- 25 Jan 19
On the 42nd anniversary of the seminal British punk band signing their record deal, we're revisiting our 1999 interview with frontman Joe Strummer.
By the beginning of 1977, The Clash had fast become a media obsession – despite having never headlined a gig. On January 25, they were signed to CBS Records for a remarkable £100,000. The anti-establishment band fought off claims that they had ‘sold out’ by signing the deal, and released their classic self-titled debut album less than three months later.
To mark the 42nd anniversary of The Clash’s signing with CBS, we’re revisiting Stuart Clark’s classic 1999 interview with lead singer Joe Strummer on board the Larne-Stranraer ferry, following his gig at the Belfast Limelight with the Mescaleros. Strummer passed away in his sleep in 2002.
Voyage Of The Damned.
Or should that be The Clash? Well no, actually, cos there's no Clash, Damned or Pistols in 1999. But there's still Joe Strummer, who was there when Shane got his ear bitten off and, 22 years later, is back for his own second bite with The Mescaleros.
No disrespect to the Scottish port, but of all the Godforsaken places in the world to mistakenly end up in, the worst has to be Stranfuckingraer. Especially when it's 4.45 in the morning and you've just double-somersaulted down the steps of Joe Strummer's tour bus in the rat-arsed position.
The brief had been simple enough. Collar the former Clash man after his gig at the Belfast Limelight, and find out what's with this Mescaleros malarkey. We'd originally been due to meet the previous night when Strummer, obviously on a course of monkey glands, had treated the Olympia to the most athletic display of rock 'n' roll showmanship since Steven Tyler was last in town. The crowd responded by refusing to go home, even though the house lights had gone on, and the bouncers' famously sunny disposition was in danger of clouding over. The whooping and hollering continued for 15 minutes until Joe, now showered and changed into civvies, emerged from behind the security curtain and announced that if we promised to bugger off afterwards, he'd do 'London Calling'. The deal brokered, it was 1979 all over again as 1,300 pairs of feet pogoed in perfect unison.
It would've been the perfect time for a natter, except that Charles Shaar Murray from The Sunday Telegraph had got in there before me.
"You've got to look after the quality broadsheets", Strummer cackles 24 hours later.
What, even if the bloke writing for them gave The Clash their first slagging?
"Shit, I'd forgotten that. After seeing us play somewhere, the cunt said that we should go back to our garage and gas ourselves, which was the inspiration for 'Garageland'. Y'know, back in the garage with my bullshit detector/carbon monoxide making sure it's effective. The next time I run into him we're going to have words."
That'll teach him to nick our interview slot. The upside to us being gazumped is that I've been given another opportunity to see the man who changed my life. To understand how The Clash made the impact on late '70s rock that they did, you have to realise that prior to them and the Pistols erupting onto the scene, we'd been subjected to such indignities as Whispering Bob Harris and triple Emerson, Lake & Palmer concept albums. When you've lived through those sort of horrors, you don't easily forget the people who rescued you from them.
Not that everyone in the Limelight tonight's a geriatric. Tucked in close to the stage are David Holmes and Ash's Rick McMurray who both look like five-year-olds on Christmas morning.
"He's still the fucking man, isn't he?" gushes Holmes, who's been talking to Strummer vis-a-viz some sort of collaboration. God, can you imagine the wondrous things Holmer could do to 'Police And Thieves'?
It's precisely because the gig's so jam-packed that The Mescaleros fail to hit the same nosebleed high that they did in Dublin. With the only ventilation provided by a single wild west saloon fan, Joe is soon asking for the back door to be opened. When he's told that's impossible because of the neighbours, he snaps.
"They'll complain even more when we smash the place up, and there are 36 ambulances outside."
He's suffering so badly from the heat that half-way through he leads the band off for a break, and on returning, changes the middle-eight of 'Bankrobber' to "Going to get all my friends in Belfast town/Bring 'em to the Limelight and burn the fucker down!" The roar from the front-rows is in direct proportion to the look of horror on the manager's face.
"I wasn't able to say it at the time cos, y'know, we'd have been banned from everywhere, but I loved it when Clash gigs ended up in a riot," Strummer confides over an apres-show pint of red wine. "I'd see what was going on in the crowd and think, Fuck, I'd much rather be down there smashing up chairs."
Seeing as it's been eight years since he was last sighted in public with The Pogues, perhaps he'd like to tell us what he's been up to.
"I decided to watch and learn from household flies," he grins. "I began to draw the patterns they make when they criss-cross and circle the room, and eventually I realised it's a language. Y'know, the fly's not just randomly flying around the room like we think it is, but making statements that in its own tiny corner of the world are very deep and profound.
