That old punk authenticity debate

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.

joe strummer bw phone That old punk authenticity debate

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.

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9 Responses to “That old punk authenticity debate”

  1. Kari says:

    I have never understood where the obsession with discrediting Joe comes from -- claiming he’s a rich-boy poseur, an artificial conceit of Bernie Rhodes’ -- does all this render The Clash and their message (anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-creative) irrelevant, despite the legion of fans who would say otherwise? Of course not.

    Take Bob Dylan, the great master of self reinvention. Dylan grew up comfortably middle class in northern Minnesota, and -- unlike Joe -- he immediately enrolled at a well-regarded university. (He dropped out after his first year.) Sometime after, Robert Zimmerman renamed himself Bob Dylan. “Dylan” is a tribute to his hero Dylan Thomas, and he started going by Bob because it had more of an everyman feel to it than the formal Robert. Sound familiar? A similar impulse transformed Johnny Mellor into Woody, and finally Woody into Joe Strummer. Dylan once said, “You’re born to, you know, the wrong names, the wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You can call yourself what you want to call yourself.” John Mellor/Joe Strummer was a complex amalgamation of all his experiences and his choices. The fact that we even talk about “Joe Strummer” rather than “John Graham Mellor” demonstrates that Joe is much more the person he created and evolved into on his own terms rather than the person he might have been, had he stuck to the narrow course prescribed by his upbringing.

    In their lyrics, Dylan and Strummer both inhabited a diverse array of characters different from their own backgrounds. How is Joe singing “daddy was a bankrobber” and “one more time in the ghetto” any different from Dylan singing about Hattie Carroll, the black maid? It’s not a question of “authenticity,” a concept I’m coming to find increasingly irritating and irrelevant. Dylan and Strummer embody a kind of radical, politicized empathy, a determination to tell the stories that weren’t being told. It certainly isn’t posing, or slumming, or simply rejecting an unfashionably bougie background.

    Joe worked hard, with tremendous force and dedication. He walked the walk and he talked the talk. You tell me what the legacy is.

  2. Jenny Lens says:

    Tim, you are an insightful, thoughtful, wise writer. I’ve dealt with so many writers and academics about the topic of early punk. They re-write my captions, ignore or distort whatever I write or say, then crop and stretch my pix. Ppl have NO respect for Joe’s words, my photos and the list goes on. They weren’t there, so they are jealous and figure, let’s rewrite history. I am not making this up. I’ve discussed with writers, movie directors, art directors, academics, etc.

    Here’s my take: much better to write something to stir up controversy, to appear brilliant for a POV that questions someone others hold in high esteem. How much better to re-invent someone’s life than accurately report about that person, to give even more honor for Joe’s integrity and creativity. I don’t even give ppl like this writer the benefit of the doubt. I’ve run into too many egos to realize a pattern.

    ANYONE who understands art and life, knows that each day we begin again. Where we were born, how we were raised has LITTLE to do with how we live our lives. Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, that family, environment and WHEN we were born do play parts. You could never find two ppl more different than my brother and I. People are surprised to hear I have a brother. We have nothing to do with one another. Total opposites on many levels.

    WHY do people get their panties in a wad cos Joe’s father wasn’t a bankrobber? John Wayne was not a cowboy. So what, you know what I’m saying?

    As you rightly said, Joe experienced enough of real life to see more than merely posturing as a rich kid playing poor.

    You don’t have to have been there or met him to know this. One great thing about art: all you have to do is listen to it and know if it’s authentic or not. His knowledge of world history, politics, being bored w/my birth country, tragic movie star, all that clearly means we are listening to a genius.

    I always say I loved the Clash live more than any other band I ever saw or photographed. The ENERGY was electrifying. I can vividly see them, while I was onstage or shooting the whole band from the balcony (my fave place to shoot them) either in California or England.

