A Sound Clash: Revising Joe/Remembering Strummer

By Mark Bedford

clash.jpgThe Clash

A series of Vertigo sponsored events taking place in London this November will mark the fifth anniversary of Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s final show in the capital – a politically motivated benefit for striking London Fire fighters at Acton Town Hall. Under the rubric ‘Arms Aloft in Acton Town’ live music, cinema and theatre will be brought together to celebrate the lasting legacy of Strummer’s 25 year contribution to international popular culture and the symbolic significance that ‘Acton’ adds to that legacy.

Since his death in December 2002 (aged 50) there has been a ceaseless torrent of Joe Strummer retrospectives in the form of myriad articles, books and films that, as Daily Telegraph music writer Andrew Perry observed earlier this year, have cumulatively precipitated Joe Strummer’s “gradual elevation to near sainthood”. Perry puts the release of Julien Temple’s feature-length documentary-biopic The Future is Unwritten, (in May this year) as the moment of Strummer’s “curious … posthumous canonisation”. However, while there has been a rash of hagiographical opportunist cash-ins such as the superficial compilation-film Viva Joe Strummer (in which narrator Robert Elms solemnly laments Joe’s passing aged 51!) most of the works have been revisionist reappraisals which, in spite of being heartfelt, have also been critical attempts to present a fuller picture of the cultural forces and personal tensions that forged John Mellor, the man behind the Strummer mask.

While Temple’s film provides a compelling (if compressed) account of Joe Strummer’s half century, equally important for the historical record is just how inspiring Strummer continued to be in the twilight of his life. In July 2002, two Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members, Linda Smith and Ghada Rizuki, happened to have blagged tickets for the Fleadh at Finsbury Park where the Mescaleros were on the bill. Neither were particularly big Strummer fans, but both were intensely moved by Joe’s songs and by what he had to say in between them.

Strummer reminded the audience how quickly the 58 Chinese workers who had died in a sealed container as a result of their bid to make better lives for themselves and their families (in June 2000) had been forgotten. At this moment the FBU were balloting for national strike action to put pressure on local and national government to improve fire service pay and the two women resolved that, were the London Fire Brigade to ‘go out the door’ they would try to get in contact with Strummer to ask for his support. Three months later, in early October, the union’s 86% mandate for strike action came up against a government planning to go to war in Iraq but also itching for a fight at home.

With national strike dates in place, an appeal for Joe to play a post-strike benefit was made via his band’s website. The moment Ghada found out that Strummer had answered the call in the affirmative is enthusiastically recounted in the grass-roots documentary, The Last Night London Burned. Shot in medium close-up in front of a backdrop of Stop-the-War banners Ghada beams, “I was travelling from home to work on the 149 bus – I’ll never forget this, it was a rainy day – and the phone call came through and Rob Morgan [from the Strummer website] said, ‘Joe said he’d do it’, and I just screamed – absolutely screamed. I think everybody on the bus thought I was bonkers.”

On 15th November 2002, the day after a 48-hour national fire service strike, Joe Strummer played what turned out to be his final London show at Acton Town Hall. Luckily, this event was recorded for posterity, allowing two brilliant shorts to be made by filmmaking collectives that included fire fighters among their number. However, the night might have gone undocumented. Simon Greene, a fire fighter for over twenty years and one of the visual artists responsible for the event’s agitprop wall projections, was told by an authoritative individual from Strummer’s management that under no circumstances was the benefit to be filmed.

With most of the press interest around the town hall centred on whether or not Andy Gilchrist (the union’s then combative general secretary) would be attending, it seems that some of Strummer’s people decided it might be expedient not to be too closely linked to the union. Consequently, Simon’s Raya Collective had to conduct their filming covertly. Meanwhile London fire fighter Alan Miles, who co-directed The Last Night London Burned, was filming the Acton event as part of a wider brief to document the dispute (conducting post-strike interviews with FBU members in various parts of the venue) but quickly found his camera trained on the Mescaleros once they hit the stage.

mick-jones.jpgMick Jones

Strummer’s band opened their Acton set with Shaktar Donetsk, a brooding fiddle-driven slice of Eastern European vaudeville that conjures up a Manichean world of people traffickers and their ‘illegal’ immigrant clients. It is fitting that the song and sentiments which had struck such a chord with Linda and Ghada at the Fleadh should have provided a gravitas-laden overture for the FBU benefit. As the tempo of the show upped, the filmmakers’ cameras moved closer and by the time Strummer was joined on stage for the encore by his former Clash band mate Mick Jones (for the first time in almost twenty years) the camera people were all but in the thick of the moshing! This raw material formed the basis for two of the films being screened on Sunday 18th November at London’s Curzon Soho (Alan Miles’ and Gregg McDonald’s Last Night’ and Raya’s ‘art installation’ Four Songs From Acton).

Although the Curzon’s website advertises the films as providing a coda to The Future is Unwritten this actually undersells them. Writing in The Guardian in July, erstwhile ‘punk’ film director (and some-time Strummer collaborator) Alex Cox asked, “what would a punk cinema look like, if one still existed?” While not wishing to delimit the possibilities for a more contemporary punk aesthetic, both of these early twenty-first century films look very much like a punk cinema, as does Alan Miles’ current documentary Jail Guitar Doors, about Billy Bragg’s campaign to put guitars into the hands of people doing time at her majesty’s pleasure (and also being screened) which serves to demonstrate just how alive and well Strummer’s legacy is.

There is a great moment in The Future is Unwritten from a 1981 interview on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show where Strummer playfully remarks that “too many songs have been written about love already, the subject’s covered.” He should be remembered as one of the late twentieth century’s great humanist critical-realists, but this humanism is laid on too thickly in the ‘without people you’re nothing’ monologue near the end of Temple’s film. It is precisely the appropriation-potential of these kinds of button-pushing charismatic statements that have allowed rightwing politicians like Boris Johnson and Mathew Parrish cynically to venerate Strummer as a symbol of individual freedom.

While the lyrics are ultimately where Strummer’s most rewarding ruminations are to be found, my heart swells with pride whenever I watch him leaning into Alan Miles’ camera on that night to say, “we’re with you, it’s time someone in government will start realising that you’ve got to pay people decent money for doing essential things, and I hope the nurses and teachers and everyone like that comes with you – let’s get sensible and have a proper society.”

This address (which was broadcast on national television the day after Strummer’s death on the 23rd December 2002) completely undermines the weak claim made by music journalist Pat Gilbert in Mojo in June 2006 that, because Joe was “no trenchant socialist he himself wasn’t entirely sure about the FBU’s decision to strike…” Similarly, Julien Temple’s wildly unqualified statement in an interview with Uncut’s Steven Dalton that Strummer “…thought the [Iraq] war was a good thing” shouldn’t go unchallenged. Which war is Temple talking about? If it’s the one that didn’t start till after Joe had died then I’m with Mark Steel when he speculates (during his interview in The Last Night) about how much Strummer would have “loved the [two million strong] anti-war march” that took place just weeks after his death.

Of course, in the end we can all argue about who John/Joe was and what he stood for. Two things remain incontestable however. His lyrics will continue to enlighten and inspire many subsequent generations of radical thinkers; and ‘Acton’ will always attest to a political commitment that went beyond words.

For details of screenings and the theatre event on Sunday November 18th visit www.myspace.com/armsaloftinactontown

Mark Bedford writes and teaches in London. He was formerly a fire-fighter.