Now more than ever, rock music could use a Joe Strummer.
Just three years after emerging from record-label purgatory and reviving his decade-dormant career, Strummer is gone again, having succumbed to a heart attack Dec. 22 at only 50 years of age. But his role and legacy -- the uncompromising firebrand who stakes it all on the transformative power of rock 'n' roll and its promise to change the world -- is a conspicuous void begging to be filled.
As the music industry collapses under the weight of its own avarice and mediocrity -- not just the suits, but the artists and patrons as well -- the drums of war pound ominously, homeland security reads like Orwell, and the environment is once again available at discount rates. The time is ripe for an artist or group to emerge that actually matters.
Which is something Strummer and his old band knew a thing or two about: "We were all waiting for a group to come along who at least went through the motions of GIVING A DAMN about SOMETHING," the critic Lester Bangs wrote 25 years ago. "Ergo, the Clash."
In fact, during their heyday in the late '70s and early '80s, the Clash was often billed as "the only band that matters." Strummer, born John Mellor, the son of a British foreign service clerk, was the heart, conscience and primary lyricist for the Clash. The group took the nihilistic rants and musical simplicity of early punk and channeled it into a broad, open-minded music palette and political slate that embraced a spectrum of radical leftist causes without ever losing their punk anger, energy or DIY edge.
Strummer's agitprop was delivered in an urgent street patois that found endless fodder in the domestic and foreign policies of conservative ideologues like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, though hypocrites and despots of all stripes were fair game. Years before Enron and WorldCom -- before Michael Milken and junk bonds, even -- Strummer had turned his withering gaze on corporate life, as in "Midnight Log," from the three-album set "Sandinista":
"Cooking up the books/ A respected occupation/ The anchor and foundation/ Of the multi corporations/ They don't believe in crime/ They know that it exists/ To understand what's right and wrong/ The lawyers work in shifts ..."
Hardcore political protest music -- as opposed to the cultural protests of most '60s bands -- had largely been the purview of polite coffee-house folkies with acoustic guitars; the Clash's music was Us vs. Them cranked to 11, and it never sounded or looked so good.
"The Clash are now so good they will be changing rock 'n' roll simply by addressing themselves to the form, and so full of the vision implied by their name they will be dramatizing certain possibilities of risk and passion merely by taking a stage," Greil Marcus wrote early in the Clash's career.
But as an iconic figure, and a vocal one at that, Strummer also epitomized the inherent contradictions -- some would say futility -- of rock 'n' roll as rebellious act. Some British punk purists cited the day that the Clash signed with CBS in January 1977 as "the day punk died." In time, the band's love of Situationist slogans and radical propaganda often obscured the message and drifted the band toward self-parody. Despite railing against the excesses of the left, too, Strummer had no moral qualms about adopting a "terrorist chic" fashion sense for the Clash.
But the greatest irony may have been inherent in the nature of the vehicle with which they chose to broadcast their message. The band's biggest hit, "Rock the Casbah," decried the oil-sponsored madness in the Middle East -- yet wound up as the theme song for American troops smart-bombing overmatched Iraqis during Desert Storm.
The Clash's "commitment to making political pop culture was the defining mark of the British punk movement," fellow traveler Billy Bragg eulogized after Strummer's death. "They were also a self-mythologizing, style-obsessed mass of contradictions ... no one struggled more manfully with the gap between the myth and the reality of being a spokesman for your generation than Joe Strummer."
Largely at Strummer's behest, the Clash did their best to live up to the ideals they espoused. Their double and triple albums sold at single-disc prices, the band taking huge cuts in royalties to make it happen. The band was the driving force behind the hugely successful Rock Against Racism movement in London. On a less publicized but telling level, Clash fans (and not just the female ones) were regularly invited to share the group's hotel suites, and Strummer on several occasions clashed with beefy security guards to safeguard the fans or ensure their right to dance.
Musically, the band -- Strummer on rhythm guitar, splitting the lead vocals and songwriting with lead guitarist Mick Jones, whose pop sensibility would eventually drive him out of the band; Paul Simonon on bass and Topper Headon (and/or Terry Chimes) on drums -- really practiced what it preached. Their debut album was chock-full of searing hot punk anthems strong enough to rival those of the Sex Pistols, but it was the reggae-influenced "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," together with their cover of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves," that separated the Clash from their punk brethren and hinted at the band's potential.
"The main thing in town was reggae," Strummer told the British magazine Uncut in 1999. "It was a total obsession. There was this attitude that this stuff was too good to ruin. That was the ethos -- 'No one is going to ruin this stuff by covering it.' ... But it must have taken big balls to do it at the time."
When the band's two-album masterpiece, London Calling," was released, critics and fans alike reveled in the amazing mix of styles, and the expertise with which the band played. Even the staid Rolling Stone cast its vote with the Clash, later proclaiming "London Calling" the best album of the '80s. The record, wrote the magazine's editors, was "an emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten at the core, and rock & roll needed a good boot in the rear."
