5 Ways Joe Strummer changed the world

Gregor Gall 5 August 2022

In a new book about The Clash's forthright frontman, Gregor Gall gets to the heart of Joe Strummer's anti-capitalist politics and radical songwriting

Joe Strummer was the legendary leader of the seminal punk band, The Clash.

After The Clash, he continued to write and record with The Latino Rockabilly War and The Mescaleros. He died on 22 December 2002 from an undetected congenital heart problem.

His lyrics for The Clash exposed the inequality in society

Strummer’s lyrics were often characterised by "social realism". This is an artistic approach of describing, reflecting or representing the economic, social and political conditions of exploited and oppressed groups under capitalism.

But this social realism also involves understanding how these conditions are generated so that it critiques the power, ideology and material interests of the exploiters and oppressors.

In other words, Strummer identified both symptoms and causes. His social realism was most evident in his writing about life in London in the late 1970s on the Clash’s eponymously titled first album of 1977.

Strummer encouraged fans to become activists

Strummer emerged from the squatting community in west London in the early 1970s with the band The 101ers. His first gigs—prior to The Clash—were for Chileans exiled in London by the military coup of General Pinochet.

While not an activist himself, he did challenge his followers to do something about the world that he critiqued in his lyrics. In The Clash's "White Riot", he asked them "Are you taking over? Or are you taking orders?".

"His first gigs were for Chileans exiled in London by the military coup of General Pinochet"

Meanwhile, in "Working for the Clampdown" (1979), he issued this call to arms: "Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall. How can you refuse it? Let fury have the hour, anger can be power. Do you know that you can use it?" 

Many took up the call, becoming union, political party and community activists.

He kept critiquing capitalist society to his dying days with The Mescaleros

Strummer started off a staunch anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist.

He then became a socialist in the 1980s, before becoming somewhat disillusioned by the radical left and Tony Blair’s "new" Labour.

He later became a humanist and environmentalist.

"His empathy for the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers was plain to see"

In his last three albums—all with The Mescaleroshis empathy for the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum seeks was plain to see, as was his advocacy for multiculturalism and racial and ethnic tolerance.

To this, he added green politics, raging against the corporate destruction of the environment. In "Johnny Appleseed" (2001), he wrote: "If you're after getting the honey, hey then you don't go killing all the bees… there ain't no berries on the trees."

He inspired thousands to learn about power structures in society

Two Strummer songs stand out in particular here. One is "Spanish Bombs" (1979), which was primarily about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939: "The freedom fighters died upon the hill. They sang the red flag. They wore the black one… The hillsides ring with ‘Free the people’." 

This helped educate many about the democratically elected Republican government’s struggle against Francisco Franco’s fascist military coup, recounting how socialists, communists, republicans and anarchists fought together for freedom, liberty and equality.

"Spanish Bombs" led many who I spoke to to read literature like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

"'Washington Bullets' is about the anti-democratic effects of American imperialism in Central and South America"

The other is "Washington Bullets" about the anti-democratic effects of American imperialism in Central and South America, from the 1959 Cuban Revolution to Pinochet’s 1973 military coup in Chile and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas' overthrowing of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

In it, Strummer sings: "As every cell in Chile will tell. The cries of the tortured men. Remember Allende… When they had a revolution in Nicaragua. There was no interference from America. The people fought the leader. And up he flew. Without any Washington bullets, what else could he do?"

In an age before the internet, many sought out information in their local libraries about these seismic world events.

He showed how music can be used for progressive political purposes

Strummer's lasting legacy is that music is still used to oppose right-wing ideologies and political parties and to promote an agenda of social justice and equality.

He understood that music was the key medium that interested and attracted the youth, so it was critical to speak to them through it.

As he grew older, he sought to move in tandem with his ageing audience and deployed different styles of music to accompany his lyrics.

But he continued to advance the legacy of The Clash by imploring followers to question authority, think for oneself and look out for the oppressed and exploited.

Though no musicians have subsequently scaled the heights of radical political influence that Strummer did, many have tried, realising the need to do so.   

Gregor Gall is a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds. He is editor of the Scottish Left Review magazine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and a regular contributor to various newspapers and magazine. His book, The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, is out now.

Banner photo credit: John Joe Coffey via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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