Penthouse Retrospective

by Chaunce Hayden Originally Published: June, 2000

Joe Strummer | 20 Years Ago This Month

I don’t wanna hear about what the rich are doing. I don’t wanna go to where the rich are going. They think they’re so clever, they think they’re so right. But the truth is only known by gutter-snipes.

We All Clash Sometimes

Penthouse Magazine - June, 2000He’s 47 years young, but these days Clash founding member Joe Strummer (born John Graham Mellor) seems more than ever like the angry British punk rocker who slobbered out those driving lyrics to “Garbageland” in 1976. During the early eighties, Strummer was being praised as a rock-‘n’-roll god who was going to grab his growling legion of manic followers by their Mohawks and start a musical revolution the likes of which the world has never seen. But after demolishing disco and nuking new wave, Strummer walked away from the music industry at the height of his fame to try his hand at acting (he received rave reviews for his role as an Elvis fan in Mystery Train) and other un-Clash projects including parenting, marathon running, producing, composing and performing with his favorite Irish band, The Pogues.

Amen and alleluia! Clash disciples, rejoice! Strummer has decided it’s time to once again take to the stage and confront the world the only way he knows how … through his intense, thought-provoking lyrics and guitar-bashing chords.

It’s not always easy being a living legend. The urge to sit back and recall the glory days is incredibly tempting. As front man of The Clash —  the most diverse, influential, and enduring band to some out of the British punk-rock explosion —  Strummer cemented his place in rock history with such hits as “London Calling,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” just to name a few. But our most revered punk has refused to let the past become his future.

Rejuvenated by his new band, the Mescaleros, and his critically acclaimed album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Strummer is back on the road, teaching today’s kids what punk rock is really about.

“We’re sick of all the bullshit. Give us some truth. That’s the energy of punk rock But don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard way to live.”

But while things may look bright for Strummer these days, during the past 15 years his life has been anything but smooth. He fell off the face of the earth after the Clash broke up in the mid-eighties, despite the fact that at the time Rolling Stone magazine called it the greatest rock band in the world. After a few brief and unsuccessful attempts at touring with a makeshift band also called the Clash, Strummer engaged in an ugly legal battle with his record company. Soon the once cocky rabble-rouser lost his self-confidence, and throughout most of the nineties hid out with his family in the London countryside.

The year 2000 is looking much more promising. This past January the Clash catalog (save the band’s final studio effort, 1985’s Cut the Crap) was reissued by Legacy, including both the American and British versions of the band’s self-titled debut and a singles’ collection that was previously available only in England, while 1999 saw the release of two tribute albums, featuring such current stars as No Doubt, Rancid, Third Eye Blind, 311, and Moby. There could soon be a new and much younger legion of fans of the now-forty something quartet from London.

During the early eighties you were on top of the rock-‘n’-roll mountain. Then you vanished. Where did you go?

Well, I had a couple of problems. I had one major problem, which was, how do I get out of a contract? You see, we sold those Clash albums at a really low price, and we didn’t get royalties on them. Like Sandinista!, which was a triple album for the price of one. The record company doesn’t do that unless you kick in on your end. Are you with me?

I think so.

I knew I couldn’t afford to fight in court. I had the same contract as George Michael. So I watched him fight the record company. And the court found against him and it cost him $5 million. So I realized I had to think up another tragedy, which was basically to wait until my value was so low that the company wouldn’t blink an eye to throw me out of there.

So you’re telling me you had to destroy your career to get it back?

Yeah. But I am the one to blame. We signed a ten-album deal — you shouldn’t do that. Hey, even a three-year-old can tell you that’s not a good idea. So the fact that I had to take ten years out of my life in order to make good on that mistake, I consider a really good bargain.

These past 15 years must have been a very frustrating time for you.

Not really, because in just a few years the Clash put in 16 sides of long-playing vinyl. That’s a lot. After a spree like that, you just want to kick back and go, “Okay, let’s chill out for a minute and observe.”

The name Joe Strummer may not immediately jump to mind if someone mentions it these days, but almost everyone remember The Clash in their lives.