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Joe Strummer

Joe Strummer

The first time I heard of the Clash was in high school. I was working on the school newspaper, and one day a fellow named Dave Vogel came in with a copy of London Calling that he was showing off to anybody who was willing to listen. I thought the cover of the album was really cool, and asked him “is it heavy metal?” He said “no, but it’s really great.” I doubted him, but asked if I could borrow it, and I made myself a cassette copy. This low-grade Dolby-suffering cassette tape burned its way into my head, heart and soul, and the Clash soon became my favorite band.

At the time, I was playing in a punk rock band. Most of our songs were amusing, funny ditties with names like “She Eats Razors” and “Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Feel Cheap.” A week after my first listen to London Calling, I penned the first political song of my life, a song called “Salvador Death Squad Blues,” a rocking commentary on the Reagan administration’s egregious practices in Central America. Shortly thereafter, there was a rebellion at the school paper. The conservative teacher didn’t want us writing articles about apartheid, or U.S. support of death squads, or the fact that the dean was a dick. There was a mass exodus from the paper and a very popular underground paper was born called “The Student Pulse.” The Clash pushed me into making political music and taking a political stand as a teenager.

Later that year, I got the chance to see the Clash at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, and was totally blown away. Not only were they the greatest live band of all time, but they also cured my musical inferiority complex. Before this show, I had thought that you had to have a $10,000 Les Paul and a huge wall of Marshall amplifiers in order to make “real” rock and roll music. But Joe Strummer had the same cheap little Music Man amp that I did. It was just sitting on a chair, much like my amp sat on a chair at my high school band’s rehearsals. And yet they were making the most passionate and compelling music I had ever heard. A lot of kids left the hall that night knowing that they could do it too. The Axis of Justice motto, “the future is unwritten” is taken from a t-shirt I purchased that night.

On the early Rage Against the Machine tours, Clash tapes and bootlegs were always the most important part of my on-the-road music collection. They were a tremendous inspiration and consolation on those long, freezing European bus rides. And in listening to those crappy quality bootleg tapes, you could still always hear in Joe Strummer’s voice that he did truly believe that the world could be changed with a three minute song, and that each night, he was up there not playing for ego, self-gratification, money or rock star glory. He was playing with the determination to save the soul of everybody in the room, his included.

The Sex Pistols were the flashpoint that made the world notice punk rock. The Clash, sewed politics into punk and rock and roll irreversibly. And Joe Strummer was the heart, the soul, and the conscience of the Clash.

No one had more of a true punk rock look than Joe Strummer. I always thought he had the greatest no-sell-out teeth in the business. The Clash were great because they realized that it did not in any way impinge their integrity to be a “performing” rock and roll band, and they looked, sounded and dressed the part of the rebel rockers they were.

One thing I always admired about the Clash was their great attention to what it meant to be a band, outside of the music. They would have countless meetings where they would discuss their lives, their opinions, their political views, what they meant to each other, and what it was important for them to say in their songs and how to maintain the highest level of integrity and commitment to continuing to be “the only band that matters.”

Joe was also insistent on choosing singles not based necessarily on their potential hit value, but rather based on their relevance. The Clash wrote and released “The Call Up” as a single in response to the reinstitution of draft registration in the United States. It was a huge issue at the time and with the shadows of Vietnam creeping across Central America, a song like “The Call Up,” with its poetic and brutally true lyrics helped a lot of young people make up their minds about what they would do if a draft actually came.

I’ve always been really pissed at the way that the British press turned its back on the Clash. There seemed to be a real petty jealousy that British publications had towards the Clash after their debut album. Once the rest of the world caught on to their hometown little secret, they stomped their feet like spoiled brats and turned their backs on such amazing albums as London Calling and Sandinista (The London Calling album, by the way, was voted the album of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine).

The Clash always resisted the temptation to reunite for the big money. And their reasons spoke to the greatness of the band and the people in it. It wasn’t out of some elitist pomposity that they dare not reconvene for fear of besmirching their “legend,” but rather because their friend and drummer Topper Headon, a heroin addict, wasn’t healthy enough to do it. And as Joe says near the end of the great Clash documentary “Westway to the World,” a band’s chemistry is everything. Joe gives a tearful speech lamenting the dismissing of first Topper Headon and then Mick Jones. It’s a speech worth listening to, because it truly is a band chemistry that matters. There is a potency to that classic Clash line-up that, had they stayed the course, it is likely that to this day, U2 might still be opening for them.

