Monday, April 22

The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer: Gregor Gall

Book Review

The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer : Gregor Gall

Manchester University Press

Published June 2022

The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer examines Strummer’s beliefs on a range of issues – including socialism, alienation, exploitation, multiculturalism and humanism – analysing their credibility, influence and impact, and asking where they came from and how they developed over time. Drawing on Strummer’s lyrics, various interviews and bootleg recordings, as well as interviews with those he inspired, The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer takes the reader on a journey through the political influences and motivations that defined one of the UK’s greatest punk icons.

Advance Copy review by Richard Chorley

This new academic study of Joe Strummer’s political beliefs, arrives at a timely moment. As the western hemisphere’s leaders convulse in ‘gung-ho’ verbalised war salvos, the public stares on in ever increasing anger at the sordid ‘Last chance Saloon’ cabaret, of the most immoral man to ever hold sway in 10 Downing Street. To call the current era ”tumultuous” is putting it way beyond mildly. Inside such volcanic moments, the relevance of a late 1970s Punk star’s political convictions may indeed appear somewhat irrelevant, other than to those influenced by them personally. But in an age wherein radical music and culture has attracted often baffling and sometimes deeply cynical appropriations, this in-depth analysis from Gregor Gall at least establishes one fundamental reality.

Whatever the variations of his own political journey – and the book takes an archaeological approach in ‘sectioning’ them via the different stages of his career – the unavoidable conclusion is that in broad terms, Strummer was always a man of the Left.

Ultimately, in an era wherein neo-liberalist politicians and commentators delight in attacking a vast myriad of radical political stances and campaigns under the auspice of the reverse propaganda flavoured ”woke” labelling, that’s what probably matters most.

Alongside that the appropriation and ‘theft’ of radical artists via perversion and distortion of their original messages by the political Right, is a defining characteristic of the contemporary ‘culture wars’.

This book provides an important antidote to such energies and presents Strummer as a voice embracing a wide umbrella of Leftist positions, which admirably constitutes a valid reflection of the man himself. As such, Revolutionary and Democratic Socialists, Anti-Fascists, Anarchists, Eco-warriors, Humanists et al will probably all relate to certain aspects of Gall’s narrative, which in the current political climate is no bad thing. As the book recounts, many differing strands of the Left made serious overtures to Strummer in his career. Always one to fight shy against formally aligning himself to particular parties or organisations, Strummer rejected them all, apart from foray’s into relatively brief involvements with set-up’s like ‘Class War’, a period which the author examines closely.

All this, does not conceal what I believe to be certain flaws within Gall’s approach, albeit these are in the main unavoidable. There are sections of the book which reach reasonable conclusions but for my money, too many assumptions are made via the somewhat mechanical process of simply deciphering Strummer’s many interviews and quotes. His public statements, particularly in the later stages of his career, were often guarded as a result of decades of criticism or mockery and as such, whilst also desperate to re-energise his career, he was not necessarily prepared to platform himself in as radical a manner as he’d displayed in earlier periods. Age and maturity perhaps contributed to that too and he’d certainly had his fingers burned on numerous occasions, but to imagine Strummer was not deeply, deeply pained by the attacks he faced over many years, would be a mistake.

That sensitivity was also marred by serious periods of depression, this in itself also contributing to his seeming penchant for contradictions, at times, hyperbole and indeed, moments of noticeable self deprecation. A crucial element which I feel lacks sufficient consideration here. Those amongst his fans who shirk from accepting Strummer never experienced fear, deny him his own sense of humanity.

In many ways, Strummer was indeed a cultural ”Lion”, but he was also a notably wounded one. Those wounds cut deep into his overall psyche and when as he eventually acknowledged, some of them were self inflicted, re-building objective views and projecting them with full confidence and verve, is no easy task. Particularly when somebody was under the microscopic levels of analysis, applied to virtually all of his public statements. Strummer’s confidence took a gigantic battering in the darkest periods of his earthly existence and a lesser individual might never have survived such shadows.

The levels to which serious depressive periods shape one’s entire outlook on life, albeit in personal relationships, inter-action with the public and media on behalf of cultural spokespeople like Strummer and/or the corresponding world views of such afflicted individuals, are usually of enormous significance. In  an age wherein deep depression, is now thankfully considered to warrant focused attention from mental health professionals, we should then perhaps be cautious in not reading too much into any particular stances of those affected, at any singular moment. Most certainly not after they have suffered many years of such anguish. Without a true background of a person’s specific overall mental state at such times, assumptions can be dangerous, or as in this book, I feel a touch formulated.

Being who he was, Joe Strummer was never likely to be afforded that card during his life. Gall gives more leeway than many of the Journalists who have written books and articles about Strummer, but it is an extremely difficult task to dissect a complex, sometimes tormented artistic soul, particularly without the benefit of close, elongated conversations with one’s subject. And to be absolutely fair, he is not a psychiatrist either. Some of Strummer’s later statements covered here, were I believe offered in somewhat deeper veils of ambiguity, than is acknowledged in certain interpretations. That said, a good number of Gall’s overall general perspectives are correct.

He establishes the fact that Strummer was an ”advocate” rather than an ”activist”, with appropriate justification. Reflections on the fact that Strummer barely ever wrote long passages of prose, also go a considerable way to confirming that in essence, creatively he was an instinctive, somewhat impressionistic and humanely intuitive poet, with a remarkable ability to fashion powerful and lasting impact via economically refined blasts of the lyrics that dovetailed so wonderfully, with Mick Jones’s musical gifts. Strummer was a musical poet with an almost uncanny ability to combine seemingly abstract phrases into cohesive juxtapositions, that somehow seemingly maintained a profundity of narrative. The fact though, that his lack of extended political perspectives via essays or diaries, only makes a book like this an even braver task, deserves acknowledgement.

