A very fine Friday to you wherever you may be and thanks for visiting once again or indeed hello for the first time. This might seemto be a bit of an opinionated post but it’s something I feel strongly about and also I think I have some extensive personal experience of, I’m sure many of you (especially in the UK) do too.
The Atlantic wrote an interesting long piece about Joe Strummer this week entitled ‘Joe Strummer and Punk Self-Reinvention’ which you can read here. If the title sounds more like a thesis than an article don’t worry, it’s a great article so be sure to read it but it did get me thinking.
One of the most often trotted out criticisms of Joe Strummer and therefore The Clash to some extent is Strummer’s background, exploring his Father’s career and his schooling. It has been used regularly for over thirty years to try and discredit Joe’s punk authenticity and ideals, his lyrics and indeed his motivation. Frankly I’ve never bought into that and I never will. The article is highly recommended but does pull once more on the ‘background of Joe’ issue but in a semi-cautious way. I don’t fully understand the music press and public focusing on authenticity being based on where you came from rather than what you currently do, it wasn’t just unique to punk but for reasons of ‘class’ that was when it became so pronounced it would seem. The fact that (overall) The Kinks came from more fortunate surrounds than The Who was never really up for debate in 1968 was it? I don’t know as I wasn’t there – but I do wonder about that. John Lydon for example did grow up in a very poor household, there’s no debate of that, but did that make him infinitely more genuine than Strummer, Weller or Joey Ramone for example?
Growing up in the UK you’re aware from a fairly early age that the class system is an active force in society whether you like it or not. I grew up 30 miles outside of London in a small (read as pleasant) village, whereas my cousin of the same vintage was raised in a fairly rough part of North London. We grew up to develop very different accents but not incredibly different lifestyles, interests or opinions as youngsters but as we grew older that all changed. His accent and education resulted in an inner London accent whilst mine was home counties and we were both judged by our respective dialects. By our late teens he was off sailing and going to air shows at the weekends and I was going to punk gigs, standing at football matches or going on protest marches. I was politically active and of the left and he became less so and further to the right. Our environments would have suggested the opposite was far more likely to be the case. The authenticity of both of us was to the best of my knowledge equally solid.
So back to Joe Strummer. The article looks at whether Strummer was a standard product of private education and arrives at the answer of not quite, although it afforded him an accent (back to that again) that it seems it wasn’t an endorsed official punk delivery. Let’s consider that though, as a youngster Joe lived in a number of foreign countries before going to public school just before his teen years. After his education he lived in central London, Newport South Wales, north London again and then within the west London squatting scene. Like many teens and people in their twenties who change environments often you take on a chameleon approach to adapt or survive. I left home shortly after turning sixteen and many of my new friends were Northern (by coincidence only) and their slang and even vocal mannerisms certainly impacted me for a few years.
Strummer is often seen as being ‘of the left’ which is far too simplistic. The London and England that he wrote about during the first three years of The Clash was under a Labour government, a country in some serious decline and levels of unrest which at least co-created much of the boredom, alienation and frustration that Strummer and the band sang and spoke of, that the UK was in decline wasn’t debatable if you had any grip on reality.
Living in squats and having no money or limited job prospects wasn’t a labour/tory issue, it was an urban living issue and due to a society that left thousands of homes sitting empty whilst waiting for investment that never came whilst there was a housing shortage at the same time. Much like today. Unemployment too was higher in inner London and other large cities than elsewhere, another factor that changed little with elections. The fact of the matter was the lack of jobs and the North/South divide would really escalate into the 1980′s and the arrival of Thatcher at a time when Strummer was writing about topics much larger than the Westway and Notting Hill Riots. Thatcher had the unique ability of making unemployment a major issue no matter where you lived. Meanwhile by then the band had digested issues further afield through recording and touring overseas and this showed in the later lyrics and interviews. Sadly by the time Joe’s focus returned to issues in the UK the original band was long gone after Topper and Mick were dismissed.
I can’t relate to being Joe’s age in 1976 as I wasn’t but I think the writing was on the wall if you lived in London. The supposed magic of the sixties was long gone and his generation were less than optimistic. That makes me consider the whole concept of Joe’s ‘privileged’ roots. If he was so well positioned why was he unable to secure a good job? A janitor and grave digger (or graveside dead flower remover as he explained it due to not having the physical stature to dig all day) are hardly the fruits of a silver spoon in the mouth are they? Choice of course plays into it and surely that comes down to what you want to experience at that age. As the article says Strummer obviously reached a point in his mid/late teens when suburban life and his parents held no appeal and he (like so many others) heads out with an active intent to disown family and establishing himself on his own terms, come what may.
While many will point to Bernie Rhodes as the catalyst that helped the band find their footing and direction (he was) he’s also considered the one who gave Joe his punk persona (he wasn’t). I can’t really agree with that second aspect as Joe had been rebelling and steering away from the easier path for years by that point and even arrived at the decision to become a musician at a very late age compared with most. Talk about taking on a challenge with long odds.
What can’t be denied is that so much of what The Clash accomplished was through hard work and lots of it. Complacency was never an option and few things make you work harder than having no cash without that work, as it was the band never operated in the black financially until very late on – in great part due to the determination of the band to provide value for money to their audience. Ticket prices had to be lower than the competition, records had to be cheaper and even if a tour wasn’t playing in the largest arenas having the best (loudest) PA was more important than excessive meal money. So many of those decisions flow right back to Strummer that you have to separate his youth from the decisions of his adulthood.
Ultimately I’m the last person to bestow sainthood on Joe or anyone else when it comes right down to it. Everyone has their own unique set of faults of course, but at the same time I will never subscribe to his authenticity somehow being impossible because his Daddy wasn’t actually a bankrobber. Neither was mine or probably yours.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this below if you have time.