Throughout my time in Rage Against the Machine, journalists would always ask the question, “what the hell is a band with the politics of Rage doing on Epic Records?” I would often answer with long and flowery sermons about spreading an important message around the globe. But I really could have answered with two words: The Clash. I was energized and politicized and changed by the Clash. And the reason I heard about them was because Dave Vogel bought London Calling at Musicland Records at the local Hawthorne Mall in tiny Libertyville, Illinios. And the reason Dave could get his hands on this album at a nearby mall was because the band was on Epic Records. If in the history of Rage Against the Machine we were able to energize or politicize one person in the same way that the Clash effected me, the decision to sign with Epic Records was not just well worth it, but was crucial.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to play on a Joe Strummer record. He was doing a song for the South Park soundtrack, and Rick Rubin asked me to come down and play guitar, because the guy that they had doing it (who incidentally plays in a very popular rock-rap band) just couldn’t cut it. I had never been more nervous in my life as I drove up in my 1971 muscle car to the studio and was introduced to the great Joe Strummer. Joe did not disappoint. While the song was not the best, he certainly was. It seemed like very little recording got done, but a lot of storytelling over quickly ingested bottles of red wine did. Joe told us the story of how he used to always travel with an enormous flight case filled with all his music. Everywhere he went, he carried every cassette and album he owned, so they would always be at the ready for him to listen to. After a couple of decades of doing this, he had grown very weary of having to show countless customs agents his entire reggae collection. So he had boiled it all down to one scratchy 30-minute cassette of an obscure Mexican band that he played for us. He absolutely loved it, and it was the only tape he brought with him from then on. I sat the re listening and beaming like an idiot.

Joe was fascinated with my muscle car. It’s a 1971 hemi-orange Dodge Demon. It was a bizarre site for me to see my greatest rock and roll hero crawling around the front seat of my car marveling over the original Demon-designed floormats with his unique and unchanged accent.

At the studio, he would disappear for hours at a time into his ancient Cadillac, where he would work on lyrics for the song, and listen to the latest mixes that were coming out of the control room. Rick Rubin and I would sit in the control room waiting as a gofer would shuttle notes back and forth from Joe that would read like “I think there could be more treble” or “I’ve almost got the second verse.” Or sometimes they’d be obscure quotations or ramblings that kept us in stitches as we waited for Joe to come back in the room. I took one of these opportunities when Joe was in his Caddy to pick up and strum for myself his famous Telecaster with the “Ignore Alien Orders” sticker on it. Joe was of course the reason why I play a Telecaster, and holding this amazing, historic guitar that had written and performed my favorite songs through the years was a sublime moment. And don’t think I didn’t bring my camera to preserve that moment. Taped to the guitar was an ancient Clash s! etlist , and I marveled over it and wrote the setlist down to keep for posterity, although Joe couldn’t remember what show it was from.

The last time I saw Joe Strummer was when he and his band The Mescaleros played at the Troubadour a year and a half ago. I was truly impressed. Joe played with all the passion and intensity that he had in the Clash’s heyday. And his new music and lyrics were forward-looking and challenging. He was clearly a vital artist to the end. And when he threw in the Clash gems Bank Robber and London’s Burning, the place went absolutely nuts. I yelled so loud I lost my voice for about a week.

In the song “White Riot,” Joe sang:

“Are you taking over
or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?”

Write those four lines down, put them on your refrigerator, and answer those four questions for yourself every day. I do.

Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time, and my hero. His passing came as such a shock and surprise, and I am deeply saddened by it. I already miss him so much, and I am grateful to have the tremendous legacy of music he left behind. The Clash was one of those bands that even their most remote b-sides are far superior to anything on the radio today. If you haven’t checked out this great band, run don’t walk to all the Clash albums. I am certain that Joe Strummer and the Clash will continue to inspire and agitate well into the future. God bless you, Joe.

