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A 'Redemption Song' for The Clash's Frontman

<strong>Chris Salewicz</strong> was a features writer for <em>NME</em> from 1974-1981. He has authored more than a dozen books, including a biography on Bob Marley called <em>Songs of Freedom</em>.
Chris Salewicz was a features writer for NME from 1974-1981. He has authored more than a dozen books, including a biography on Bob Marley called Songs of Freedom.

The Clash was sometimes called "the only band that mattered." They were politically passionate and musically adventurous — mashing reggae, R&B, and rockabilly into classic three-chord punk rock. They were one of the most famous bands to come out of the British punk scene in the late 1970s.

But anarchy and success made uneasy bedfellows for The Clash's leader, Joe Strummer.

Chris Salewicz is the author of Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, a biography on the enigmatic Clash frontman. The book chronicles from the early days of British punk rock to Strummer's tumultuous period after The Clash.

"Everything in Britain in those days was pretty grim and horrible," Saleswicz says, laughing. "There were still bomb sites left over from World War II, everything shut down at 11 o'clock at night, there was huge unemployment, and no one earned anything whatsoever. So it was kind of fertile ground for something new to happen."

From the squatter houses of London emerged an art-school dropout named John Graham Mellor. He would soon be rechristened Joe Strummer.

"As he became Joe Strummer, he discovered a persona into which he could project all his abilities and fantasies of rock 'n' roll mythology," Saleswicz says, "exaggerating aspects of himself, pulling other parts back, adding his own secret ingredient: himself. And that frantically pumping left leg — always a sign that things were about to get about a-rockin'."

Salewicz says success was not easy for Strummer, though he certainly wanted to feel "validated as a human being — that his voice was literally heard."

After The Clash's commercial breakout with London Calling and Sandinista!, Strummer justified buying a large house because it reminded him of the squats in which he used to live.

"He was very confused and very conflicted by his position," Salewicz says.

The band's breakup also caused Strummer great pain. In 1983, he fired both drummer Terry Chimes and songwriter/guitarist and longtime friend Mick Jones. The latter particularly stuck with Strummer, even up to his untimely death.

Strummer died of congenital heart failure — an artery ran around his heart when it should have run through it.

"Joe could have died at any point," Salewicz says.

Thankfully, he lived hard enough to leave a powerful legacy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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