"I have three girls - two from my first marriage who are 15 and 13, and a step-daughter, aged seven, who needed their tiny corner of the world to include a dad. Once you're enthralled to your ego in a relentless pursuit of world domination, and shoving your boring personality down the throats of as many of the globe's inhabitants as possible, you don't have time for anyone else. In my book, that's not living or being a human."
He was a bit browned off, then.
"My five years with The Clash were just too intense," he explains. "After releasing 16 sides of long-playing vinyl in that time, I'd had my say. Imagine it was a party and I'd been talking for five days and five nights straight. At the end of that anybody would go, 'Wooo, I need a breather'. When you're young and your group takes off, you don't really have any life experience. I'd had a bit more than the others 'cos, y'know, I'd worked as a gravedigger and a toilet-cleaner, but there were times when I forgot what the world outside rock 'n' roll was like."
Did he end up hating the business he was in?
"Not really, but when we supported The Who in America in '82, I remember looking at them and thinking, 'God, any day now this is going to be us.' I was also worried that no matter how hard I tried not to, I was going to become a phoney. How can you impart things to other human beings when you're not one yourself? There was a point around the time of Combat Rock that if we'd been prepared to become just another conveyor-belt rock band, we could've been huge. On one hand there was our dignity, and on the other, Aerosmith."
Apart from the disastrous last Clash album, Cut The Crap, and a truly appalling Mohican, there's not much in Joe Strummer's past that he needs to feel guilty about. Although other members of the Hot Press journalistic elite would disagree with me, I'm glad he passed up on becoming a permanent member of The Pogues. Great band and all that, but the thought of Strummer singing 'Sally MacLennane' every night when he's so obviously a London boy, makes me feel a bit queasy.
"Bejaysus begorragh, are you accusing me of not really being Oirish," he says, affecting the worst Irish accent in the world . . . ever! "The only reason that I ended up playing with The Pogues is that I'm a soft touch. Phil Chevron, who's a better rhythm guitarist than I'll ever be, fell ill before they were due to go to the States and they asked me would I fill in. The Clash had just exploded, so I thought Fuck it, why not?
"I did my bit depping for him, and then later on when Shane got sick, I received my second S.O.S. The thing with The Pogues is that they couldn't afford to cancel a tour. They had 17 people with wives, mortgages and expensive sexual fetishes to maintain. So when Jem said to me in Los Angeles, 'Er, would you dep for Shane on this world tour, thanks', what could I do other than learn the fucking lyrics? I know you're dubious about this, but anyone can get into 'Dirty Old Town' and 'The Broad Majestic Shannon' cos they're such great songs.
"Then it came to recording Hell's Ditch and every producer in London town turned them down because they were frightened. Five days before they were meant to start working on it in Rockfield, Frank Murray rang up and said, 'Look, all these bastards have given us the bum's rush. The studio's booked, will you save our arses and do it?' I tell you, we had a ball! It was the middle of the summer, so we had the doors open and half the gear set up on the grass. Most of it was done live, with even fucking Spider getting his act together. I defy any proto-folk punk band to better it!"
Joe has fond memories of the first time he met Shane MacGowan, nee O'Hooligan.
"It was when he got his ear bitten off by Mad Jane Modette at the ICA," he reminisces. "We were dead pissed off cos all you could see in the photos other than Shane's ear and a bit of splodge was our knees and our guitars. Luckily we had our paint-splattered trousers on so we looked quite good, but it was MacGowan, the fucker, hogging the limelight.
"Though we'd never been introduced, I knew him from the scene. At the time of the ICA gig, there can't have been more than 50 punks in London. When I got into it, which was relatively late, there was only the Pistols, the Bromley Contingent, Jordan and Adam Ant, and the gay crowd from Madame Jo Jo's."
Small or not, it was the best freak show in town and one that Strummer, atrophying on the pub circuit, happily hooked up with.
"The 101'ers were going absolutely nowhere, but it wasn't until punk came along in all its embryonic glory that I saw there was an escape route," he reflects. "Shane, as is his wont, turned up early for the party and formed the very wonderful Nipple Erectors. The last time I saw him was, what, a month ago after we'd blown the roof off some joint in New York. I didn't really get to talk to him in the post-gig scramble, but he looked okay-ish."
Joe Strummer's first visit to Belfast was in 1978 when the City Council, God bless 'em, forced the eleventh hour cancellation of The Clash s Ulster Hall gig. The riot that resulted from the RUC's heavy-handed treatment of the punks outside remains a part of local rock 'n' roll folklore, and lead to them being given the benefit of the doubt when they posed for pictures in front of the Long Kesh cages. People were altogether less forgiving when a couple of months later their hero took to wearing an H-Block t-shirt. Forget the cause, there was huge resentment over The Troubles being co-opted into The Clash's guerrilla chic. This is our everyday reality, the reasoning went, not the latest Vivienne Westwood creation.
