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Remembering Joe Strummer

Professor Gregor Gall remembers British singer, musician and songwriter Joe Strummer on the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Published: 22 December 2022 | 12:58 PM
Red vintage guitar against a red background.
Strummer realised that music was a terrain which the left could use to fight right-wing ideas. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The end of 2022 marks the twentieth anniversary of a significant moment for a fair few trade unionists, musicians and those with progressive politics. This is because Joe Strummer died on the 22 December 2002, only a few months past his fiftieth birthday.

An inspiration and an influence

Strummer was – and still is – an inspiration and source of sustenance to many as I found out when carrying out the research for my book about his politics and their influence upon people.

He was often said to have changed people’s lives as a result of not only fronting The Clash but also writing most of their lyrics, especially the likes of ‘White Riot’, ‘Working for the Clampdown’, ‘Spanish Bombs’, ‘Washington Bullets’ and ‘Know Your Rights’. He continued to write and perform progressive, politically-charged songs with his last band, The Mescaleros, from 1999 until his death.

Amongst those inspired and influenced by Strummer were the likes of Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), John McClure (Reverend and The Makers), Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Billy Bragg, Jake Burns (Stiff Little Fingers) and Emily Capell. Under the influence of Strummer, these musicians entwined progressive politics into their art.

Amongst those inspired and influenced by Strummer are many in unions including many general secretaries such as Mick Rix (ASLEF), Andy Gilchrist and Matt Wrack (FBU), Jeremy Dear (NUJ), and Steve Kemp (NUM).

A long history of playing benefit gigs for progressive causes

Strummer was for the whole of his life on the left and for the left even though he became somewhat disillusioned by ‘new’ Labour’s subservience to a Thatcherite agenda. He moved from being a hippy to a socialist and then a humanist.

He had a long history of playing benefit gigs for progressive causes. His first gigs with his first band, The 101ers, were for political exiles from the 1973 Pinochet military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government in Chile. With The Clash and his subsequent bands, he played gigs for refugees, sacked miners, community causes and disenfranchised youth as well as against racism and fascism.

Strummer’s passionate performances meant people took seriously what he was saying. In an age before the internet, many went to local libraries to find out more about the Spanish Civil War or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Some of these went on to read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia while others joined the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign – even a few went out to volunteer to work in Nicaragua.

So, Strummer encouraged people to do something about these causes. He was never prescriptive. Individuals could choose how and what they got active in, whether it was a union, political party, social movement or community campaign.

A terrain to fight right-wing ideas

Strummer realised that music was a terrain which the left could use to fight right-wing ideas. This was because music is a mass cultural pastime, making it too important to be left to just lyrics about love and loss.

The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer is on sale on the Manchester University Press website.

Professor Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow.

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