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Joe Strummer - Biography
|last update : 04-09-2012 01:41|
|Who: John Mellor (a.k.a. Joe Strummer)|
Born: Aug. 21st 1952, Ankara (Anatolia) Turkey
Father: Ronald Mellor, a Clerical Officer for the British Foreign Office
Mother: Anne (Girvan) McKenzie, of Scottish origin.
John's grandparents had worked for the colonial railway system in India. They died in a car accident in 1922. Ronald Mellor and his brother were placed in a orphanage. Ronald was a hard working student which enabled him to obtain a scholarship that gave him access to college and university degrees. During World War Two he joined the Indian Colonial Army and then entered the Civil Service.
John is a terrific mix of his parents. His father definitely had the ability to be a real lunatic, and his mother kept the Celtic Bardic tradition. Music caught John's interest early and his first ever musical memory is The Highwaymen's version of Michael (Row the Boat Ashore), which reached number three on the charts in 1961. Mr. Mellor's Second Secretary position allowed John to experience Cyprus, Cairo, West Germany, and Mexico where the 1956 earthquake left a strong impression on John, perhaps inspiring the title for his solo LP.
At that stage, 8 years old John, and his 10 year old brother David, were placed in a British public boarding school in the City of London Freemen School, Astead Park, Surrey. Even if he describes himself as an inept student, John managed to get three A levels in English, History and Art. He also spent most of his time reading and discovering music along with his friend Paul Buck [AKA Pablo LaBritain, later to drum for the punk band 999]. The mid-60's brought many outstanding rock 'n roll acts, from both sides of the Atlantic, but Britain was the focal point: Captain Beefheart, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Pretty Things, Yardbirds, Dr. Feelgood, Lou Reed and Bo Diddley were among the numerous acts that triggered John's future choice of career.
During school recess, he spent much of his time roaming the quarters of Teheran (Iran), and the various African cities where his father was stationed, for more musical inspirations: Vertical Movement (a Mozambican band) left a vivid memory, among others. But first and foremost, Blues was the main drive for John's kicks. At age 16, he gets his first guitar, but only starts to practice seriously Chuck Berry's Sweet Little 16 at age 19.
In July 1970 John's brother, David Mellor, had become increasingly withdrawn and ill adjusted and committed suicide in London's Regent's Park. Ronald passed away in early 1984, followed in 1986 by his wife who was diagnosed with cancer a year earlier.
John decides he wants to be a cartoonist and registers at the London Central School of Art & Design. All fired up, he soon discovers what a 'lousy set up' it was. LSD and Woody Guthrie songs help beat the boredom. Moving in with art school classmates, he meets a fiddler by the name of Tymon Dogg, and follows him in his London Underground pitches as a busker. John's first ever gig is down Green Park tube station: Johnny Be Good on a ukulele he got for £1.99 down Shaftesbury Rd. After being expelled from art school and from a squat, John, now known as Woody Mellor, spends two years doing 'absolutely nothing', working in a farm when necessity calls for it.
Following a girlfriend who was studying at the Cardiff Art School, he heads for Wales, and settles in Newport with some former London Central friends. He shares a flat with Mikey Foote, a future soundman, spending his time attending lectures at Newport College of Art, where he is seen as a talented artist. He moves in with bassist "Jiving" Alan Jones who had started a band with Rob Angelo (guitar), Bob ' Blow ' Jackson (sax) and Jeff Cooper (drums). They needed a drum kit and Woody has one. He lends the drum kit in exchange for the position as front man. The Vultures played some disastrous gigs, and in May 1971, tired of working as a grave digger for the local council, he gets homesick and moves back to London to his busking trade. After discovering the speakers fixed on the tube stations' ceilings were connected directly to the Transport Police shop where he was often dragged during his pitches, he quits busking and does several odd jobs, including garbage carrying at the English National Opera, until he is fired after his boss discovers him practicing his guitar in the orchestra pit. The £120 he got to clear off pays his AC30 amplifier.
Along with his mates of Maida Hill's squatting community, he forms his second band The 101ers (first billed El Huaso & The 101 All Stars) after the street address' squat on Walterton Road. The line up includes brothers Pat (bass) & Richard Dudanski, Nother (drums), Simon Cassell, and Alvaro Pene-Rojas (sax). Their first gig is Brixton Telegraph, Sept. 6th 1974. It is also around that time that Woody becomes Joe Strummer. Various shifts of personnel brought the line-up as Clive Temperly (lead guitar), replaced by Martin Stone, 'Mole' Chesterton (bass) and Dan Kelleher (bass/keyboard).
The band acquires a solid reputation as a live act and cuts two singles on Chiswick Records: "Keys To Your Heart/5 Star Rock'n'Roll Petrol" and "Sweet Revenge/Rabies (From The Dogs Of Love)" cool, sharp R&B numbers. In 1981, Joe and Richard Dudanski would release a vinyl testimony of the 101ers days titled Elgin Avenue Breakdown, on Virgin's small label Andalusia, in honor of Paloma Romano AKA Palmolive, drummer for The Slits and The Raincoats for whom Joe penned his first ever song Keys To Your Heart.