"Hey man, look it!" Strummer protests. "If I go to Spain, I'm going to stand in front of an El Greco hamburger stand. If I go to Belfast, I m going to stand in front of one of those cages, cos to me it's all about showing people what's going on. You think everybody in the world knows what's going on in Belfast? No they don't.
"We didn't construct that cage on the corner or have it flown in. We just fucking walked up to it and stood there. This is reality, let's have it out. No way, in 1978, would that picture have appeared on the front of The Daily Telegraph. Y'know, 'We can t be showing that to the people of Tiddlesborough or Braintree, Essex'. I had no trouble with that at all. If we were in Sardinia now I'd get out and stand in front of the Sardinian Office of Sardines, or whatever."
The word in Derry is that The Clash subsequently wouldn't play there because they'd received Loyalist death threats.
"C'mon, we're poseurs anyway," says Strummer, neatly side-stepping the question. "We're rock 'n' rollers. We get on stage. Don't think that we're shrinking violets or intellectuals. We're all hair gel missionaries."
Now you know where those situationist slogans like 'Sten Guns In Knightsbridge' came from! Later, when a good deal more booze and spliff has been consumed, Joe admits that the picture and t-shirt furor "taught me a lot about shutting up, really. If you don't know all the details, shut up. This is a conflict that's been going on for over 700 years, and we've only been alive for a microscopic amount of that time. The one thing I would like to say in relation to Northern Ireland, is that whatever we did there was always well-intentioned. I know I'm contradicting myself all over the shop, but I never saw our actions as being exploitative."
The last couple of sentences are said so carefully, and so precisely, that you're left in no doubt as to Strummer's sincerity. And growing inebriation. We're doing a spectacular demolition job on the backstage rider when Gary the tour manager - a man who I shall later curse - informs us that they' re going to make a dash for the 2.30 Seacat. Our tete-a-tete not being over, I'm invited to hitch a ride with them to the ferry terminal where we'll then say our goodbyes. Foolproof, but sadly not Clarkproof.
One of the best things about having a past is that you don't have to travel in dodgy Transits, the seven-figure advance Mercury Records have reportedly given them ensuring that the journey back to London is in a comfy double-decker. Before we're out of the car-park, Joe's slapped on one of the tapes of Cumbia music that John Mayall's son, Jason, brought him home as a pressie from Colombia.
"I've become really evangelical about it," he enthuses. "There's a track on The Mescaleros album that we're about to release, 'Sandpaper Blues', which is me and Richard Norris' attempt to bring a Cumbia beat into the world of rock 'n' roll. Bez is another person I've converted, so don't be surprised if the Happy Mondays make their next record in Bogota. Actually, the Mondays and all that $5 a gram coke is a frightening thought."
What's so special about now, that after 10 years of turning down megabuck offers, he's decided to re-enter the fray?
"The honest answer? I've run out of money. I still live off my songwriting, but you can't cut your cloth according to your means 'cos you don't know what your means are. There's a Clash live album coming out in October which'll probably mean I receive a big cheque in 2001, but I've no idea what I m due this year.
"The other reason I'm back doing this again is that I'm fed up paying 14.99 for CDs that get spun a couple of times, and then begin to work their way into the back-room. I want to make a record that's worth having."
Does it stick in his craw that here he is, sweating on Postie delivering the next royalty cheque, while the likes of Rancid and The Offspring make millions out of recycling The Clash?
"No, I don't think that way," he insists. "The only thing that pisses me off about young bands is that they seem to spend more time sniping and bitching about each other than they do writing groovy tunes. I don't care whether it s trip hop, Britpop or up your arse pop, we want records that are worth the money. Not that Pet Sounds even is worth 14.99. I've asked countless industry people, 'How comes CDs are a fiver cheaper in America?', and none of 'em can tell me. It s a fucking rip-off."
Hmmm, that's put the kibosh on his BRITS Lifetime Achievement Award. Although very much looking to the future, Strummer is happy to acknowledge the past with 'Straight To Hell', 'Brand New Cadillac', 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais', 'London Calling', 'Bankrobber', 'Tommy Gun' and 'I Fought The Law' all included in the Mescaleros live set. More importantly, of the eight new songs unveiled in Dublin and Belfast, at least half have the same Latino Rockabilly groove that made the latter-day Clash so irresistible. There's also a nod towards youf culture in the mightily-monikered shape of 'Techno D-Day On Omaha Beach'.
"There's no use standing around Tedding it, if you re going to check something out, you do it properly, which is why I found myself down Plink Plonk one night grooving to the crazy turntable machinations of Mr. C.
"Did I pop an E? American visas pending and all that, let's just say that I participated fully in the night's festivities. What I like about rave is the whole rebel nature of it, and the fact that it was made illegal in the Statute Book of Great Britain. Margaret Thatcher, the old cow, might not be in Number 10 anymore, but fascism's still alive and well and living in Tony Blair's head."