    I don’t care what ppl say about Bernie or read into Joe’s life. YOU HAD TO BE THERE. He was real onstage. You cannot fake it! Same with Joe, Paul and Topper. The most amazing band. Partially because of what they were saying!

    I loved their lyrics and topics. The music was incredible and varied. Their shows … unforgettable.

    For those not there, you have the vids and music. What more do we need? Not some hack writer. I don’t care if it’s some hoity-toity Atlantic. Now the Ramones and Clash are written about, honored and dissected. I dunno about the Clash. I get hit up by all kind of sources for Ramones pix, and just had 3 Clash pix in Q. I only say this cos that’s the only way I know wassup. I don’t live in the past or bother reading all this crap.

    I only have to listen to the music. Look at my pix. And remember. YOU know all you need to now. YOU and others have helped keep their music and legacy alive. I’ll pay more heed to what you have to say than some writer looking to get a name in the news.

    Even Joe’s struggles with the band, Bernie and himself is authentic. He didn’t live a life of monied leisure or advantage. Bollocks to all those who re-write MY history and Joe’s history and YOUR history as a knowledgable fan.

    My gratitude for all you and the others who contribute here. Long live rock and the Clash and the very authentic Joe Strummer.

  3. Jenny Lens says:

    Oh bollocks, no paragraph returns? Hmm … how do you do it? HTML? Will try it.

    Sorry, cos harder to read.

  4. Paul says:

    I’m just in the process of re-reading Marcus Gray’s “Route 19 Revisited -- The Clash and the making of ‘London Calling’”. In it he makes the point that Paul is the only one of the four who could stake a reasonable claim to being working class -- and then only if you overlook the year he spent in Italy, [em]but[/em] that Joe was the only one well enough known, from the London pub-rock circuit, not to be able completely to conceal his middle-class roots.

    I think there’s something in that, but there’s also the fact that, as lead singer/lyricist, the spotlight would shine more harshly on Joe and his background than on the other members of the Clash.

    But as to the Authenticity Question itself, the issue of Joe’s background and his authenticity is a particular instance of a general desire for authenticity in popular music as a whole, e.g., What Does It Mean to Be “Authentic”?
    Searching for Authenticity in the reaction to Whitney Houston’s death, Lana Del Rey, and Rick Ross
    .

    I’d make two points, the first obvious and rhetorical, perhaps, but worth making just the same. Karl Marx came from a pretty privileged background; but I’ve rarely heard a communist hold that against him.

    My second point is more academic. which is that ‘class’ as we use it in these kinds of discussions as a shorthand for ‘socio-economic class’, but that is a term employed by the census, one which has [em]no[/em] analytical value whatsoever. It is a hopelessly confused concept.

    ‘Socio-economic class’ derives from a kind of bastardised Weberianism. Max Weber argued against Marx that there were many classes in society, not just the two. It is that argument that is used to justify the notion of ‘socio-economic class’ (the UK census defines 8 such classes). But Weber himself argued, in agreement with Marx, that ‘class’ could only be defined with reference to position in the economy. Both Weber & Marx would agree that if you sell your skills in return for a wage, you’re working class, whether your wage is $20,000, $200,000 or $2,000,000 p/a.

    Now you might say that no-one earning $200,000 p/a is could possibly be working class. Chances are they don’t live in social housing and, even if they didn’t benefit from a private education, their children almost certainly will.

    But that argument revolves around [em]lifestyle[/em], which is an attribute of social status, not social class.

    For Weber, economic classes are created if you and your classmates can monopolise the sale of a good or service. Social status groups attempt by contrast to monopolise the granting of recognition and respect. Status “dwells in the house of honor”.

    Status symbols demarcate one status group from another -- which is why you seldom see goths sporting pastels.

    The idea is of a Cartesian social space, in which your position in society can be expressed as a set of ([em]x,y[/em]) co-ordinates with your position in the economy ranged along the one axis, and your status group membership(s) along the other. Although it derives from Weber, Weber never used the term ‘socio-economic class’ and neither should we.

