Joe Strummer, Terrorist?

Joe Strummer, Terrorist?

What does it mean that a man was arrested on suspicion of terrorism for singing the lyrics of the Clash’s classic “London Calling”?


It really did feel like “London Calling” when I opened my e-mail April 5 to find an inbox clogged with a score of messages titled: “Man Held as Terrorism Suspect Over Punk Song.” This was not spam but a news item from Reuters reporting that Harraj Mann had been detained for questioning by British anti-terrorism detectives after they received a phone call from a taxi driver who had taken Mann to the Durham Tees Valley Airport. The driver became alarmed after hearing Mann, a mobile phone salesman of Indian descent, sing along to the Clash’s “London Calling.” The lyric that triggered the cabbie’s concern: “Now war is declared–and battle come down…a meltdown expected.”

Released after questioning by British authorities, Mann fumed, “There’s caution and then there’s taking it to the point where it’s absurd and ludicrous.” Ludicrous indeed, and a chilling reminder that once again fear combined with the perversion of law has trumped rationality (not to mention democracy or basic civil liberties).

“London Calling” is a song about terrorism, but not the kind we have become so familiar with after 9/11. Written in 1979 by the late Joe Strummer, it describes the looming threat of nuclear catastrophe, environmental disaster, starvation and war. The threat or terror of nuclear destruction was something that deeply concerned Strummer because it seemed to him that some world leaders treated it as nothing more than a game. “You had Ronald Reagan campaigning on building up nuclear arms…. He said the West is losing the arms race to Russia, the ‘evil empire’…. It was like toys to them or a movie where nothing bad would really happen,” Strummer told me when I interviewed him in 2002. Sound familiar?

Today’s reactionary political climate, built on a merciless patriotism that relies on historical ignorance, creates an atmosphere that cares little for the issues “London Calling” raises. Strummer understood the struggle to be heard over the politically hostile din emanating from a society that wraps itself in the flag of morality and virtue. “In the late 1970s, the National Front [a right-wing extremist hate group] was spreading across England,” Strummer said. “They were a terrorist group if there ever was one, but bands like the Clash were deemed dangerous, evil even, by Thatcher and the like.”

He understood how undemocratic democracies can become when they seek to solidify the dominant political order and maintain control under the guise of nationalism. He vividly captured that sentiment in “Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais“: “If Adolph Hitler flew in today/They would send a limousine anyway.”

That’s why Strummer had declared early on that the Clash would be “antifascist, antiviolence, antiracist…we’re pro-creative, against ignorance,” while other groups (insert Sex Pistols here) were famously declaring that there was “no future.” This made the Clash an anomaly in the 1970s counterculture scene, standing in direct opposition to the nihilism and alienation dominating punk. Even more, the group boldly linked itself historically to artists of every discipline who had fought against tyranny. In “Spanish Bombs,” Strummer sings about the Spanish Civil War and the brutal murder of writer Federico Garcia Lorca. “Washington Bullets” illustrates Western imperialism and invokes the spirit of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. And when Strummer learned that beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan, they collaborated on the haunting “Ghetto Defendant.”

On the Edge

While Strummer did not suffer any serious political reprisals for his art, he certainly is in the category of artists who dangled on the edge of creating work whose themes were unpopular sociopolitical issues of the day.

“Not being understood by the record label, press or government meant we were on the right track,” Strummer said. For his dogged commitment to not “write any love songs,” the Clash became even more successful as they became increasingly politically radical. “London Calling,” which borrows its name from the World War II BBC News report that began, “This is London calling,” serves as a modern-rock news alert told in Strummer’s big howling voice on top of Mick Jones’s air-raid alarm guitar, Topper Headon’s drums and all strung together by Paul Simonon’s thumping bass line. Commercially and critically successful (Rolling Stone selected “London Calling” as the best album of the 1980s), it is considered a classic and remains one of the most influential records of the past twenty-five years.

Still, no one would be less surprised at Mann’s detention than Joe Strummer. When I first met Strummer in 2002, one of the first things we discussed was the suppression of countervoices as the United States banged the drum for war, made the Patriot Act law and established the Department of Homeland Security. He understood that there was a very real–and frightening–possibility that music like his would not only be censored but held up as subversive or dangerous.

“After all,” he said, “we had trouble with these songs then…you have to wonder what is wrong with singing about working people [“Clampdown”], racial unity [“Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais”] and censorship [“Rock the Casbah”].” It didn’t stop the Clash, which disbanded in 1986, from becoming the biggest (and certainly most important) punk band. As musician Billy Bragg put it: “The Clash were the greatest rebel-rock band of all time.” And it didn’t stop Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,900 radio stations, to place the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” on the list of songs not to be played on the air after 9/11 (the BBC did the same in the first Gulf War).

Unfortunately, my time with Strummer will always be shrouded in sadness because he died of a rare, congenital heart condition not too long after we met. It put on hold a documentary film I had asked him to narrate, but it led to a book, Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer.

Pushing Boundaries

The arrest of Harraj Mann goes against everything Joe Strummer and his music was about. Strummer’s music always reflected the world around him. Chuck D talked about this in Let Fury Have the Hour: “I had great respect for Joe Strummer. How he used his music–incorporating a lot of black music like hip-hop and reggae–was very different than the guys who invented rock ‘n’ roll: He was constantly pushing the boundaries…speaking about things he saw in his life, the things right in front of his face–and taking this message to the world.”

It was important for Strummer to stand up and be counted as a citizen of the world. His music is alive with that sensibility. “Even though there are extremists in the world,” he explained, “we’ve got to hold on to our sanity and not get crazed with vengeance.” His words echo those of Freda Kirchwey, who in October 1939 wrote in The Nation:

“Democracy was not invented as a luxury to be indulged in only in times of calm and stability. It is a pliable, tough-fibered technique especially useful when times are hard. Only a weak and distrustful American could today advocate measures of repression and coercion, or encourage a mood of panic.”

Strummer did his part to keep us sane. His later work moved further toward humanism while remaining fiery, honest and original. With the formation in 1999 of his new band, the Mescaleros, Strummer continued to entertain and educate with musical themes as diverse as globalization (“Johnny Appleseed”), ethnic tolerance (“Bhindi Baghee”) and the plight of refugees in the global economy (“Shaktar Donetsk”). He declared that his music was a resistance against “the demographic fascists…and the political ones as well.”

On December 22, 2002, the day Joe Strummer died, the United States began dropping leaflets and making radio broadcasts over Iraq in hopes of getting people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. As they did in the first Gulf War, some US fighter pilots used “Rock the Casbah” as a soundtrack as they bombed Baghdad. This was all done without any sense of irony, of course. And the day that Harraj Mann became a terror suspect while singing Joe Strummer’s song–the same day Oscar Wilde more than 100 years earlier was arrested and charged with gross indecency–I realized more than ever what the true meaning of “London Calling” is: Unity. It is up to all of us who see the light in the darkness shrouding our time to join together no matter where we come from–our lifestyles, perspectives or experiences–because we are all in this together. That’s what Joe Strummer fought for throughout his life.

Is “London Calling” a dangerous song? I leave it to you to decide. And if you are so inclined, I encourage you to listen to the entire album. I guarantee that you too will be humming and singing these songs just as Harraj Mann was. Just be careful who hears you.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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