Monday, 12 January 2009

Joe Strummer was actually born John Mellor, but changed his name to Woody in the late 1960s when he became a hippy and only adopted his best-known moniker just before he became a punk.
In the same way that he dropped identities he also dropped, friends, girlfriends and fellow band members.
Julian Temple's biopic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is his latest contribution to a growing cannon of films relating to punk and its major players.
The Great Rock and Roll Swindle from 1980 and The Filth and the Fury (2000) focused on the Sex Pistols. He has also just released The Sex Pistols: There'll Always be an England, featuring concert footage from their reunion gigs last year.
Temple uses similar techniques to his earlier films to illustrate the early years of Strummer's life - animation and movie clips (If..., Animal Farm and 1984) - before dipping in to the huge catalogue of film featuring Strummer and The Clash.
An array of first-hand witnesses who appear to be seated around a campfire narrate much of The Future is Unwritten. However, there are no captions to tell you who these people are. Bono and Clash guitarist Mick Jones are easy enough but even an old punk like me struggled for a few seconds before recognising the much-filled-out Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones,
Strummer, was born in Turkey, the second son of a British diplomat and spent his early years living abroad until he and his brother were sent to boarding school in England.
In interviews he tell us that he was always a gang leader and constantly talking, as opposed to his older brother, David, who was more insular and rarely spoke. David, who became involved in a far-right group and covered his room in Nazi symbols, died by suicide when he was 19 and Strummer had to identify his body.
Strummer, who had changed his name to Woody, after Woody Guthrie, spent the next few years at art college and working in factories, as a gardener and grave digger before moving to a squat in London.
He made money by busking and in London formed a rockabilly band the 101-ers and started writing songs including one for his girlfriend at the time who went on to become Slits drummer Palmolive.
It was John Lydon who coined the phrase 'never trust a hippy' but I always saw punks as the bastard children of the hippies, often sharing a distrust of society, a belief in the individual and a do-it-yourself approach to life.
Woody Mellor became Joe Strummer in 1975 and the following year when he saw the Sex Pistols playing he left the 101-ers to form The Clash. He also left much of his dope-smoking hippy lifestyle, his girlfriend and other friends behind.
While the Sex Pistols imploded after barely 18 months together The Clash took up the punk mantle and ran with it, broadening its appeal by introducing elements of reggae.
Despite abandoning his hippy persona, Strummer had a social concious. His politics were left-wing and his lyrics were often about social injustice and world affairs.
However, there were constant tensions between him and fellow band members, particularly drummer Topper Headon – who was sacked from the band – and, later, guitarist Mick Jones.
Strummer seemed to almost resent the popularity of The Clash, particularly in the US where they became stadium headliners.
When the Clash ended up with Strummer as the only original member he eventually called it quits.
He broadcast on the BBC World Service, made a few movies and toured with the Pogues for a while, replacing Shane MacGowan as vocalist - The Future is Unwritten has footage of a young, fully-toothed MacGowan pogoing at an early Clash gig.
Legal battles with The Clash's record label meant Strummer was unable to record but when these were eventually ironed out he formed a new group The Mescaleros that despite a punk sensibility had a mellow, almost world-music type vibe. It was almost as if Strummer had returned to his hippy roots.
I never, saw The Clash, but did see The Mescaleros in the Limelight, a small venue in Belfast, in 1999.
It was memorable for two reasons - firstly the music - Clash songs White Man in Hammersmith, Straight to Hell, Bankrobber, London's Burning and White Riot - mixed in with Mescalero material.
However, I also remember Strummer complaining about the heat and asking for the fire doors to be open and lying down on stage while he sang Straight to Hell.
After the gig I went to the toilets and saw a door had been flung open to a room where the band were gathered and Strummer was lying flat out on a table, stripped to his waist and covered in sweat and while watching The Future is Unwritten that image of him kept coming back to me.
He died the following year from a heart condition aged 50. A few months before he had been joined on stage by Mick Jones during a Mescaleros gig.
The Future is Unwritten suggests that he was much more at ease with himself and had made amends with many of those he had abandoned.
However, in the year that he died he told an interviewer: "This is my Indian summer. I learnt that fame is an illusion and everything about it is just a joke. I'm far more dangerous now, because I don't care at all."

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Tony, you may know that the indeed "much-filled out" Steve Jones hosts in L.A. "Jonesy's Jukebox" on 103.1 FM each weekday at noon. He rambles, pauses, mutters, and has often great guests on as well as poseurs galore. He plays an amazing amount of early-mid '70s music, too, the kind he'd have heard growing up in London, tending towards glam, but also lots of reggae, pop, proto-punk and the like. You may be able to hear the show on the net?

I earlier mentioned to you that my first "real" concert was seeing the Clash fall of '79 on their first U.S. tour on the West Coast. Come to think of it, I saw in '91 at the Hollywood Bowl the Pogues with Strummer, opening for Dylan! This was, of course, quite late in their career. He produced "Hell's Ditch," too, the first in their post-Shane albums. I recall the cover of the CD and that's about it! Although "Cut the Crap" also lived up to its name, it has that great song "This is England," which I thought one of the Clash's best; oddly enough, I don't think it was used in the disturbing, uneven, yet engrossing film of the same name, although I may be wrong.