    Class, properly defined, is something objective and external. To use so-called socio-economic class to question Joe’s authenticity is to rely on an illicit conflation of lifestyle choice with position in the economy; a conflation that implies that an authentic lifestyle is similarly objectively determined: external and unescapable.

    If it has any validity at all, the relevance of Joe’s background to his authenticity revolves around his (social) status alone. And there’s where the irony kicks in. Those who question his ‘authenticity’ use his membership of one status group (defined by his childhood education), to deny him membership of another (the group of the ‘authentic’, as defined by them). It’s not about Joe, in other words, it’s about them.

    They try to deny this, however, by hiding behind the confusion inherent in the notion of socio-economic class; implying that his exclusion from the ranks of the authentic is nothing to with their decision to withold him honor, recognition and respect, but the consequence of an objective reality. Not merely nonsense, but “nonsense on stilts.”

  5. Paul says:

    Oh bollox -- should have used html too! instead of [] :(

  6. JennL says:

    The debate about Joe Strummer’s punk authenticity is ridiculous. First, I don’t think that we can hold his attendance at a private school or the fact that his parents were middle class against him. He really had no choice in the matter, the way most of us have no real say in the lives we are forced to lead under the guidance of our parents as children. From all accounts, he and his brother did not seem incredibly happy at private school or aspire to become anything that would carry on a middle class legacy in their own lives once they left school. In fact, the experience did nothing but seem to make them disinterested in anything of the sort. The rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll was the one thing that I have always read that seemed to drive the young John Mellor in his school years as opposed to anything the private school tried to impart on him.
    In addition, I think it is very unfair to say that, because Strummer did not grow up in poor, squalid conditions like contemporary John Lydon, he could not authentically be considered punk. That is like saying that a white person cannot possibly be passionate about fighting for civil rights for minority groups because they have not personally known the struggle. We have the ability to make observations and judgments about the worked around us and live our lives in a way that supports certain ideas and passions. There were plenty of white people who took part in the March on Washington in 1963 and I would not consider their passion for the movement any less authentic than their African-American counterparts. The fact is that Joe’s lyrics came from his observations about the world around him and he had a definite point of view that he felt needed to be expressed. Furthermore, once he left school, his existence was not of a cushy young adult attending university. It is well known he lived in abandoned squats and lived without benefit of middle-class money.
    Finally, I think to say that Joe was not an authentic punk is to trivialize exactly what it means to be punk. Being a punk is more than an outfit you wear or a term with which you choose to identify yourself. It is a spirit that embodies your way of life. Punk is truth and being comfortable with living your truth even if it flies in the face of the establishment. It’s doing for yourself and surviving and being whoever you are despite the fact that it is not popular or fits into the collective popular aesthetic. Punk is not being concerned with money or keeping up with the rest of what society deems as acceptable. To me, Joe did that with every lyric he wrote and the life he lived. While he was not a perfect man, he never lost that punk ethos. He was a man who was never concerned about money. During Joe’s lifetime, he never really made any significant money even though he was part of one of the greatest bands in music history. The greatest, in my mind. At one point, a bank turned him down for a mortgage to buy a modest home. He never was a rock star sell out. It might do good for those who have any doubts to revisit the songs he wrote and really give them a listen. All I hear is authentic punk.

  7. Tony says:

    Good and well reasoned article Tim.
    When discussing the Clash over the past 30 years if I had a £ for everytime that someone brought up the subject of Joe’s background and used the words phoney, fraud, public school or hypocrite I would be able to book a good holiday! As others have said what’s more important is not where you come from but where you’re at.

  8. Wyatt Scott says:

    Tim,
    I couldn’t have said anything better myself. You are a thinking man’s Yob as I am and Joe was. Any real Clash fan worth a fuck knows you speak truth. Keep on writing the truth my good man and let the fools spew their falsehoods and blah blah de blah. It just makes the legend of Strummer that much more strong and important to those of us that get it.

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