Clash culture

In a new film, artists from Bono to Damien Hirst pay tribute to Joe Strummer, the punk icon. By <em>

As the opening credits roll for Julien Temple's forthcoming film about the life of Joe Strummer, an interviewer asks the Clash singer how he would like his name captioned. "Punk rock warlord," comes the emphatic reply. He was true to his word until the end.

Joe Strummer: the future is unwritten recently premièred at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in the UK this year. It is the latest offering from Temple who, with works that include last year's film Glastonbury and the 2000 Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, has forged his career exploring Britain's counter-cultures. "In many ways Joe is a comparative figure to Winston Churchill, in that it's impossible to understand the second half of the 20th century without reference to him," Temple told me, in his first interview since completing the project. "He was a key cultural figure. In music today, it's hard for any young band or musician to work in the field without coming across or understanding the Clash. They are still as ahead of the game as when they were around. Not many bands have topped them."

The film assembles an impressive array of stars, among them Bono, Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Martin Scorsese and Damien Hirst, to testify to Strummer's influence on their lives and work. "Joe's influence goes beyond music, extending to visual artists, writers and film-makers," said Temple. "Johnny Depp - a Hollywood figure we might not immediately associate with punk - says that Joe and the Clash taught him that you can have integrity in your work. Bono simply says that without Joe there would have been no Bono. Damien Hirst told me he'll never meet anyone as important in his life.

"People connected with Joe like that. He was very connected to other human beings, and he never lost that in the way that some stars do. Joe believed that music could change people's lives and he proved that in a way that most people don't get near." The film sketches Strummer's life using old footage interspersed with new interviews, conducted around a campfire - in tribute to the singer's habit of holding fireside powwows at Glastonbury. It paints a picture of a man at war with his family, with collaborators, with society at large, and often with himself.

Strummer's early life was peripatetic. His father, a left-wing diplomat, took the young John Mellor (as he was then known) around the world on his travels before depositing him at an austere, and much-hated, public school in Surrey. His troubled brother committed suicide at an early age. Moving to London to join the squatter movement, Strummer reinvented himself as a travelling boho called Woody. This was at the tail-end of the "peace and love" era. "It was like coming across the battlefield when the battle is over and only the bodies of the dead and wounded remain," he says in one of the interviews unearthed by Temple.

The Clash, one of the most evocative, stylish and incendiary bands in the history of rock'n'roll, was formed when Strummer teamed up with a Machiavellian manager called Bernie Rhodes and two working-class music buffs-cum-street urchins - the guitarist Mick Jones and the bass player Paul Simonon. Their songs sound to this day like despatches from the front line: "London's Burning", "Rock the Casbah", "I'm So Bored With the USA". The band's wide-ranging musical influences - from reggae and hip-hop to rockabilly and calypso - paved the way for today's interest in world music.

But on the brink of superstardom, the Clash crashed and burned; the irony of playing the band's dole-queue anthem "Career Opportunities" to thousands at the Shea Stadium in New York was too much for Strummer. It was not until the Nineties, when he reached his late forties, that he went back on the road with a new band, The Mescaleros. His renaissance culminated in a benefit concert for Britain's striking firefighters, with Jones as guest guitarist, at Acton Town Hall, a short step from the squat in Shepherd's Bush where he first teamed up with Jones and Simonon 25 years earlier. It was a reunion of the most fitting kind: they got together again not for the millions of dollars offered to them by promoters, but for a group of workers raging against the machine.

A few weeks after this moment of personal and artistic reconciliation in 2002, Strummer died from a previously undetected congenital heart defect. A generation of Clash fans stepped forward to pay tribute. The passing of punk was mourned in establishment newspapers and on television news bulletins - a signal that the generation who looked to the Pistols and the Clash rather than the Beatles and the Stones had come of age.

Temple's interviewees tell of Strummer's long journey towards a final inner reconciliation of his personalities. John Mellor the son, husband and father, finally found peace with his alter ego Joe Strummer, the inspiration to thousands around the world. "He inhabited so many different cultural aspects during the course of his life - from public-school boy to the hippie boho travelling around Britain, the political squatter, the out-and-out punk voice, then the worldwide celebrity, until rejecting that to live his life as a human being," says Temple.

"There was a great optimism about him, which is why what he had to say has lasted a lot longer than some other, more nihilistic punk work. Joe connected with the audience on a very personal level, as a human being and in his lyrics, unlike most rock stars. He wrestled with the idea of being famous, fearing that it would remove his essence, and I feel that towards the end of his life he managed to resolve all those conflicts and contradictions."

In one of his last songs, "Willesden to Cricklewood", Strummer sang a haunting celebration of the London he loved and the life he had lived: "Thought about my babies grown/Thought about going home/Thought about what's done is done/We're alive and that's the one." A redemption song indeed.

"Joe Strummer: the future is unwritten" will go on general release in the UK later this year. It will also be screened at the Dublin International Film Festival on 24 February. More information:

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia