Strummer of discontent

Die-hard Clash fan George Binette is intrigued by a critical assessment of Joe Strummer’s political views and enduring influence

Thursday, 7th July — By George Binette

Joe Strummer 1980 JOHN COFFEY

Joe Strummer in 1980. Photo: John Coffey

VOICE of a generation,” “the political voice of punk,” lead vocalist, principal lyricist and spokesperson for “the only band that mattered”: the hyperbole of rock music journalists and music industry marketers imposed a heavy mantle on Joe Strummer. But nearly two decades on from his untimely death in December 2002 Strummer continues to inspire both adoration and controversy.

And among those still inspired is a Scottish academic, who has authored a sober analysis of Strummer’s shifting political outlook and the influence he’s exercised on fans’ views and activism.

Gregor Gall, currently a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Glasgow, is part of a vanishing breed of serious students of trade unions and workplace conflict between capital and labour. A prolific writer he has previously penned biographies of the late RMT general secretary Bob Crow and the tainted ex-leader of the Scottish Socialist Party Tommy Sheridan. His newly published work on Strummer seems both a labour of love and a kind of exorcism of an obsession dating some 40 years and his purchase of The Clash’s undisputed masterwork, London Calling.

In his preface the author writes: “My burgeoning interest in left-wing politics came largely from Strummer’s influence.”

Earlier on the same page, Gall writes “rather than define myself as a ‘socialist’, I said a ‘Clashist’” in response to a friend’s question. So, this is the work of a genuinely driven middle-aged man on a quest, however quixotic, for an understanding of the frontperson at the centre of a band, which has contributed profoundly to his own world view.

Gall pursues his mission with an academic rigour and some potential readers may well find his extended discussions of research methodology off-putting. He even develops a detailed typology of dozens of bands and solo artists from the late 1970s onwards in relation to “left-wing political sentiments”. Nonetheless, one can only be impressed by Gall’s deep dive for evidence into bootlegged tapes, hundreds of pieces from newspapers and the now largely defunct music press as well as interviews from the BBC archives, National Public Radio in the US and even Radio New Zealand.

The picture that emerges is, none too surprisingly, complex and contradictory as the author doesn’t hesitate to challenge myths in which his younger self might well have invested faith.

Gall is frequently harsh, albeit with some justification, in assessing the icon of his youth, not least when it comes to Strummer’s apparent lack of activism.

In an unusually impassioned passage, the author decries Strummer’s failure to visit miners’ picket lines during the Great Strike of 1984-85 “unlike Paul Heaton (The Housemartins), Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat), The Redskins, [Paul] Weller and [Billy] Bragg” before noting that The Clash played two benefit gigs at the Brixton Academy in early December 1984.

He describes the concerts under the banner of “Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party” as “far too little and far too late to undo the record of inactivity” against the backdrop of the most significant class battle of the post-Second World War period.

On the other hand, Gall does credit Strummer with overruling The Clash’s supposed Svengali and then manager, Bernie Rhodes, in spring 1978, so ensuring that the band played the famed Anti-Nazi League (ANL) carnival at Victoria Park. This event undoubtedly cemented The Clash’s reputation as firm allies of the anti-fascist struggle even if the band’s members were never active ANL supporters.

Inevitably, this book raises profound questions about the role and obligations of the politically conscious artist in an age of endlessly commodified “mechanical reproduction” as well as the relationship between popular music and social/political movements to which there aren’t really definitive answers. A distinctive feature of Gall’s work is his effort to conduct “a form of ethnographic social science research” among Clash/Strummer fans, which elicited 120 responses, largely from white men in Britain and North America. The testimony of these fans leads him to conclude: “Preaching to the converted served a role in culturally sustaining the converted as well as gathering new members of the congregation.”

Count me among those “culturally sustained”: I met Strummer on a couple of occasions in the 1980s and was lucky enough to be part of the audience at what proved to be his final appearance on a London stage, a benefit for striking members of the Fire Brigades Union, five weeks before his death.

My first encounter came in Meanwhile Gardens, W10, late in the summer of 1983 at a GLC-backed CND festival where he voiced enthusiasm for the GLC under Livingstone and seemed to think that the Labour Party would move leftwards. Even now snatches of his lyrics run through my mind on marches or picket lines.

My enduring image, though, is of a man balancing a spliff and a can of Red Stripe while almost teetering under the weight of leftist papers and pamphlets he had amassed while walking around. With hindsight this image seemed a metaphor for the man struggling under the weight imposed by fans’ expectations.

The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. By Gregor Gall, Manchester University Press, £16.99
Former Camden Unison branch secretary George Binette co-authored The Last Night London Burned, an account of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ final London gig, a benefit for the FBU

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