Yet, oe is more and more frustrated with the lack of response from the music press and with what he saw as an outdated musical style. But things are about to change. In North America, a new musical movement is slowly catching the attention of bored and angry punters. Not dubbed Punk yet, the new trend is led by bands like The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Blondie, Television, Richard Hell & Voidoids' Meanwhile, the youth of Great Britain is showing disturbing signs of frustration, turning its back to fat and overindulgent dinosaur bands and forming the nucleus of a wave that will soon change the face of popular music.
From one end of London comes The Swankers, later known as the Sex Pistols. On another corner, a talented lead guitarist named Mick Jones, who writes catchy tunes, teams up with the aspiring art designer Paul Simonon, who he trains on the bass. Keith Levene completes the line of the London SS. But one element is still missing, a rhythm guitarist and front man. Bernard Rhodes, who acts as manager and guidance to the burgeoning band is tipped off by Levene for a prospect. They both check out the 101ers at the 100 Club. Mick and Paul had already spotted Joe at the Red Cow pub and at the Lisson St. DHSS office a couple of times as well. Joe in the mean time has his Damascus illumination when the Sex Pistols opens for the 101ers April 3, 1976 at the Nashville. The planets are aligned and everything is in place for the great leap forward. The London SS and 101ers are scraped. Terry Chimes (later to be replaced by the more epic Nicky "Topper" Headon) gets behind the drum kit and The Clash is born.
Two months of rehearsing and song writing later and the first gig happens on July 4th 1976 at the Black Swan in Sheffield. Now, the career of The Only Band That Mattered is quite well documented isn't it? Let's only say for the record that The Clash produced 6 albums (16 vinyl faces), numerous singles and is still considered as one of the most powerful creative musical units of the last part of the 20th century.
The CD From Here to Eternity is a vivid testimony of the intensity the band displayed on stage. Another recommended item is Westway To The World, a documentary by longtime associate Don Letts. Johnny Green's book A Riot Of Our Own (Faber & Faber, 1996) gives a more personal insight of the band's dynamic. Some facts aren't out of interest though. After all this is Joe's bio, so it's got to be mentioned somewhere!
In early 1979, he asks Gabrielle Salter, a young attractive blonde for an evening at the movies. She accepts out of politeness' and a relationship begins. Two daughters are born of that union. They are Jazz Domino Holly (1984) and Lola Maybellene (1986). The relationship came to an end in 1992, when Joe, concerned with his girls' moved the family from their Notting Hill Gate house to Hampshire County.
When The Clash disbanded in 1986, acting and and writing soundtracks will be Joe's main activity. He is Simms in Alex Cox's Straight To Hell (1987) and Faucet in Walker (1989) which was shot in Nicaragua. Jim Jarmush wrote the part of Johnny, a rockabilly gun slinging misfit for Mystery Train (1989). He plays the pilot Vince Taylor in F.J. Ossang's Doctor Chance (1997) and holds cameos in Candy Mountain by Robert Frank & Rudy Wurlitzer (1987), AKA KaurismŠki's I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) and Emir Kusturica's Super 8 Stories (2001), about the director's No Smoking Orchestra. Joe's acting career could have started sooner, although he had a taste of it during his Clash days in Martin Scorcese's The King Of Comedy (1983), when Stephen Frears offered the part of Myron in his 1984 thriller The Hit. He declined, clearing the way for Tim Roth's big screen debut.
Joe also wrote many scores and soundtracks, for example Alex Cox's 1986 Sid and Nancy (the song Love Kills will also feature in Larry Peerce's 1989 Wired), Straight To Hell and Walker, Marisa Silver's Permanent Record (1988) which features his band The Latino Rockabilly War, Sara Driver's When Pigs Fly (1993), and George Armitage's Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). Joe also dabbled with directing by producing a 16mm titled Hell WC10 (1983).
Even though Joe said the laboratory had gone bankrupt and destroyed both negatives and copies, Don Letts, however found some rolls of film in Joe's attic and released it in 2001. Joe also makes a notable TV guest appearance in episode 2.14 'Chef Aid' of the American cartoon sitcom South Park (July 10 1998). His song It's a Rockin' World is on the soundtrack released the same year.
His solo musical efforts aren't as successful though. The controversial 1988 Rock The Rich Tour, sponsored by the anarchist organization Class War, triggered many criticisms. After the failure of Earthquake Weather (1989), recorded in Los Angeles and the tour that followed which left Joe exhausted and in deep financial trouble, CBS stalled any attempt to go back to studio, hoping for an improbable Clash reunion. Joe and Mick Jones did get back together, but to work on Big Audio Dynamite's second album # 10 Upping Street (1986).
