Joe Strummer, lead singer and lyricist for seminal punk band, The Clash, died 20 years ago this December. Strummer, the son of a British senior civil servant and whose real name is John Graham Mellor, wrote songs that did not shy away from politics during the Thatcher era or situations affecting society around the world.
Clash has six studio albums, featuring 16 top-40 hits, including Rock the Casbah and I Fought the Law. After his death, the Guardian mentioned that Strummer was a “political inspiration for a generation” and “the political conscience of punk”.
I spoke to over 100 individuals of different ages and genders from different generations, countries and continents for my book: The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer: Radicalism, resistance and rebellion, I found that his music has a profound impact on the politics of many, leading to some leftist activism. Their number includes many union leaders in Britain today, including Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union, who said): “Firefighters are extremely proud of our links to Joe Strummer and what he stands for in politics and as a musician. “
According to many of those I spoke to, The Clash’s musical lyrics gave them an effective but unconventional initial education about issues in Britain and elsewhere such as unemployment and sub-standard housing. in Britain as well as various political factors around the world. , such as the struggle of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Two Strummer songs stand out among the ones I’ve talked to. The first was the Spanish Bombs from the band’s third album, London Calling (1979), which was mainly about the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939, Strummer sang:
Freedom fighters died on the hill
They sang the red flag
They are wearing black …
The hills sounded “Free the people”
As a song about the struggle of the democratically elected Republican government against Francisco Franco’s fascist military coup, it narrates how socialists, communists, republics and anarchists fought for freedom, liberty and equality. The Spanish Bombs led many who gave me testimonials to read the likes of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
The song also provided a historical example of active resistance to fascism when a hard right nationalism emerged in Britain in the late 1970s. The National Front political party ran an intense anti-immigrant platform in the 1970s, using racist slogans and pamphlets to attract members. This in turn was met with increasingly strong reactions from musicians such as Strummer and the Rock Against Racism movement.
An international perspective
The band’s fourth album, Sandinista !, released in 1980, embraced the goal of the Sandinista rebels against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua and attacked U.S. attempts to weaken the revolution. The Somoza family has led a murderous and repressive dictatorship since the 1930s, which was upheld by the US and collapsed in 1979 as a result of a popular armed rebellion led by the Sandinistas.
Strummer’s song Washington Bullets refers to the anti-democratic effects of American imperialism in central and southern America, from the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the Nicaraguan Sandinists in the 1980s, citing the invading invasion of America’s Bay of Pigs. in Cuba in 1961 and the massacre of the Chileans. Salvador Allende at the hands of Chile’s military dictatorship in 1973. In it, he sang:
As every cell in Chile will say
The cry of the tortured men
Take care of Allende
The song details what happened when the US withdrew its support from the Nicaraguan Somoza regime:
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua
No interference from America
The people fought the leader
And up he flew
If Washington had no bullets, what else could he do?
Strummer explained that despite the repression, resistance is possible – and can be successful. His anger at the song was not only directed against Washington but also against British, Chinese and Russian imperialism. Not only did some of those I spoke to join the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee but some also went to work as volunteers in Nicaragua to support the Sandinista revolution.
Many of those I spoke to told me that before the internet era, they went to public libraries to learn more about these issues. From there, they began to form radical worldviews and began participating in campaigns such as the anti-apartheid movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Many also joined trade unions and leftist political parties such as the Labor Party. And, with their interest aroused, they began to read extensively.
Strummer reaches people through his music. His songs not only made people dance but through their radical messages, they were able to inspire some fans to take action. Whether it was fascism and imperialism or because of environmental degradation (London Calling), anti -racism (Working for the Clampdown) and Thatcherism (This is England) he moved people.
Strummer is rarely explicit about what listeners should do-his songs tend to be more informative and inspiring than instructive. But nevertheless it was always clear to him that activism was positive and necessary for change to take place. The Clash’s first single in 1977, White Riot, encouraged unaffected white youth to fight political corruption and police brutality like their black brethren. In Working for the Clampdown from the band’s 1979 album London Calling, he released this call to arms:
Kick the wall, cause the collapse of governments.
How can you deny it?
Let anger have time, anger can be power.
Did you know you can use it?