Culture clash

At the time of his death last month, Joe Strummer remained one of our most original musicians. John

It was Juvenile Jim who introduced me to The Clash. He had bought their first album because it had a Union Jack on the cover and was showing it off in the playground. I borrowed it off him, had a listen and was hooked. The music was fast and furious, and the songs were about subjects I could relate to - the perfect combination. Bowie was leaving Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane behind with his new album, Young Americans, Slade and Sweet were past their best, and a nation of young bootboys in their mid-teens were looking for something to fill the void. The sound of punk gave us exactly what we were after: the words were a huge bonus; the Union Jack symbolised the way. The Clash's music and Joe Strummer's lyrics tuned in to what was happening in the Britain of 1977. From hooligan anthems such as "White Riot" and "What's My Name" to the speeded-up version of Junior Murvin's reggae 45 "Police & Thieves", via "I'm So Bored With the USA", a song that matched the people's love of American popular culture to a distrust of US foreign policy, Joe Strummer caught the mood of the time. Twenty-five years later, he was back doing it with his new band, the Mescaleros. His death, on 22 December, cut short a talent that still had a great deal to offer.

There were three major strands to punk: those committed to the music and social politics of the lyrics; the good-timers who enjoyed a drink and a tune; and the posers, fashion victims who missed the point but have gone on to write the official history of punk, even though they were the first to bail out. The memory has been hijacked, reinvented as little more than a Mohican haircut and studded collar, though anyone who was around at the time knows that it didn't matter what you looked like, how you dressed, or where you came from. That was the whole point. Joe Strummer epitomised this open-mindedness and his lyrics were the strongest on offer.

That first album, The Clash, was the best punk album ever released, and despite complaints about the production, the follow-up, Give 'Em Enough Rope, wasn't far behind. If Strummer had grown up in a country where literature was more open to those with an alternative take on life, maybe he would have been an author. But, as it was, his thoughts found an outlet in music. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, rebel music was a million miles away from what we have today. Logos were for muppets, and if you spent more than a few pounds on your wardrobe you were considered a snob, or worse, a soul- boy. Cocaine was for the rich, dope for middle-class hippies. The kids had beer, live music and football - and, with punk, the arrival of speed.

In terms of musical style, Joe turned a lot of people on to reggae and dub long before it became fashionable, not to mention rockabilly and even early hip-hop. Great personal memories include three nights running at the Lyceum with the Slits in support, and two hot back-to-back gigs at the Electric Ballroom with Mikey Dread, Joe Ely and a selection of buskers off the street. On the second night, the air-conditioning broke down and Mick Jones took the mike and said they would never be touring again. We laughed and they played on for years. Mick was seen as flash and Joe thoughtful. Eventually, they fell out and The Clash broke up, but they belonged together. Strummer and Jones were a better songwriting team than Lennon and McCartney, I don't care what anyone says. They were a perfect balance, and drew in a wide mixture of people - scruffs, punks, skins, rockabillies. There was no trouble, music was the common currency. Up and down the Westway, we used to go to see them play, with "London's Burning" on the cassette player.

The Clash produced other great albums after Give 'Em Enough Rope. London Calling blended punk with 2-Tone-style ska, mixing the likes of "Rudie Can't Fail" and their cover of Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac", and saw them become more than a "punk" band. The next LP, Sandinista!, took things further: a triple album released for the price of a single, a mass of styles blended together in a sprawling work of genius. The Clash now defied categorisation. What blended it together, made it work, was the voice of Joe Strummer. It was unique. Nobody sounded like Joe. The last album, Combat Rock, was their weakest but still way ahead of the opposition. After they broke up, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon formed a new Clash, and released a decent album in Cut the Crap, but without Mick Jones and Topper Headon it was never going to be the real thing - and they too disbanded.

Apart from the albums, The Clash released some great 45s - "Complete Control", "Clash City Rockers" with its flip, "Jail Guitar Doors", and the incomparable classic "White Man in Hammersmith Palais". When Pinochet was on the verge of being deported to Spain, how many Clash fans thought of Joe singing "If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they'd send a limousine anyway"? Even the B-side, "The Prisoner", was sheer class, looking to the right, looking to the left, but still looking for a way out. You didn't have to be party-political when it came to The Clash.

Joe Strummer released an underrated solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989, which displayed his American influences, and then his output stopped. The Clash had received their share of criticism over the years; they were called posers, told they spent too much time in America, were accused of selling out. True, they were photogenic and loved America and the rock'n'roll lifestyle. But they never sold out, just simply moved on and were brave enough to experiment. They never lost their ideals, either. They could have reformed for a one-off gig and been paid a fortune by the music corporations, but they refused.

When he was interviewed a couple of years ago about an exhibition of Clash photos, Joe turned on the interviewer and told the TV company that they had only turned up because of the imagery involved, that they had never listened to what he was saying then and they weren't listening now. And he was right. The presenter made the usual smug, ignorant comment about old rebels and moved on. Many of the obituaries have also been predictable, concentrating on the later days of The Clash - "Combat Rock", well-known singles such as "Know Your Rights", the fact that Joe Strummer's father worked in the diplomatic service and sent his son to boarding school. Never mind what he achieved as a musician and a man. That same set of prejudices keeps going, though I'm sure Joe didn't give a toss and nobody who followed his music did, either. That was left to the narrow-minded, the bigots of all classes and political persuasions. Punk believed you could do anything you wanted, that there were no rules, no limitations.

Ten years after Earthquake Weather, Joe returned with a sharp new band, the Mescaleros, and released two albums in three years - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and Global a Go-Go. These records have a deep, thoughtful quality and reflect his love of music, his vocals once again pulling all the different strands together. The lyrics were as modern as they had ever been. Played live, the songs had all the old power, while his voice actually seemed to have got better with age. There were one or two nods to The Clash, but he stuck to his new material and versions of reggae number such as "Pressure Drop" and "The Harder They Come". I saw him showcase the new material in Brixton and Shepherd's Bush and the venues were packed, a new generation swelling the crowd. The future looked good. Now we will never hear the great music he would undoubtedly have produced.

Joe Strummer stayed honest to the end. In this, he mirrored many of the kids who grew up with his music. For a lot of people who got nothing out of their school days, he was a an educator. I believe he changed the direction of a lot of people's lives for the better. He definitely had a huge effect on mine.

John King is the author of Human Punk (Vintage). His latest novel is White Trash (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 13 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Gambling with our future