Joe Strummer in 1980. Photo: John Coffey
VOICE of a generation”, “the political voice of punk”, lead vocalist, lead lyricist and spokesperson for the “one band that mattered”: the hyperbole of rock music journalists and music industry marketers imposed a heavy coat on Joe Strummer. But nearly two decades after his untimely death in December 2002, Strummer continues to inspire both adoration and controversy.
And among those still inspired is a Scottish scholar, who has penned a sober analysis of Strummer’s changing political outlook and the influence he wields on fan opinions and activism.
Gregor Gall, currently visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Glasgow, is one of a dying breed of serious students of 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 beleaguered ex-Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan. His recently published work on Strummer seems both a labor of love and a sort of exorcism of an obsession dating back some 40 years and his purchase of The Clash’s undisputed masterpiece, London calling.
In his preface, the author writes: “My budding interest in left-wing politics came largely from the influence of Strummer.
Earlier on the same page, Gall wrote “rather than defining myself as a ‘socialist’, I said a ‘Clashist'” in response to a friend’s question. It is therefore the work of a genuinely motivated middle-aged man on a quest, however chimerical, to understand the leader at the center of a group, who has made a profound contribution to his own worldview.
Gall pursues his mission with academic rigor, and some potential readers may well find his lengthy discussions of research methodology off-putting. He even develops a detailed typology of dozens of bands and solo artists since the late 1970s in relation to “left-wing political sentiments.” Nonetheless, one cannot help but be impressed by Gall’s deep dive for evidence in pirated tapes, hundreds of newspaper articles and the now largely defunct music press as well as interviews from the archives of the BBC, National Public Radio in the United States and even Radio New Zealand.
The picture that emerges is, unsurprisingly, complex and contradictory as the author does not hesitate to shake up the myths in which his young person could have believed.
Gall is often harsh, albeit with some justification, in assessing the icon of his youth, particularly regarding Strummer’s apparent lack of activism.
In an exceptionally impassioned passage, the author denounces the fact that Strummer did not visit the miners’ picket lines during the great strike of 1984-1985 “unlike Paul Heaton (The Housemartins), Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat) , The Redskins, [Paul] Weller and [Billy] Bragg” before noting that The Clash played two benefit concerts at the Brixton Academy in early December 1984.
He describes concerts under the banner of “Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party” as “far too few and far too late to break the inactivity record” in the context of the most important class battle of the post-World War II era.
On the other hand, Gall credits Strummer for having canceled supposed Svengali and then The Clash’s manager Bernie Rhodes in the spring of 1978, thus ensuring that the band played the famous Anti-Nazi League (ANL) carnival. ) in Victoria Park. This event undoubtedly cemented The Clash’s reputation as strong allies in the anti-fascist struggle, even though the band members were never active supporters of the LNA.
Inevitably, this book raises profound questions about the role and obligations of the politically aware artist in an age of ever-commodified “mechanical reproduction” as well as the relationship between popular music and the social/political movements to which it does not refer. there are no truly 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, mostly from white men in Britain and North America. . The testimony of these fans leads him to conclude, “Preaching to converts has played a role in culturally supporting converts as well as bringing in new members of the congregation.”
Count me among the “culturally supported”: I met Strummer a few times in the 1980s and was lucky enough to be in the audience for what turned out to be his last appearance on a London stage, a benefit for striking members of the Fire Brigades Union, five weeks before his death.
My first encounter was at Between Gardens, W10, in late summer 1983 at a GLC-backed CND festival where he expressed his enthusiasm for the GLC under Livingstone and seemed to think Labor would go towards the left. Even now, snippets of his words cross my mind on marches or picket lines.
My enduring image, however, is of a man balancing a joint and a can of Red Stripe as he almost teeters under the weight of the left-wing newspapers and pamphlets he’s amassed while walking. In hindsight, this image seemed like a metaphor for the man struggling with the weight imposed by fan expectations.
• The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer. By Gregor Gall, Manchester University Press, £16.99
• Former Camden Unison branch secretary George Binette co-wrote The Last Night London Burnedan account of Joe Strummer and the last concert of the Mescaleros in London, a benefit for the FBU