By Alexander Billet
Also published on MRZine
“I’d like to say that people… people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. Show me any country… and there’ll be people in it just trying to take their humanity back into the center of the ring… And follow that for a time. Y’know, think on that. Without people you’re nothing.” –Joe Strummer
Is anything left in music that is vaguely redeeming? In the face of all the soulless pabulum being fed to us in the MTV-strangled airwaves, I often wonder if the industry has won. When rock n’ roll is so full of the cynical, the snide, the intentionally ironic, it seems like record companies are signing bands that not only won’t say anything, but won’t feel anything. Not caring is the fad of the day, and righteousness is passé, naïve and stupid.
Antonino D’Ambrosio agrees. As we sit in a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City, we talk about the sense of collective amnesia much of the bands seem to suffer from. As the head of La Lutta New Media Collective, D’Ambrosio is aware of how most of today’s artists seem to have little bark and even less bite. He is also the editor of Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, a book devoted to the Clash front-man, now in its fifth printing in two years. Almost four years after Strummer’s death in December of 2002, it is amazing how few remember the seismic effect the Clash had on music. “Every band out there is a Clash imitator,” the author tells me, “but half of them don’t know who the Clash were.”
Indeed, when “Rock the Casbah” can be claimed by the National Review as a top “conservative rock song,” something does appear to be askew. “When the right wing can start moving in on rock n’ roll, it’s scary,” he says. As the son of Italian immigrants growing up in Philadelphia, D’Ambrosio saw much of what it looks like when the right wing can have its grip over a whole city. In the early eighties, around the same time the Philly police were throwing the members of MOVE in jail, he was being introduced to the sounds of the Clash’s music, an experience he recalls in his book: “When I heard, really heard the Clash’s music for the first time, it came by way of the song ‘Clampdown.’ I related to it as it seemed written for me. It became more than a song: ‘Clampdown’ was my own personal anthem. The Clash promised rebellion. And I was certain that they could deliver it and liberate me from a sense of hopelessness and a life of ‘wearing blue and brown.’”
D’Ambrosio isn’t alone. A common thing to hear from Clash fans is “that band changed my life.” And it is easy to see why. “Some might say the Clash were the greatest punk band of all time,” he thinks aloud. “If you’d ask me who the greatest punk band of all time were, I’d say Bad Brains. But the Clash were without a doubt the greatest Rebel Rock band of all time.” What they were rebelling against was clear, too. In 1970s London, where newspaper headlines screamed of unemployment, race riots and police brutality, rebellion seemed the only sane thing to do. When Strummer got together with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Terry Chimes (later replaced by Topper Headon), they knew which side they wanted to stand on. And it is no exaggeration that their musical rebellion would change rock n’ roll forever.
Since Strummer’s untimely death, a whole crop of books has sprung up paying homage to the Clash, each claiming to be the definitive story of the band. Some are better than others. But none highlight the importance of Strummer’s own politics in his life and work like Fury does. In a little under 350 pages, the editor compiles works from writers, iconic music journalists like Lester Bangs, and political musicians as diverse as Billy Bragg and Chuck D. D’Ambrosio also includes his own words on Strummer, who he met and talked to not too long before his death. Each piece is unique, but all of them make it very clear who Strummer was: an artist who looked at the world around him and did what he could to change it for the better. “Joe always said his politics were Marxist,” Antonino tells me, “but I always thought they were humanist before anything else.” Marxist or not, it is undeniable that Strummer had a deep sense of compassion and solidarity with his fellow human beings that was reflected in his life and music.
Today there are both detractors and so-called “fans” of Strummer who say that political stances can only do disservice to music, and that musicians have no role in social change. But whether they like it or not, people listen to what artists have to say. Back at the bar, Antonino relates a story to me, obscure but poignant. In the late seventies, with far right groups on the rise along with unemployment, fellow punkers the Jam (known for dressing in mod-style suits) announced they were voting Conservative in the UK elections. While this would dog the Jam throughout their career, it is barely known to most how this influenced Strummer to pen one of the Clash’s greatest songs, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” as a response:
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway
This isn’t only one of punk’s quintessential anthems, it’s a piece of political dialogue, and a brilliant one at that! To the nay-sayers, a sin against music itself. But to the kids in 1970s London looking for a way out, it was a crucial warning and a call to arms.
