Joe Strummer: 10 years gone
A master of reinvention, the artist formerly known as John Graham Mellor spent his pre‑punk music career as a neo-beatnik folk-rocker. When The Clash imploded following their feeble 1985 swansong album Cut The Crap, the singer seemed poised for multiple careers as an actor, composer and musical journeyman.
In 1986, Strummer buried the hatchet with Mick Jones, the former soulmate he had acrimoniously sacked from The Clash, co-writing and co-producing the album No.10 Upping Street for Jones’s new band, Big Audio Dynamite. He also struck up a new creative partnership with maverick film-maker Alex Cox, contributing music to his punk biopic Sid And Nancy, and starring alongside The Pogues, Elvis Costello and a young unknown called Courtney Love in Straight To Hell, Cox’s deranged 1987 spaghetti western.
The next year, Strummer also played a smaller role in Cox’s ambitious, anti-imperialist period piece Walker, but it was with the soundtrack that he struck gold: the lush score for Walker remains the finest of his career. Cox believes Strummer’s underrated film scores eclipse anything he did on screen. “Really his impact was as a composer,” the director says. “Walker has the best soundtrack of any film I’ve done.”
On his next film score job, for Marisa Silver’s low-key 1988 suicide drama Permanent Record, Strummer put together his first post-Clash band, the Latino Rockabilly War. The stand-out cut was Trash City, a terrific clatter of Springsteen-esque power-folk. Neither film nor album made much commercial impact, but Strummer kept the band together.
A studio album, Earthquake Weather, followed in 1989, but it was a commercial flop. Perhaps because Strummer was still a little lost without Mick Jones, with his flair for sharp arrangements and melodic hooks. Or maybe the singer’s poetic blend of beatnik poetry and jukebox Americana simply sounded outmoded in a rock era that was dominated by dance music, thrash metal and grunge.
Further acting roles followed, notably in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, a ghostly journey through America’s Deep South rock mythology. But increasingly the films were low-budget cult affairs, often going straight to video or simply disappearing altogether.
“Joe was a really fine actor,” Jarmusch insists. “Musicians are performers, but that doesn’t mean all of them translate into good actors. He was so observant of details and human nature, and he was also empathetic to other people, which you certainly know from his music.”