Careening between reggae, rock, rhythm and blues, ska, rockabilly, punk and even jazz, "London Calling" -- and the three-disc set that followed, "Sandinista," even more so -- was the work of a band in love with musical possibilities, not units sold. Later, during their historic 15-day run at Bonds in Times Square in 1980, the band tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce their fans to the new sound, a then-local phenomenon called rap, by having Grandmaster Flash open some of the shows.
"We weren't parochial, we weren't narrow-minded, we weren't little Englanders," Strummer said in "Westway to the World," the recent documentary on the Clash. "At least we had the suss to embrace what we were presented with, which was the world in all its weird varieties."
There was a certain Cold War ethos to the Clash which they happily fed off, and were it not for the excellence of their music, it might have made them a dated artifact, the musical equivalent of a brick from the Berlin Wall or Country Joe McDonald spelling F-U-C-K at Woodstock. But the primary subjects of Strummer's songs with the Clash -- injustice, poverty, and war -- didn't disappear when the band broke up (after "Cut the Crap" in 1986) or the Wall came down.
But putting aside the activism of artists like U2's Bono and REM's Michael Stipe, political dissent is today virtually nonexistent anywhere near mainstream rock. Rage Against the Machine lacked the musical sophistication, subtlety or wit to make a difference while bludgeoning their fans with left-wing propaganda. The Manic Street Preachers don't have the versatility or chops to draw much attention to their message. Bragg is too bloody British -- and too busy resuscitating the legend of another musical revolutionary, Woody Guthrie -- to reach a big audience. Alleged renegades like alt-country's Steve Earle, whose recent album "Jerusalem" offers a few relatively tame vignettes about the Middle East and John Walker Lindh, represent the extent of protest music on the rock scene.
And even the Strummer that emerged from a decade of musical limbo was a kinder, gentler version of the earlier battle-scarred campaigner; Strummer lite, if you will. On the two records made with his new group, the Mescaleros -- "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style" and "Global a Go-Go" -- Strummer was more concerned with promoting international brotherhood through music than with tearing down the status quo. The same sense of experimentation was there, only this time combining techno/dance beats with his more traditional interest in world music and the old standbys: rockabilly, reggae and rock 'n' roll.
Both records met with relatively positive reviews, though the musical blend was hardly revolutionary. Even if the firebrand Strummer had mellowed, it was good to have him back in any form whatever. Then of course there was the Jaguar ad.
On a recent Sunday, flipping between National Football League games, the familiar opening chords of the title cut from "London Calling" -- is there a stronger album opener in all of music? -- reverberated through living rooms across America. A spit-take later came an ad for Jaguar motorcars, filmed on a London street, announcing to the world that the British carmaker was selling its high-end autos here in the States to those sophisticated enough to recognize the brilliance of its automotive tradition. Once, those chords alluded to the decline of Western civilization and the coming apocalypse; now they were hawking an advanced suspension system and a hushed, leather interior.
There's nothing wrong with an artist selling his work to make a living; in an age when the radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications -- in de facto collusion with the record executives and marketers -- basically determines what gets played on the radio, it's becoming more common for artists to use the TV commercial as a way to get exposure. But even though the Clash had, years earlier, sold Jones' hit "Train in Vain" to Levi's for a denim jeans promotion, there was still something fundamentally disturbing about "London Calling" appearing in an ad. On the Mescaleros' Web site, Strummer defended the band's decision in a Q&A:
"Q: 'London Calling' has been recently used to advertise Jaguar cars in the U.S.
"Strummer: Yeah, I agreed to that. We get hundreds of requests for that and turn 'em all down. But I just thought Jaguar ... yeah. If you're in a group and you make it together, then everyone deserves something. Especially 20-odd years after the fact. It just seems churlish for a writer to refuse to have their music used on an advert and so I figured out, only advertise the things you think are cool. That's why we dissed Coors and Miller. We've turned down loads of money. Millions over the years. But sometimes you have to earn a bit, so everybody gets some.
"Q: There's no feeling of compromise, doing this? "Strummer: Well, putting your music to an advert is a compromise. But a good advert with cool music can turn on a lot of people. I know that when I'm watching TV and you get a good ad, it's an up.
"Q: We were getting e-mails saying it was a dubious thing to be doing.
"Strummer: Yeah, well you'll always get that. They should realize that we didn't sell loads of records back then."
While Strummer's reasoning was perfectly sound, there's little doubt that the Strummer of 1977 would have blanched at such rationalizations and probably skewered them in song. Now it just points to the need for a new torch bearer, another young, smart idealist creative enough to revitalize rock 'n' roll and use it as a force for change. Someone's going have to shake the music industry out of its doldrums, and one place to start is to question the very paradigm on which it is based. As long as the profit motive fuels the "industry" -- and again, we're not just talking about the suits -- there may never be another band that matters.