Biography of Joe Strummer, The Clash's Lead Singer and Guitarist

Joe Strummer
Larry Hulst / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Joe Strummer (born John Graham Mellor; August 21, 1952—December 22, 2002) was a guitar player and vocalist in the legendary punk rock band The Clash. After leaving the group, he pursued a solo career as well as stints with his band the Mescaleros and live performances with the Pogues.

Early Life

Joe Strummer's father, Ronald Mellor, was a British foreign service diplomat. Consequently, Strummer was born in Ankara, Turkey. He grew up in a family that moved often, and he spent time living in Cairo, Mexico City, and Bonn—among other cities. When Strummer was nine years old, his parents enrolled him in the City of London Freemen's School, a boarding school. He only saw his parents once a year for the next seven years.

Strummer grew up listening to American rock and roll performers like Little Richard and the Beach Boys as well as folk singer Woody Guthrie. In 1970, his older brother David committed suicide after joining the far-right, fascist National Front. It was a defining event in Joe Strummer's young life.

After graduating from the City of London Freemen's School, Strummer enrolled in London's Central School of Art and Design. For a time, he considered becoming a professional cartoonist. From 1973 to 1976, he took odd jobs as a gravedigger and street performer while also playing and singing with bands.

In 1975, he adopted the stage name Joe Strummer while serving as lead singer for the rockabilly group the 101ers. He also wrote the song "Keys to Your Heart" while dating Palmolive, the drummer for the punk girl group the Slits. The 101ers chose the song as their first single.

The Clash

On April 3, 1976, a practically unknown group called the Sex Pistols opened for the 101ers at a gig in London. Joe Strummer was inspired by what he saw. Not long after the show, Mick Jones approached Strummer and asked him to join a new band as lead singer. The new band, with founding members Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes, Keith Levene, and Joe Strummer, took the name The Clash. The performed live for the first time opening for the Sex Pistols on July 4, 1976.

By the end of 1976, punk rock was a new sensation in the music industry and major label CBS Records signed The Clash to a contract in January 1977. Music critics lauded the band's first three albums, and 1979's London Calling, the group's third, is ranked by many observers as one of the top rock albums of all time.

The next release, 1980's sprawling triple album Sandinista!, received mixed reviews. Around the same time, Joe Strummer's behavior became erratic. He was arrested for hitting a member of the audience with his guitar in May 1980, and he disappeared in the period leading up to the release of the group's next album Combat Rock in 1982. The album became the group's biggest commercial success in the U.S. and included the top 10 pop hit "Rock the Casbah," but many fans and critics accused the band of selling out.

Arguments began tearing The Clash apart, and in September 1983, Joe Strummer fired Mick Jones from the band. The group released one more album, the critically reviled Cut the Crap, in 1985 before Joe Strummer shut The Clash down.

Solo Work

Strummer described the last half of the 1980s as his "wilderness years." During that time, he worked on multiple movie soundtrack projects. He contributed two songs to the soundtrack for Sid and Nancy, a 1986 film about the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. He wrote all of the tracks, most of them instrumental, for the soundtrack to the 1987 film Walker.

Strummer also tried acting. He appeared as a character named "Faucet" in Walker, and in 1989 he played a drifter named "Johnny" in Mystery Train. In 1989, Joe Strummer also released Earthquake Weather, the only album billed as an official solo album released during his lifetime. It was recorded with the backing band The Latino Rockabilly War. Critics appreciated the work, but it failed commercially.

The Mescaleros

In the late 1990s, Strummer began putting together a backing band made up of multiple veteran musicians. They dubbed themselves the Mescaleros. The group released the album Rock Art and the X-Ray Style in 1999 under the name Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. The supporting live tour included several classic Clash songs.

Global a Go-Go, the second album from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, appeared in 2001. In November 2002, the band performed a live benefit show for striking firefighters in London. Mick Jones was in the audience and joined them onstage to perform The Clash's song "Bankrobber." During the show's encore, Mick Jones played on The Clash songs "White Riot" and "London's Burning." The group's third and final album Streetcore was released after Strummer's death in 2003.

Private Life and Death

In 1975, Joe Strummer married South African citizen Pamela Moolman so she could obtain British citizenship. He bought a Fender Telecaster guitar with the money she paid for the favor. In 1978, he began a relationship with Gaby Salter that lasted for fourteen years. However, they never married because Strummer couldn't locate Pamela Moolman for a divorce. He had two daughters, Jazz and Lola, with Salter.

In 1993, Joe Strummer began an affair with Lucinda Tait. It ended the relationship with Gaby Salter, and he married Tait in 1995. They remained together until he died suddenly as a victim of a congenital heart defect on December 22, 2002.

Legacy

In 2003, the year after his death, Joe Strummer earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Clash. He is seen as having played a crucial role in the founding and development of arguably the best band to come out of the late 1970s punk revolution.

Following his death, the music industry found out that Joe Strummer created an extensive archive of his own work containing over 20,000 items. Twelve previously unreleased songs from the archive were included in the career retrospective Joe Strummer 001 released in 2018.

Joe Strummer Fast Facts

  • Full Name: John Graham Mellor
  • Stage Name: Joe Strummer
  • Known For: Frontman (lead vocalist and guitarist) for pioneering punk band The Clash
  • Born: August 21, 1952 in Ankara, Turkey
  • Died: December 22, 2002 in Broomfield, Somerset, England
  • Education: Central School of Art and Design
  • Top AlbumsThe Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling
  • Famous Quote: "I don't want to look back. I want to keep going forward. I still have something to say to people."

Sources

  • D'Ambrosio, Antonino. Let Fury Have the Hour: Joe Strummer, Punk, and the Movement that Shook the World. Nation Books, 2004.
  • Salewicz, Chris. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.