Fronting The Pesky Meskys has also given him the chance to make some new chums.
"We did Mount Fuji in Japan, Glasgow T In The Park, and some other joint with The Fun Lovin' Criminals, who are a great bunch of guys. The only thing I don't like about Huey is that he's better looking than me. I m not worried about supermodels 'cos I'm married, but if I was single and trying to pull one, I know he'd beat me to it.
"Another class act are Catatonia. We went through central Germany with them and Cerys, the sweetheart, sang me 'Happy Birthday' sitting on the floor of a portakabin. I'm not being glib when I say that we ve got another Janis Joplin in our midst."
Either my legs have gone very wobbly - possible, given the Jamaican aroma that's permeating the bus - or Gary the tour manager's neglected to tell me that we're now a mile-and-a-half off the Antrim coast with Stranraer getting ever closer. Despite my liberal use of the phrase "You cunts!", The Mescaleros seem to think that this 'kidnapping a journalist lark' is great craic, and burst into an unwelcome chorus of 'Sailing'.
It may turn out to be another 14 hours until I make it home to my bed, but on the plus side it means that I can make Joe Strummer feel guilty, and buy me Vodka & Cokes all the way over to Scotland. First, though, he makes a detour to the duty-free and comes back clutching a tape of Caledonian folk songs.
"What do you reckon this one sounds like?," he ponders.
Several hundred people head for the lifeboats as Joe and yours truly offer our interpretation of 'Bonnie Wee Town Of Kilmarnock'. From there it's seamlessly into a question about how concerned he is that audiences get the new material?
"I don't wait for no reaction. I just get up there and do my thing. Even if they all turned round, dropped their trousers, bent over and farted, I'd still carry on with the song. We re not there to shag around. We're there to try and say something intelligent and communicate with the people who are in the room. If there weren't no people in the world, I'd still play my songs to a rock or a tree."
Is he having as much fun in 1999 as he was in 1979?
"More. Because when you're young you dissipate your energy too much," comes the immediate reply. "As a veteran, who kind of understands the patterns of the world, I can almost predict what's going to happen next. I've been to Bologna. I've been to Kitchenou, Ontario. I've seen everything that it's possible to see go down, and survived it. Which is all a very rambling way of saying that nowadays I reserve my energy for the good stuff, and do my best to ignore the crap."
Would he be quite so keen to get up on stage if he had a Bobby Charlton comb-over and no teeth?
"If my hair was going, I'd get a techno crop a la Mr C or Gianlucca Vialli, and if my teeth fall out, I'll get some more stuck in. The youth need people like me - and you, 'cos you're an old-timer too - to help with their musical education. In the same way that I was introduced to Sonny Curtis by an older person, we have a duty to inform kids who Wreckless Eric is."
As you'll doubtless know if you've been reading your Hot Press news pages, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon have just finished compiling The Clash's first official live album, From Here To Eternity. Culled from such disparate sources as the Lewisham Odeon and Shea Stadium, it's guaranteed to not only storm in to the top 10, but have record companies offering them telephone numbers to reform.
"Never in a hundred million fucking years," Strummer snarls in response to the R-word. "You heard the crowd tonight shouting for 'Cheat' and 'Police & Thieves'. It'd be the easiest thing in the world for me to put The Clash back together again, but like shagging an old girlfriend, I'd regret it the moment we went on stage. Don't get me wrong, I love Paul, Mick and Topper, but we had our moment in time together."
Making up for his earlier oversight - bastard! - Gary the tour manager informs us that we're just about to dock in Stranraer, and if I'd care to collect my gear from the bus he'll arrange for me to get the ferry back. The state I'm in I'd much rather collapse into one of the bunks, but I can't imagine Stokesy being too impressed if I ring up in eight hours time from Newport Pagnell Service Station.
All thoughts of kip abandoned, I'm just giving Strummer a 'you're my best pal in the whole world' hug when the seemingly solid bit of tour bus I've been leaning against turns out to be a door. I've never particularly been known for my gymnastic prowess, but I'm telling you, the way I spiral down those stairs and land on my arse is pure Olga Korbut. I even get an admiring glance from the bloke in the artic who has to swerve to avoid driving over my head. Maybe it's this near death experience which suddenly makes me go all profound. Is Joe Strummer proud of what The Clash achieved?
"Yeah," he says after a thoughtful pause. "As proud as a gnarly old lion. I tell you, what I'm going to have on my gravestone: 'Here, not of his own volition, lies Joe Strummer. He could've lived his life differently, but he couldn't have lived it better. Apart from doing the Fat Les single, that is."
Listen to The Clash's first single, 'White Riot', below:
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