The punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s seized the power of rock-and-roll back from the corporate conglomerates that had warped the music into a flabby, over-produced, stadium-rocking mess.
But it was Joe Strummer who made punk rock more than just an anarchic flail against the dying of the light. With The Clash, Strummer gave punk a militant, internationalist, pro-Black edge that made it matter not just as a musical statement but as a political one.
“It was The Clash that struck the strong political stance that really inspired a lot of people, and within The Clash he was the political engine of the band,” explained British singer Billy Bragg.
Strummer, who died Sunday from an apparent heart attack at age 50, was in on the ground floor of the punk moment. He saw a 1976 gig by the Sex Pistols and decided to start a band with Mick Jones and, after several personnel shifts, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. By the summer of that year, The Clash was opening for the Pistols, and by the start of 1977 The Clash had a British hit with “White Riot.” Even on that first single, Strummer displayed the sensibilities that would come to define The Clash’s music: a reverence for radicalism, a faith in the power of direct action, an unyielding honesty and bluntness, a call to arms and a respect for rhythm that distinguished his band from most its contemporaries.
Written by Strummer and Jones at a time when British cities were experiencing a wave of urban riots, “White Riot” celebrated the revolt of Caribbean and African immigrants against the genteel racism of the British upper classes and asked why working-class whites didn’t join the fight. (“Black people gotta lot a problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick…) The song’s class consciousness (“All the power’s in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it…”) was matched by a demand for activism that pushed punk in a new and some thought dangerous direction (“Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?/Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?”).
The self-titled album that followed was so edgy that Columbia Records – the parent company of the band’s British label – refused to release it in the United States.
Barely two years later, however, with the release of “London Calling,” The Clash were suddenly being referred to by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as “The Only Band That Matters.” For a few years there, it was hard to argue with the description. The Clash helped to define the punk and new wave movements as explicitly anti-racist — working with ska and reggae bands to build the late-1970s Rock Against Racism movement in Britain.
Ultimately, however, the greatest political and cultural contributions made by Strummer and The Clash came in the form of the music. Fueled by Strummer’s fascination with the world’s music – born John Graham Mellor in Turkey, Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent much of his early life in Egypt, Mexico, Malawi and Iran – the band sampled widely from a diverse blend of musical styles.