Joe Strummer—singer, songwriter, musician with The Clash, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, The Pogues, etc., actor, and radio host—was born John Graham Mellor in 1952 in Ankara, Turkey. His father was a diplomat and his mom a nurse. Neither were known for their parenting skills. Both Joe and his older brother David were sent to a British boarding school and that is where they spent most of their youth. In an interview, Joe talked about resenting his parent’s non-existence in his life and how it made him feel abandoned. When he did spend time with them, they were so strict, he referred to his father as a bastard. “I often think about how I must have felt [after being sent to boarding school]. I just subconsciously went to the heart of the matter, which was, ‘Forget about your parents,'” he said. He went on to describe his boarding school as a place where, “thick rich people sent their thick rich kids.” And, he had every right to hate them. On his first day, he was initiated by some of the bigger students by being dumped into a bathtub full of used tp. Ewww. Not to be outdone, Joe went on to become a bully himself, and slapped a smaller boy once until he broke his glasses. Boarding school sounds like OZ.David, who was eighteen months older than Joe, traveled on a tumultuous path in his short life. In 1970, he died after a massive overdose of aspirin. Before that, he dabbled in the occult and became a member of Britain’s nazi group, the National Front. Joe had a distant relationship with his brother because of his beliefs, but was still haunted by having to help identify his brother’s dead body which had gone undiscovered for three days. Joe had mentioned later in life that his relationship with David was one of the reasons that he wanted to help end racism through various charitable campaigns.
With an affinity for the protest singer Woody Guthrie, teenage Joe earned the nickname of Woody while attending Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. After a year, he dropped out. “I found that I was just hopeless at school. It was just a total bore. First I passed in art and English, and then just art. Then I passed out.”
Working several odd jobs, that included being a gravedigger in 1973, he lived as a squatter and began playing in several bands such as Flaming Youth and The Vultures. It was at this time that he also discovered reggae. After moving to Wales for a short time, he spent one Christmas on acid listening to Big Youth’s “Screaming Target.” Give it a listen. You can’t NOT hear The Clash in it.
Bouncing around a bit, Joe agreed to a marriage of convenience for £120 with South African social worker Pam Moolman who wanted British citizenship. He took the money and bought his first guitar, a Telecaster that he painted black. He immediately started a new band, the 101’ers, and played with them until mid-76. It was then that guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon approached him about starting a new band called The Clash. The band’s first album was released in 1977.
Some fun Clash Facts:
Joe was known for his sense of humour, even in some of the band’s political songs. At the end of “Magnificent Seven,” Joe throws in “vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie” as an aside in the recording after reading the headline of a newspaper on the studio floor.
Joe would sneak ticketless fans into shows by helping them through windows of wherever The Clash were playing.
Health-wise, Joe’s Clash years were rough. He began drinking a lot and developed a super fun speed habit. He also contracted hepatitis in the late ’70s while on tour when an audience member spit on him. Holy crap. Pass the Purell.
In June of 1977, Joe and Clash drummer Topper Headon were arrested for spray painting “The Clash” on a hotel wall.
In May of 1980, he was arrested for kicking the ass of a fan with his guitar during a performance in Hamburg, Germany. The fan was being an idiot and acting violent. Joe freaked himself out by reacting that way and decided that peace was a much better route to follow. This lead to The Clash, as a band, becoming social activists and headlined a Rock Against Racism concert.
After the band’s 1982 album Combat Rock, their most well received, Joe decided to go into hiding. Many, including his own record company, said he disappeared, but he really just took the time to travel and stay away from the stage. There was no internet, TMZ or tabloid TV to track him then, so disappearing was way easier.
In this time, he and his girlfriend Gaby Salter, took to the streets of sorts. The couple ran several marathons including the Paris Marathon in 1982 and the London Marathon in 1981 and 1983—the latter in 3 hours and 20 minutes. He claimed his training regime consisted of 10 pints of beer the night before the race. No spaghetti dinner for him! Maybe he should have considered vodka sauce.
Joe did a cameo in the 1983 De Niro film, The King of Comedy credited as “street scum” along with Gaby and bandmate Mick Jones. Other film roles would follow over the years.
The Clash disbanded in 1985.
In 1987, Joe reappeared, musically, as one of The Pogues. Filling in for ailing guitarist Philip Chevron, Joe joined the band for the ’87-88 tour. In an online forum, Chevron wrote: “When I was sick in late 1987, I taught Joe all the guitar parts in an afternoon and he was on tour in the USA as deputy guitarist the next day. Joe wrote all the tabs in his meticulously neat hand on a long piece of paper which he taped to the top of the guitar so he could glance down occasionally when he was onstage.” This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Joe and The Pogues. He managed them, wrote with them and even filled in for lead singer Shane MacGowan at one point. Graciously, Joe said of his stint as Pogues singer: “Never forget MacGowan, I’m just keeping the seat warm.”
Joe’s love life mainly consisted of two long-term relationships. One, with the aforementioned Gaby, with whom he was with for 14 years. They had two children, both daughters, Jazz Domino Holly and Lola Maybellene. Gaby and Joe never married and broke up in 1995. Jazz, shown below, penned a book on crafting called, Queen of Crafts, last year.
In 1995, Joe married Lucinda Tait and moved her and her young daughter to Somerset, England. They remained together until his death in 2002.
At the end of the ’90s, Joe dabbled in some reissuing of the music of The Clash and the 101’ers. In 1998, he made a guest appearance on the animated television show, South Park and a cartoon Joe performed “It’s A Rockin’ World” with Flea, Nick Hexum, Tom Morello, DJ Bonebrake, and Benmont Tench.
In 1999, he formed Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros. They released three albums.
It was rumored that singer Lily Allen was Joe’s god-daughter, but the truth is, he was just really close to her family and an influence in her life, musically. Lily has said of Joe: “Joe Strummer was my father’s best friend but I knew him as Uncle Joe, carrying a bottle of whiskey around. The famous people who I have been around were all really relaxed, not the Ozzy Osbourne types, driving around in limos.” She recorded The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” for a charity album, War Child Heroes with Mick Jones, after Joe’s death.
In later years, Joe rejected millions of dollars that he was offered to get back together with The Clash. Instead, he chose to do things like perform to raise money for striking firemen in West London. Joe died three days before Christmas in 2002 after returning home from walking his dog. He collapsed in the family’s kitchen. It was then that doctors discovered that he was born with a congenital heart defect. His funeral in West London featured two dozen firefighters in full uniform, the very same ones that he had helped earlier in the month. Upon Joe’s coffin sat a stetson and the words “Question Authority – Ask Me Anything.”
In 2007, Chicago based action figure manufacturer, Locoape, released The Clash action figures. Hmmm, not sure about that.
Posthumously, Joe’s wife Lucinda set up Strummerville, a music trust providing young musicians with rehearsal spaces and the use of recording studios. www.strummerville.com
French actress and director Julie Delpy is making a biopic of Joe called The Right Profile (the title of a song from the 1979 album, London Calling). The film is set to focus on Joe’s planned disappearance from public life in 1982.