Many have characterised Strummer as some kind of activist. There is no doubt Strummer saw music as a way to advance left-wing politics but that did not make him an activist, even if he advocated individuals should become politically active and activists themselves. Consequently, these characterisations are wrong. By showing what Strummer was not, this chapter demonstrates what he was namely an advocate and leader. So the locus for identifying and understanding Strummer’s influence is to be primarily found in what he said the words he spoke in his lyrics, interviews and on-stage pronouncements and not in what he did, because he was not an activist prosecuting his politics by turning words into deeds. Activists seek to generate countervailing power through their actions. Chapters 8 and 9 examine the other side of this equation his followers.
This study provides the first extensive examination of Strummer’s politics and their influence, using a socialist realist framework. Strummer’s political significance stems from using music as a means to communicate radical ideals, which was shown in this study to have had significant influence. On this basis, it can be reasonably ventured he has been the most influential left-wing political musician in Western culture since the mid-1970s because his influence has breadth and depth in developing oppositional, including socialist, consciousness. This conclusion draws together the different threads of the previous chapters. What is noteworthy about this influence is that it has often been premised upon Strummer being perceived as more left wing than he actually was, highlighting that subjective judgements by followers were as important as what Strummer said and did.
Having examined Strummer’s political influence using secondary sources, where little explanation and almost no substantiation were provided by those making ‘you changed my life’-type statements, this chapter turns to assess the primary data generated for this study. In doing so, it examines the self-reported evidence of influence on the basis of self-reported perceptions of Strummer and his politics. A key task is to examine whether his socialist period and his move to humanism were detected, and what impact these had. This chapter begins by examining the pilot study testimonies before analysing the full study testimonies. It finds that from amongst those giving testimony, Strummer’s socialist and radical influence was wide, deep and long-lived.
Joe Strummer was no ‘ordinary Joe’. He was the most radical, politically aware and politically engaged performer of his peers. He prosecuted his politics with mass appeal, making him more successful in this task than any others from punk onwards. In 1969, radical folk singer Phil Ochs suggested any hope of revolution lay in ‘getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara’. Strummer came closer than any other to achieving this. Strummer understood music was a cultural battleground in the fight for social justice. For that, he will always be remembered. His legacy is a living one; it is one that seems to shine brighter the longer apolitical pop reigns. So this is the story of Strummer’s politics: what he thought, said, meant and did. Crucially, it is also the story of what impact he had. It is the story of his politics of radicalism, resistance and rebellion against the established order. It is the story of how one determined and talented individual made such a difference to the attitudes and behaviours of so many others. The study uses the framework of socialist realism to assess Strummer’s contribution and influence.
Strummer has universally and unanimously been characterised as being of the left. This is not disputed even though his politics changed significantly in his last two decades, with this being seldom studied. However, thereafter there is little clarity about what type of left politics Strummer held. Almost all would agree he was a ‘rebel’. This appellation was widely used both of him and by him. However, that does not take us very far in understanding his politics because rebellion is, quintessentially, against something and takes many different forms from many different perspectives. To be said to be radical is more illuminating as this is to be not only against something but also to be for something. That said, those alternatives could be right or left wing because radicalism, while tackling the fundamental nature of a situation, does not presuppose a leftward direction. So, it is fortunate the terms used to describe Strummer’s politics are numerous, over and above being a ‘rebel’ and ‘radical’, such as anti-capitalist, Marxist, socialist and revolutionary. But problems of definition, periodisation and evidence exist in these characterisations. This chapter examines these characterisations as well as the comments of his critics. Strummer’s response is then examined, along with the nature of his lyric writing, on which most of the characterisations are based.
Punk rocker, Joe Strummer, was the most influential left-wing musician since the 1970s. Through The Clash especially, he was said to have changed countless people’s lives. But what were his politics and what was the nature of this influence on people’s lives? The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer: Radicalism, resistance and rebellion finds he was a self-proclaimed socialist in his Clash years before this gave way to humanism. Despite that shift, he still desired social change and still used his lyrics and public platform to push for this progress. Strummer provided political inspiration and sustenance to many through the cultural medium of music. He helped many find and maintain socialist and progressive world views, and this legacy lives on through his lyrics. This becomes evident when the testimonies gathered for this study speak of the influence of the lyrics from the likes of the Sandinista! album or the song, ‘Spanish Bombs’. They encouraged listeners not only to find out more about the issues and events covered but then to go out and try to do something about them too.
This chapter examines unconsidered aspects of the period from Mick Jones’s last performance with The Clash in mid-1983 to the implosion of The Clash in late 1985/early 1986. This was the period of Strummer’s ‘rebel rock’. The chapter also examines a number of other facets such as Strummer’s views on women, his propensity for violence and his support for environmentalism. The rationale for this is Strummer’s Us festival monologue its opening gambit and continuation throughout the set at Jones’s last performance provided one of the most wide-ranging spoken manifestos Strummer would ever make.
In 1988, Strummer set out to ‘Rock Against the Rich’. The occasion was a twenty-three date British tour which he part-funded and fully fronted on behalf of London Class War, an anarchist group, with his new band, Latino Rockabilly War. Along with playing other benefit gigs that year, 1988 was the most prolonged and intense period of Strummer’s political activity. Yet it stood at a particular point in Strummer’s political trajectory, between the end of The Clash in early 1986 and the beginning of his so-called ‘wilderness years’ at the end of 1989. Since mid-1983, Strummer had become ever more politically outspoken. Yet when Strummer struck out on this, his most radical and sustained political intervention, he faced a much-diminished audience standing on a much-diminished platform because his star had waned. Some believed his time had passed, being ‘yesterday’s man’. This was even though he believed he still had something to say and could still make a contribution towards achieving social justice. But this most sustained political intervention made Strummer neither an activist nor an initiator of action.
Strummer strayed from the radical road he previously set out upon, best exemplified by his stoutly held sense of socialism in the early to late 1980s. He did not become right wing, in favour of neoliberal individualism, but he did become disillusioned with the prospects for traditional left-wing politics and the collectivism used to pursue these politics. So this chapter begins by examining the predominant messages Strummer dispensed in the last years of his life, before considering his views of ‘new’ Labour, neoliberalism and the ‘new’ imperialism, along with his alternative of decentralised, small-scale, ethical capitalism. The transition from socialist to non-socialist is explained by the move in his personal disposition from certainty to uncertainty occasioning a reorientation. This leads to assessing his views on humanism, opinions, freedom and liberty, and his national identity.
The criteria for assessing Strummer’s influence are its depth and breadth across space and time. In other words, where, when and for how long and in what manner did he influence people? Was his influence, for example, deep-seated and long-lasting or was it short and superficial whether, for instance, in Britain or the US and in what time period did this occur? And in what ways did Strummer change people’s attitudes and behaviours? These questions concern the qualitative and quantitative aspects without for the moment examining the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, which are better suited to be answered through analysis of the testimonies from followers. Consequently, this chapter looks at the evidence available from secondary sources to map the extent and nature of Strummer’s influence. First, it looks at what Strummer said about his own influence in general and specific terms. Then it considers what others said about his influence on themselves and others, before moving on to look at perceptions of heroism and prophecy. Finally, the small handful of studies of Strummer/Clash followers are assessed. Given this study’s socialist realist framework, each ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ question also pertains to advancing the cause of socialism.