Legendary Clash frontman Joe Strummer was born in Ankara, Turkey.
Born as John Graham Mellor to nurse Anna Mackenzie and British diplomat Ronald Mellor, Strummer spent much of his early life travelling through various countries with his family. When he was 9, the family settled in England and Strummer began attending the City of London Freemen’s School in Surrey. It was here that Strummer began to develop an interest in rock music; like many children of his generation, he would listen to early US rock stars such as Little Richard and The Beach Boys.
By 1973, Strummer had moved to Wales and was studying at Newport College of Art. He soon dropped out, but while in Wales he formed his first band, The Vultures, with a small group of friends. For a year or so, Strummer would juggle his duties as guitarist and part time singer for the band with his other job as a gravedigger. After the breakup of The Vultures in 1974, Strummer returned to London and formed another band with his new roommates. Called The 101’ers, the band gigged extensively around London pubs, and in 1975 Strummer adopted the stage name he would become famous by. He apparently took the name as a self-deprecating reference to his limited rhythm guitar playing, which was a result of him learning to play right-handed despite being naturally left-handed. The 101’ers released a Strummer-penned track entitled ‘Keys To Your Heart’ as their debut single.
It was at a 101’ers gig in May 1976 that Strummer was approached by The Clash’s would-be manager Bernard Rhodes and early guitarist Keith Levene with a view to joining a new band which they claimed would ‘rival the Sex Pistols‘. A day later, Strummer agreed to join Levene, and along with Mick Jones, Terry Chimes and Paul Simonon under the name The Clash, after briefly being known as the Weak Heartdrops and the Psychotic Negatives, they made their live debut on 4 July 1976, supporting the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield.
(The Clash make their US TV debut on 4/25/80 on the ABC Television program “Fridays” In this set they perform “London Calling” and “Train In Vain”)
By 1977, the band had become one of the hottest acts in the burgeoning punk scene and on 25 January 1977, they signed with CBS Records. By this time Levene had been fired and drummer Chimes had left, he was replaced shortly after by Topper Headon.
Strummer would become the creative driving force of the band along with Mick Jones and they became known for their eclectic sound and political awareness, which gained them huge respect and a longevity that stretched beyond the downfall of punk rock. Especially known for tackling issues such as racism, militarism and social breakdown, they perhaps fully realised their potential on the classic 1979 album ‘London Calling’. Universally praised upon it’s release, the record went top 10 in the UK and platinum in the US. Later, it was voted number eight in Rolling Stone’ list of 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time in 2003, NME named it number six on its list of the Greatest Albums Of The ’70s and Q Magazine voted it no.4 in their ‘100 Greatest British Albums’ poll. The album went along way to cementing their reputation as one of the most influential British bands ever, and at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they were dubbed “one of the most overtly political, explosive and exciting bands in rock and roll history”.
Despite continued success into the early 1980s, the band began to disintegrate after the departure of drummer Topper Headon in 1982, and after Mick Jones was fired in 1983 the band stumbled on until their inevitable disbanding in 1986.
After The Clash, Strummer worked sporadically on different projects for numerous years, and also tried his hand at acting. In 1986, he wrote several songs for the film Sid and Nancy and also reunited with Mick Jones on his new band Big Audio Dynamite’s second album. In 1987 he starred in Alex Cox’s film ‘Walker’ and also wrote the soundtrack. He also appeared in another Cox film, ‘Straight To Hell’ and played a drifter in the 1989 film ‘Mystery Train’.
In the 90s, Strummer was dropped by Sony after his solo record ‘Earthquake Weather‘ flopped and was briefly the lead singer of The Pogues after the short-lived departure of Shane MacGowan. Throughout the decade, he would make appearances with numerous acts including Dirty Pictures, The Levellers and Black Grape. Strummer finally formed a new band, The Mescaleros in the mid 90s and they released their first album through Mercury Records in 1999. In 2001 the band signed with Hellcat Records and released a second album, ‘Global A Go-Go‘. The band toured extensively, playing sets which included classic Clash tracks as well as their own material, and were joined by Mick Jones at a gig in November 2002. The reunion was the first time the pair had played together live since 1983, and came just over a month before Strummer’s untimely death.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – “Coma Girl”
Strummer played what was to be his final gig at a club venue called The Palace in Somerset. Just a few weeks later, on 22nd December 2002, he died at his home after collapsing suddenly from a suspected heart attack. It was later determined that an undiagnosed congenial heart defect had led to his death. Upon his death, fellow music stars and fans commended his campaigns against issues such as racism and climate change, as well as his legendary work with The Clash, who Bono described at the time as:”the greatest rock band.”