A stage hiatus started that was briefly interrupted in late 1991 when The Pogues asked him to step in for the band's unreliable front man Shane MacGowan. Joe had already helped the band in 1987, replacing Phil Chevron who was suffering from a burst stomach ulcer. Joe did also turn to producing, most notoriously for The Pogues' Hell's Ditch (1990), and lesser known acts like the rockabilly band The Red Roosters and Spain's 091.
In 1992 Joe's Wilderness Years began. His song writing continued though Road To Rock'n'Roll, penned for but turned down by Johnny Cash for his American Recordings and two songs for Brian Setzer's album Guitar Slinger. Several attempts to restart his career crashed. His collaboration with techno musician Richard Norris with the acid-punk band Machine (AKA Radar) and collaboration with Happy Mondays' Bez dubbed Strummerville didn't even take off. Some productions emerged however, a piece for the Jack Kerouak's tribute Kicks Joy Darkness. His short lived Electric Dog House, which also comprised Segss (The Ruts) and Rat Scabies (The Damned) contributed the title song for the human rights compilation Generations (1998). He also appeared on Emmaus Mouvement, a benefit CD for this French charity 50th anniversary. Joe spent most of the late 90's DJing in raves and festivals. The year 1995 also marked a new personal turn for Joe.
He married Lucinda Tait, after obtaining his divorce from Pamela Moolman, a South African woman he married 1975, in exchange for money and a British citizenship. His famous black Telecaster was the sole 'offspring' of that brief union. Joe, Lucinda and their stepdaughter now live in farmhouse in Somerset, where they moved in 1997. Continuing CBS/Sony contract embroidments seemed to have brought Joe's career to a permanent stop. After realizing he could not possibly come up with the £5 millions it would take to get him out of his contract, he went 'on strike', boring the company out. He got his way and the contract was terminated at least as a solo artist, which allowed him to scout for a new deal. Hellcat Records, a independent label based in California, run by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, a huge Clash fan, was first on Joe's list and the deal was struck.
Since 1998, Joe hosted several series on the BBC World Service including Joe Strummer's London Calling, where he displayed his wide and wild range of musical tastes from Dean Martin to Cumbia to Jimi Hendrix and Big Youth's reggae.
While playing in Fat Les, a loose conglomerate of artists, musicians and actors, centered around comedian and satirist Keith Allen, he meets guitarist Anthony Genn, formerly from the Brit-pop band Elastica. Joe had already spotted Anthony's stage presence in 1995 when the later danced naked at the Glastonbury Festival. At Genn's instigation, Joe's new band The Mescaleros takes form. From Black Grape came Martin Slattery (with whom Joe collaborated on Stupid Stupid Stupid in 1996) who brought Scott Shields with him. Joe's friend and percussionist Pablo Cook, and a member of Machine, completed the line up, as well as the drummer Steve 'Smiley' Barnard. On June 10th 1999, the band boarded a tour bus and hit the Road To Rock'n'Roll from Sheffiled to Amsterdam, from Paris to New York and everywhere in between.
After the release of the album Rock Art & The X-Ray Style on November 1999, to critical acclaim over what is dubbed a brilliant resurrection of an almost forgotten Punk legend, the world tour continued, praised everywhere it went, both by the press and the fans, more than ecstatic at the invitation from Joe and his band to 'Dig the New'. The blend of R&B, reggae, Latin vibes and African beats spiced with techno, combined with classical punk anthems from Joe Strummer's former bands gathers old as well as new fans. By the summer of 2000, life on the road takes its toll on Anthony Genn who leaves the band after the August 20th V2000 gig. Joe teams up with his old busking mate Tymon Dogg, who plays his first gig as full time member Oct. 27th 2000 at the famous 100 Club. Smiley left some time after.
Meanwhile, Joe's talent as a songwriter and performer is finally recognized when he is presented with an Inspirational Award by Britain's Q Magazine (October 2000) and the Ivor Novello Award by the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters for The Clash's outstanding contribution to British music (24th May 2001). It was the first time since 1982 that the legendary line up (Headon, Jones, Simonon & Strummer) was reunited on-stage. In the days previous to the 100 Club gig, Joe and the Mescaleros entered London's Battery Studio.
In August 2001, Global A Go-Go is released, again to critical and fans' acclaim. With its broad musical range of reggae, Celtic, Balkan and African beats, the album shows again Joe's social and political and musical relevancy and the bands growing tightness. The tour that follows brings Joe and his revamped Meskys in North America UK, Japan and Europe for a handful of gigs. The new line up includes Simon Stafford on bass, filling in for Scott Shields, promoted to the position of lead guitarist, Luke Bullen on drums and Tymon Dogg, along with the ever versatile Martin Slattery. Percussionist Pablo Cook had left after the August 4th 2001 Mescaleros / Brian Setzer Orchestra L.A double bill. And the rest is history.