18 Responses to “Joe Strummer”

  1. RageandSystemforever says:

    Great article, Tom!
    The Clash ARE the greatest punk band alive! They, in my opinion, are better than Sex Pistols, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and every other punk band you may think of! LONG LIVE THE CLASH! RIP JOE STRUMMER!

  2. Fran Flores says:

    That band change my point of view about punk rock and music in general. The clash is THE BAND.

  3. Mon Cheri says:

    Joe Strummer was absolutely wonderful and he like so many others had so much to offer to the world. Sadly enough, today’s generation is warped by the media so intensely that I doubt that they would find the message in the riteous words once brought to us by great folk like Strummer, Woody Guthrie and Mr. Morello just to name a few. Can we educate the mass majority like we once did? It’s a prayer worth mentioning.
    Much love to Tom and Serj and those that make the effort to take a stand!

  4. Sam Hart says:

    I believe that they are one of those bands, that no matter what generation their lyrics can always be related to. Even we are all long gone The Clash will live on.

  5. Alex Gonzalez says:

    Hello Tom!
    I’m a fucking fan of his band, and a fervent anti-capitalist. My name is Alex.

    I do not know if you know what happens in Chile on the price of tickets for the concert called “Machinery Festival” in which you will be presented.

    Did you know that the producer of the event, we lied about his presence, and the presence of other bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Tool, in the concert to sell more tickets? Using them as a possible first band to appear, put 10 000 tickets in presale, and after having sold all of these locations, confirming them, but for a different date for the concert “Festival Machinery.

    I appeal to your discretion and Anti-capitalist discourse, especially because the cheapest ticket for the festival (U $ 74) have a price equivalent to one quarter of Chile’s minimum monthly wage (U.S. $ 280), while the most expensive tickets are equivalent half a minimum monthly income (U.S. $ 148). And I must say that over 60% of the Chilean population must live with U $ 260 per month.

    The inequality in my country is one of the largest in the world, and many of the people who want to see them, they can not because the money is not enough. Entire families have to live on $ 8 per day!

    In case you do not believe me, here is a link where tickets go on sale for prices and to check

    I hope you have understood the message (my english sucks), and can do something about this pressure against the machine … the producers thieves “Lotus” and “Transistor”.

    Health and Freedom!

  6. Willy says:

    RATM should know that the value of tickets for the concert in Chile are very expensive which does not allow the vast majority of fans can attend. The value of each ticket is like a ticket for Metallica but presumably OR SHALL HAVE NO comparison between these two bands. RATM is against enrich and exploitation of the working class which does not have much money.
    Tom, please do a free concert for the people of Chile, the people who really want to listen to the esteem and live it is not meant as expensive cancel an entry.


  7. Luiz says:

    Hello, My name is Luiz and I’m from Brazil. This weekend you will come to Brazil to perform a concert at the Maeda farm. Hence I thought it was important to let you know that the Maeda group, owners of the farm, are on the ILO list of explorers of slave labor in Brazil.

  8. Michael says:


    First of all thanks for the inspiring music and the attention to social issues. Thanks also for coming to Santiago.

    I just wanted to let you know that there’s a current justice issue in Chile: the treatment of the indigenous Mapuche as “terrorists” (i.e. political prisoners) by the democratically-elected Chilean government. There is currently a hunger strike for the release of several Mapuche leaders. You can Google for “mapuche hunger strike” to find out more if you want.

    I would love to see some attention brought to this issue, but be warned: Chilean police are instructed to arrest anybody who speaks publically about this.

    All the best,

  9. Ricardo says:

    Hi there!

    I’m not sure if the purpose of this communication channel is reaching Rage Against Crew, but there it goes anyway (I’ll try in anothers):

    Mr. Zack de La Rocha offered a song called “People of the Sun” on behalf of the band during the SWU Brazilian festival yesterday night to local movement called MST (Movimento Sem Terra) and I was very pissed off as some of my friends as well!! Brazil loves Rage Against the Machine and it is visible by all Festival videos, however before any singer or band express your support about local movements, they should at least talk with local people or simply research on internet.


