The future is unwritten: Joe Strummer

Twelve years ago today, the legendary frontman of The Clash, Joe Strummer, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart defect at his home in Somerset, sat on the sofa after taking his dogs for a walk, aged 50. He was always the one for me.

The first time I heard White Man in Hammersmith Palais when I was 16, it totally resonated with me, and the moment and the tune has stuck in the turntable in my head for the next 36 years. His voice wasn’t just angry, it was vulnerable and hurt. When he died, I didn’t play Joe’s music for a while afterwards because it meant having to confront the fact that he was dead. It’s amazing the influence music and musicians have on you.

Joe Strummer was born on August 21, 1952 in Ankara, Turkey, named John Graham Mellor, the son of a British diplomat. He grew up in several countries before settling in London, attending London’s Central School Of Art and immersing himself in films, music, and literature. Rock music became his consuming passion, and he changed his name in the mid ‘70s to reflect his new lifestyle. In 1976, his 101’ers band propelled him into the punk rock scene, and later that year he co-founded The Clash.

The Clash’s song writing collaboration between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is often compared to the chemistry between legendary duos such as Lennon and McCartney, and Jagger and Richards. The pair wrote songs about political and social injustice, cultural apathy, repression, and militarism. As front man, writer and motivational force behind The Clash, Strummer and his band became one of the most influential, expansive and enduring groups in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s.

In January 1977, The Clash signed with CBS Records and recorded their self-titled first album. Rolling Stone magazine called their first record the ‘definitive punk album.’ Three years later, the Clash’s London Calling album was voted Best Album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Also released in 1980 was the band’s fourth studio album, the epic triple album Sandinista!. In support of the album, The Clash went on a tour that included a historic 17 consecutive date stint at Bond’s International venue, in Time’s Square, NYC.

After the 1982 album Combat Rock, friction and feuding increased within the group and in 1983, Strummer fired band mate Mick Jones. For Strummer the band, and the 10-record deal with CBS became a prison sentence. Relationships with the record company were strained, which led to promotion problems and poor sales. After six albums, The Clash broke up in 1986.

After the split, Strummer went on to write and contribute to film soundtracks, most notably for the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank which starred long-time fan, John Cusack. Having worked on a number of soundtracks, he released his first solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989. During the 1990s, Strummer formed The Mescaleros. They signed with Mercury Records and released an album called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style.

In 2001, the group signed with Hellcat Records, a punk label from California, and released the band’s second album, Global A Go-Go. The band toured and garnered a devoted following of both old and new fans. His final album Streetcore was released posthumously. The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

After his death, his family and friends created the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music. Besides influencing countless rock and punk bands that followed The Clash, another legacy Strummer left behind is Future Forests, an organisation dedicated to fighting global warming by planting trees.

You start to feel old when your heroes begin to die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for a whole generation of us, Joe Strummer was a hero.

It’s December 1979. I’m seventeen years old. One of the lads brings London Calling to school. The cover of the album shows a black and white photo of a man smashing his guitar. I am an impressionable teen, and the image is powerful, even strangely beautiful. But two disks’ worth of smashing guitars? I am dubious. It’s mine to borrow overnight

Dropping the needle on the first track…London Calling, which gives the album its title, it is immediately evident that these guys can play. The riffs are catchy, the tone somehow menacing. This record will not leave my turntable for the next few months.

Strummer – it seems like an appropriate name for a guitar player, although his pick usually hits the strings with a staccato regularity of a jackhammer. Watch his left leg, it thumps out the rhythm and beat with genuine force. Strummer bashes out an urgent message with no time to spare. The lyrics were explicit about how much capitalism was banking on people remaining passive. In time, the band collapsed from the usual strains of touring, ego, drug use.

His last incarnation with The Mescaleros was not just a retread of old sounds, but a rich blend of more kinds of musical influence than you can pick out, even after several listenings. The lyrics aren’t as militant as his earlier work, he sounded more wistful and romantic than in his Clash days.

So, how to remember Joe Strummer? It’s a question being asked around the world, as the twelfth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, his sloganeering lyrics, fuelled by anger, idealism and the call for justice and unity, empowered the social consciences of countless thousands. Reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician, into our business thinking?

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose Strummer did whatever he wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values. Like a musician, put a tone of voice into your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your customers (fans) realise that they could miss out on something unique and special they won’t want to miss it.

Being different matters more than being better Joe became successful because he was different. We had never seen anything like him before, he grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great brands don’t sell products, they sell experiences which we buy into. Give your customers a really cool experience instead of pitching them another product. Fan conversations about experiences happen, use them to create word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your fans/customers to get together and have fun.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? Make sure you connect with your customers. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Classic fans know your band; new audiences want your hits. Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more, always generating new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver content, engage your audience with it.

Ensure your band always has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s needs ahead of its past. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility.

Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. Strummer and The Clash had their own style and image too – what’s your business logo or icon?

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2014, is the twelfth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me, it’s a sad day. It’s enough to make you go out and get a tattoo. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for and Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. Strummer was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could. Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, and he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to students. Strummer had integrity, romance, looked great and was a brilliant sloganeer. Throw in a great soul of humanity and, most importantly, musicianship.

People say you should never meet your heroes but I did three times and he never let me down. To meet Joe was to meet a man with a teenager’s passion and an old blues singer’s pain. He had to carry the knowledge that he had created truly great music at a great time and then confined it to history. Strummer spoke passionately about his beliefs – be they endangered gorillas, trees or Nicaraguan street kids. He was also a great leveller – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were alright.

It’s Christmas 2014, the offices are empty and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever, and the future is unwritten.


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