Yesterday, August 21, we celebrated the birthday of a legend. More than just a rock star. A poet, a prophet, the voice of the people. The leader of the Only Band That Mattered – the almighty Clash. Why am I talking about Joe here? Because he, and his band – Mick Jones, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon as well – were able to provide a searing, authentic voice for progressive values during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with an unparalleled emotional resonance, and to music that was an incredible synthesis of the best of punk, funk, reggae, soul, rockabilly, and even elements of the early hiphop scene in NYC.
There had been political artists, and political musicians before Joe – and certainly more after him. From Bob Dylan to Sam Cooke to James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, the MC5, Hendrix, Fela, Pete Seeger and so many more….artists had been making political music for many years. But the Clash – they struck a chord with English youth, and ultimately youth worldwide, as a voice for the disaffected, disconnected and angry during the Thatcher administration in the UK. While some elements of the punk and skinhead scenes began to turn away from the “Spirit of ’69,” (that positive, cross-racial working-class alliance between Britons of different backgrounds set to a soundtrack of reggae, ska, soul, and proto-punk) and towards the far right, the Clash held free concerts to fight fascism and racism, and continued to fill their songs with lyrics attacking police violence, imperialism around the world, and poverty, and discussing the plight of milltown workers where factories closed, immigrants lost in a new land, and all sorts of societies rebels, outcasts, and revolutionaries, as well as the ennui and isolation of suburban English teens in a society with which they did not identify.
Most notably, the Clash touched on all of these issues in a way that never felt academic, or inauthentic. The lyrics were poetic, yet often simple – from the gut. Maybe that’s why so many people identified with their music. And the music….well it rocked like nothing else, and had a sense of groove and an inherent “funkiness” unlike pretty much any other punk band. While they started out as a punk band, they essentially became much more than that – while songs like “Police on My Back” are unquestionably punk in its purest form, songs like “Armagideon Time” and “Guns of Brixton” were straight-up reggae, and in a way that didn’t feel like appropriation or some sort of costume. “Train in Vain” paid tribute to old American rock, and “Know Your Rights” was a wild punk/rockabilly anthem for social justice.
Joe Strummer’s celebration of the rights of the people, and his eloquent attacks on totalitarianism, imperialism, inequality, and violence are as relevant as ever these days. In celebrating his birthday yesterday, in the shadow of Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s death in New York City, and in a society fraught with palpable inequality – with regard to race, income/economic class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and more – we need a voice like Joe Strummer’s more than ever. I’m heartened to see artists these days speaking up – several hiphop artists (i.e. Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, and others, in their remarks to the media post-Ferguson) come to mind. But more than anything, I just miss Joe.
Joe Strummer would have been 62. Sadly, he left this place back in 2002, leaving this world a little bit better than when he entered it. During the course of his brief life, he demonstrated the old proverb that every revolutionary act is an act of love. Joe loved the people, and celebrated them. He inspired them. And we, the people, still love Joe back.
Happy Birthday, man.