    We know about the band activism and all lyrics by heart. Therefore it really hurted my appreciation on the band after watching their appology on a movement so-called criminal in Brazil. If RATM wants to contribute regarding Socialism movements in our country, ask them to make comments on how our politicians are wrongly driving land division or request more organization for movements like MST because this is what SWU Festival is all about: Sustainable World Growth, not Anarchy World Growth.

    Least but not last, I’ll look forward to make this message reaches to RATM members via all the internet communication channels as possible. And my expectation as fan, is that they provide a feedback or read more about this corrupted and criminal movement.



  10. Trece says:

    Bien ahi por los compañeros de R.T.M. al invitar a la gente de Zanon!!!!!!

  11. Matheus Vasconcelos says:

    Matheus from Brazil.

    MST is too violent brother. (as the police, and other.. sure) but violence only generate violence. Because the government is stuped and they are “sleeping”.

    Try to ask for some peace as Bob Marley did, but do not raise your hand in case of a kick in the head.

    This is our fight. To elimiate the corruption and acheive peace at all.

    Obrigado! and great show.

  12. To RATM, Tom Morello, Axis of Justice:

    MST is not a violent organization, the original porpouse is only fight for the right to ocupation of unproductive lands (ownerships are some rich farmer or great company) classifiedy as unproductive. in with the people could live and develop the cultive of agriculture products. It’s a constitutional right, to people, get lands to work on it.

    Historically, the division of lands are inaproprieate or not equality divided. The lands on Brazil, since the begin, are on the same hands. In the hands of big farmers, That get rich with monopoy cultive of some products. In the other side, people get poor, across generations of exploration and inequality ocupation of lands.

    The only problem that happens with the MST is sadly some people become member to MST with the bad intenttion to take advantage of the process of occupation of some farmlands. Some of this Peoples enter on organization trying to get terrenes, lands quickly (easy way).

    In fact, very often, the result of ocupation is confrontation with the police or the particular security of the farmer owner. But i believe that the orign of violent (when it happens) is only self defense by the side of MST.

    When an occupation happens, the newspapers and the news programs they only say that people from MST sack or devastate a farm, that not are unproductive. Or else they say that the people from MST are like vagabonds. In other words, the news are manipulated or influenced by politics or people with influence, prestige or money. Politcs can corrupt everthing in this country, they have money enough, to influence the media to persuate, lie to the other people.

    “Some of those that work forces,
    Are the same that burn crosses”

    Here in Brasil.

    Some of those that have a lot of money, and a lot of lands
    Are the same that influence the media and lies to the people.

    Thank you by the Great Show in 2010/10/09.

    PS #1
    Really sorry, sorry, about my poor english, i’m not fluent. Dont speak english.

    PS #2.
    This website is about my pequena lan house, little internet café Shop.

  13. Errata, Erratum, Corrigendum

    When i said:
    “It’s a constitutional right, to people, get lands to work on it. ”

    The correct is:
    “It’s a constitutional right. People have the right to access to a land, in wich they can work on it. ”

    Sorry, about english. I’m not speak english. Not fluent in english.

  14. Marseille says:

    I agree with all Brazilian friends on the MST.
    That is why access to land stems from the 50s in so-called “peasant leagues”. Let’s say the MST, which emerged in the 70/80 is the “eldest son.”
    There plantation in Brazil? yes
    everything that is produced goes to the outside? yes. for those who do not know we’re the largest soybean producer in the world, but less than 2% stop there.
    the Amazon is being destroyed for soy plantations and cattle.
    you will think: it is easy to criticize when you do not live deprivations of various nature.
    requires a change in land use? yes, but I believe the MST must change their concepts. you know Jose Reina? search on google.
    still love RATM. just think boys should read more about this movement.
    since Tmorello wrote on Twitter about the MST and PT, I’ve never seen so much interest in politics.

  15. Seba Mendez says:

    Increible y muy interesante artículo TOM me ha emocionado. Estoy muy contento de conocer cuales fueron las fuentes de inspiración de uno de mis ídolos musicales junto a SERJ. The Clash is the best. Hasta La Victoria Siempre Hermano.

  16. Seba Mendez says:

    Ssludos desde Argentina

  17. 9. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our whole community will be grateful to you.

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About The Axis

Axis of Justice is a non-profit organization formed by Tom Morello and Serj Tankian. Its purpose is to bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice.

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