It was moves like these that would make the Clash more than mere entertainers, and raise them to participants in the world at large. The band would headline the Rock Against Racism shows in 1978, openly support political prisoners in Northern Ireland, and speak out against the crushing of the British miners’ strike in the mid-eighties. Naturally, any major record exec cringes at this very thought. In his mind, artists shouldn’t think; they should sing, dance, and rake in the dough. In Fury, this couldn’t be clearer as D’Ambrosio chronicles the band’s constant fight with CBS Records. The company refused to release their first album in the States (though it would go on to become the biggest selling import in US history). When they insisted on selling double and triple albums for single album prices, the label would force them to cover the difference out of their own pockets. And when they would name their fourth record Sandinista! the execs would panic. “The label heads said our music would not sell—too political,” says Joe, “especially in America where the Reagan administration was conspiring to destroy the Sandinistas.”
Despite this, the band, and Joe, would never back down. After the Clash’s demise halfway through the hellish eighties, he would reemerge a few years later as a solo artist and sometime actor, appearing in films like Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. These films would reflect Joe’s rebel outlook, as would his music. The three albums he released with the Mescaleros, the band he played with until his death, would end up being essential Joe Strummer. They are musically eclectic, dance-ably catchy, and thoroughly human. Now signed to independent label Hellcat, Joe would embrace any musical style that struck him, from rock to worldbeat, from rocksteady to folk. Songs like “Bhindi Bhagee” would promote ethnic tolerance, “Johnny Appleseed” would be a send-up of corporate globalization, and his cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” would prove as relevant sung by Joe as it was by Marley twenty years before.
It was during this last era in Joe’s work that D’Ambrosio had the chance to meet him. And the picture he conveys in his book gives the reader a good sense of how Joe had evolved in his later years. He was older and wiser, yes. But he never sold out, never compromised, and never stopped believing that the world is worth fighting for. It’s this idea that prompted the author to compile this book after Joe’s death.
I talk to Antonino about the video for “Redemption Song” (the only one off Streetcore, released after his death), a sublime piece of NYC filmmaking that documents the painting of a mural dedicated to Joe not long after his death. As it turns out, the mural is close to the bar we are drinking at. It’s suggested we walk to it. No way in my right mind I could turn this down. While we walk through the cold winter night, I look around New York and think of Joe’s own connection with the city. “He’s a god here on the Lower East side,” I’m told. No surprise.
At 7th and A, the vibrant mural is visible from down the street. It is painted the Rastafarian colors: red, yellow and green; and bears an image of Joe, his leather jacket slung over his shoulder. “The future is unwritten” is scrawled next to his spray-painted image, the words “Know your rights” below him. Since Joe’s death, the high-ups in the music industry have taken advantage. We can now hear the Clash’s songs used to sell cars and cell phones. It’s the sound of their legacy made safe for consumption. When this is the case, this mural is especially poignant.
When Joe died of heart failure at the age of fifty, he had been working on a song dedicated to the life of Nelson Mandela. There were the perfunctory “tributes” in the mainstream music press. But for fans whose lives were touched by his music, the sense of loss was greater than any article could express. Newspapers would gloss over his passion for social justice, but with the US rattling its saber to go into Iraq, the void Joe left was most definitely felt. Four years later, it still is.
Perhaps the real danger is that when people forget the legacy of the Clash, then they forget the truly incendiary power that music has. Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to inspire, to help make sense of a frightening world; to remind us that we’re not alone, and that we can change anything if we want to. Perhaps this is why Joe’s music changed our lives. Perhaps this is why a book like Fury is so important. And perhaps this is why the best way to remember Joe Strummer is to build the kind of world he fought for. “You know,” Antonino mentions to me as the night winds down, “if anyone were to ask Joe ‘who is the next Clash?’ he’d say ‘you are.’”
Let’s prove Joe right.