“This is a public service announcement – with guitars!” Left knee energetically pumping, black Fender Telecaster in hand, Joe Strummer called audiences worldwide to attention. This was “Combat Rock.”
This year marks four decades since the celebrated UK punk band The Clash formed in 1976. Despite the passage of time, their mutinous snarls, rebellious spirit, and global vision still resonate today, acting as an atomic alarm clock alerting sleepers everywhere to wake up and get to work. Touted as “the only band that matters,” they sought to change the world through a musical insurrection. In some ways, they succeeded.
“Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human being.” Joe Strummer
For many, stumbling upon The Clash was transformational. Their songs spoke bluntly against fascism, racism, and brutality; they critiqued capitalist corruption. They left listeners feeling: no, we don’t have to submissively take this abuse, the future is still to be written, and we can somehow be part of it.
Joe Strummer, The Clash’s front man, was born John Graham Mellor in 1952. He lived in various countries as a child, thanks to his father’s career as a British foreign service diplomat. As a young man, after art school, he worked as a janitor, gravedigger, ukulele-strumming busker in the London Underground, and a member of a rockabilly band, where his unique playing style earned him the name “Strummer.”
The tumultuous social, political, and economic climate of 1970s England unbolted the door for a punk eruption. Punk made audible the inexpressible; with only a few chords and a lot of volume it transformed widespread dissatisfaction into sound. Formed in the midst of this movement, The Clash recorded and toured almost unceasingly. Their albums London Calling and Combat Rock embody some of their best work.
Though the band members eventually parted ways, in the years that followed Joe Strummer held fast to his ideals, no matter how out of step with the times they seemed.
I’d like to say that people can change anything they want to; and that means everything in the world. Show me any country and there’ll be people in it. And it’s the people that make the country. People have got to stop pretending they’re not on the world. People are running about following their little tracks. I am one of them. But we’ve all gotta just stop following our own little mouse trail. People are out there doing bad things to each other.… Greed … it ain’t going anywhere! They should have that on a big billboard across Times Square. Think on that. Without people, you’re nothing.
In a world where walls and differences are emphasized and even encouraged, his message of unification remains as relevant as ever. In his own words, “Punk ain’t the boots or the hair dye. It must be the attitude that you have, that [you] approach everything in life with that attitude.… In fact, punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human being.”