranged by Strummer and the Mescaleros. They were both full of energy and enjoyment at playing live again together after twenty years (they also played ‘London’s Burning’ at this gig, which was held on the 15th November). It was the closest thing they ever got to a Clash reunion.
The last Fireman’s Benefit gig, and the last time Strummer played live anywhere, was in Liverpool on 22 November 2002.
A month later, he was dead, having had a heart attack, caused by a congenital heart condition.
During the documentary, it was said that during the Gulf War, Strummer had been devastated to learn the Clash song ‘Rock the Casbah’ had been adopted by US bomber pilots as an anthem.
But in the same year that Strummer died, a Mescaleros track, ‘Minstrel Boy’ was used for the film Black Hawk Down (a superb film but not what I’d have thought Strummer would’ve contributed a track for, given his unhappiness about Rock the Casbah and the Gulf War).
If anyone knows how that happened, I’d be grateful to hear about it.
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And to end, a 101’ers track and a Mescaleros track: