Joe Strummer Biography

Songwriter, Singer, Guitarist (1952–2002)
Joe Strummer was a British singer, songwriter and guitarist best known as the co-founder and member of the punk rock band The Clash.


Joe Strummer was a British singer, songwriter and guitarist born on August 21, 1952 in Ankara, Turkey. Named John Graham Mellor, the musician was the son of a British diplomat and grew up in several countries before settling in London in 1959. Discovering an interest in rock music and guitar, he changed his name in the mid ‘70s to reflect his new lifestyle. In 1976, his 101’ers band played with The Sex Pistols, propelling him into the punk rock scene. That same year, Strummer co-founded the punk band The Clash. The band gained a strong following and released several hit albums before breaking up in 1986. Strummer died on December 22, 2002, in Somerset, England, from cardiac arrest  stemming from a previously undiagnosed heart defect.

Early Musical Influences

Singer, songwriter and musician John Graham Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer, was born in Ankara, Turkey, on August 21, 1952. Strummer is best known as the frontman of the legendary punk band, The Clash. He was born to Ronald Ralph Mellor, a British diplomat, and Anna Mackenzie. In his early childhood, his family lived in Ankara, Turkey; Bonn, Germany; Cairo, Egypt and Mexico City, Mexico before settling in Surrey, a suburb of London in 1959.

Strummer was sent to boarding school and generally only saw his parents during summer breaks. During his school years, Strummer discovered and was inspired by rock 'n' roll music. Early influences included The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, and Captain Beefheart. It was during this time that he changed his name to Woody, as a homage to American folk icon Woody Guthrie.

Strummer attended London's Central School Of Art in September 1970 and immersed himself in films, music, and literature. Rock music became his consuming passion and he grew disillusioned with formal education. In 1974, Strummer formed the band The 101'ers. They played their first gig at Elgin's Pub in May 1975. It was during this period that he changed his name again—this time to Joe Strummer—to reflect his new guitar style.

The Clash

In early 1976, the 101'ers played a couple of gigs with The Sex Pistols as an opening act. The shows with The Sex Pistols would propel Strummer into the emerging punk rock scene in London, and gain the attention of musicians Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who were in the audience. The three men would coincidently cross paths the next week while in the unemployment line at the Lisson Grove Dole Office.

Jones, Simonon and Strummer were formally introduced a short time later by friend, and eventual manager, Bernie Rhodes. It was during this introduction that The Clash was formed—their name was derived from how often the term "clash" was used in an edition of the London Standard newspaper. Drummer Terry Chimes completed the 4-man original Clash line-up shortly thereafter.

The songwriting collaboration between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is often compared to the chemistry between legendary duos such as Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. The pair wrote songs about political and social injustice, cultural apathy, repression, and militarism. Songs such as "White Riot," "London's Burning" and "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." have become punk rock anthems. As front man, writer and motivational force behind The Clash, Joe Strummer and his band became one of the most influential, expansive and enduring groups to come out of the 1976 British punk rock explosion.

Mainstream Success

In January 1977, The Clash signed with CBS Records for £100,000 and the band recorded their self-titled album. With a seemingly lucrative record deal, some criticized the band for "selling out." Despite the criticism from fans, critics lavished The Clash with praise. Rolling Stone magazine called their first record the "definitive punk album." It included a surprise track—a cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves"—that would later be considered a precursor to the songs and style of later Clash albums. The Clash's London Calling album was also 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!. The album reached beyond punk rock to include a "world music" sound that included reggae, rockabilly and rap. Strummer's "Washington Bullets" expressed the singer's most direct political statement about conflicts and worldwide controversies including those in Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Tibet. In support of the album, The Clash went on a tour that included the historic 17 consecutive dates at Bond's International, a club located in Time's Square, NYC.

After the 1982 album Combat Rock, Terry Chimes, who had left the group, rejoined the band after drummer Topper Headon had been dismissed due to his growing heroin addiction. Friction and feuding increased within the group during this period and in 1983, after opening for The Who on what would be their final U.S. tour, Strummer fired bandmate Mick Jones.

The other complications came from the group's label. For Strummer the band, the 10-record deal with CBS became a "prison sentence." Relationships with the record company were strained, which led to promotion problems and poor early sales in the United States. After six albums and many hit singles, The Clash officially broke up in 1986.

New Directions

After the split, Strummer went on to contribute two songs to the soundtrack of the 1986 film Sid and Nancy and appeared in the films Walker (1987), Straight to Hell (1987), Mystery Train (1989), and I Hired a Contract Killer (1990). He continued to write and contribute to soundtracks, most notably for the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank which starred long-time fan, John Cusack.

Strummer was temporarily a member of the Irish group The Pogues, a band influenced by the political artistry of The Clash. Their own iconic singer, Shane MacGowan, had left the group due to alcohol problems.

Having worked on a number of soundtracks, he released his first solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989. During the 1990s, Strummer formed the backing band 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.


Shortly before what became his final performance in London, Strummer and U2's Bono wrote a song called "46664" for Nelson Mandela as part of a campaign against AIDS. Joe Strummer died suddenly from cardiac arrest on December 22, 2002, at his home in Somerset, England. He was 50 years old. It was later revealed he'd had an undiagnosed heart condition. His final album Streetcore was released posthumously. It features a tribute to American music icon Johnny Cash—"Long Shadow," and a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. A documentary film by Juien Temple called Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten premiered in January 2007.

Strummer was married twice. The first marriage was to Pamela Moolman. The marriage of convenience allowed Moolman to obtain British citizenship and financed the purchase of his signature Fender Telecaster guitar. He was in a relationship with Gaby Salter for 14 years, and with whom he had two daughters, Jazz and Lola. The couple never married. Strummer married Lucinda Tait in 1995. 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 organization dedicated to fighting global warming by planting trees.

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