In reality, very few musicians, artists or writers in history who left such a paucity of written in-depth political observations, have ever been subjected to the levels of this analysis. But then Joe Strummer was no run-of-the-mill Rock Star. Many writers have referred to his magnetic charisma and the power of his onstage performances, were capable of instilling previously uncharted emotional experiences, inside the hearts and minds of young people exposed to them. Gall ponders deeply on the nature and significance of that, but again an academic analytical exercise will always be hampered by pragmatic restrictions.

Paul Simmonds, lead songwriter of ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’, once told me in an interview ”When I watched The Clash and Joe, I was simply overwhelmed by this enormous sense of euphoria. It just blew me away because I’d never actually ever experienced euphoria before, in my entire life up to that point. It was a completely new experience.” This was in 1977 and Paul explained all this very seriously, emphasising that in his view, the experience transcended that of simply relating to political perspectives. I found this fascinating and in some way it connects with certain observations of Gall’s in relation to Strummer’s own personal conceptions, around the time of his much later ”I’m more of a Merry Prankster type” statement.

Strummer’s seeming belief in the existence of an elusive but all-embracing spirit of ”truth”, which could somehow manifest internally and have positive bearing on the destiny of mankind via individual journeys of exploration, are perhaps relevant to his inbuilt ability to project such powerful emotional spells on impressionable young minds. As to how consciously focused Strummer was on such angles of belief, in what Gall describes as his ‘Socialist’ period – the time when Simmonds first encountered his persona – is open to debate. But music is a powerful vehicle, most certainly when it exudes from a performer with the atomic charisma levels embodied in Strummer’s onstage performances. If the mind doctors are correct and two thirds of our innermost neurological musings reside in our sub-conscious, was the young Simmonds exposed to an almost sub-shamanic version of Gall’s ‘Socialist’ Strummer, one which would not consciously connect to the almost ‘mystic’ nature of his own inner self, until a later period of his life? Some of Strummer’s later musings may allude to that, but his ability to inject extremely potent emotional experiences into the radars of others was clearly already apparent back then. Experiences which wrought an extraordinary amount of marked changes in lives. But which Strummer was responsible for them? The overtly Socialist passionate Punk Rock talisman, or a deeper, psychologically concealed version that would only emerge consciously as he grew older? Timelines and sectional categorisations need to be approached very cautiously when human beings leave footprints the size of Strummer’s.

At which point of his life did Strummer physically embody that spirit of flame or ”truth” to the maximum, before or after his own conscious belief in it’s existence manifested? Gall’s thoughts on the dichotomy between the onstage Joe Strummer and the real John Mellor are almost certainly relevant inside such questions too. The conscious construction of an onstage persona as powerful as Strummer’s is again, no common human expedition and it perhaps needs to be acknowledged that the creator themselves might be incapable of processing the ramifications. As an exercise in human examination, this book explores deep ground and the author should be applauded for that but the clearly apparent metaphysical aspects of Strummer’s personality, dictate that definitive conclusions in certain areas, are beyond the scope of academic analysis. Certain ruminations on Strummer’s vernacular and grammatical patterns, also tend to culminate in somewhat convenient conclusions. The idea that his use of the term ”haves and have nots” as opposed to the more theoretical application of ”class”, do not in my view equal any significant reflection of Strummer’s understanding or ‘version’ of Socialism.

Instead they reflect his instinctive mission to avoid the language of doctrine and frame his statements in a manner geared towards broad audience consumption. The vast majority of The Clash’s audience were not trained Marxists and neither was he. That most certainly does not imply that he was ignorant of the way in which the class system defines our western existence, because from my own personal conversations with him he was most certainly not. But again, the barrage of attacks he faced in relation to his own social background, may well also have helped influence these aspects.

The varying descriptions Strummer gave in interviews concerning his own Father’s profession, provide a clue to that factor and Gall explores them at some length. However the compartmentalisation of such elements, in favour of certain definitions via immediate public grammatical deployments, is not the book’s strongest attribute. The assumption too, that Strummer in his later years had objectively abandoned belief in collective, organised political resistance is also I believe, misplaced. Given he had little or no experience in actual involvement in such energies, he was not equipped to arm himself with the mental fortitude, that such engagement provides. He never experienced the sense of purpose small victories inside campaigns can reinforce, even among activists who experience many crushing defeats. In many ways, Strummer’s journey was somewhat of a lonesome one and hypothesising on the validity of his statements concerning such aspects, are in the main relegated to subjective cul-de-sacs.

Gall once more rightly clarifies that Strummer was not an intellectual via the classical sense. Which does not mean he did not possess an extraordinarily energetic mind, capable of periodic engagements with thought trains embracing the relevance of international affairs and socio-political oppressions. This essentially organic intelligence – a relatively modern phrase in itself as regards clinical psychological analysis – could result in extremely lucid statements, embodying fundamental instincts grounded in a deep sense of humanity. At certain other moments, Strummer’s tendency towards emotive reactions could lead him to somewhat shallow summaries, which missed long standing complex historical realities as regards western interventions and political/militaristic energies across centuries. His statements in response to the 9/11 scenario are a poignant example of that. This is only definitively, an individual example of our collective human fallibility. Intellectuals, via lifetimes of methodical thought and considerations are better armed to defend challenges to the authenticity of their statements on any particular subject. This does not imply they are always correct, but those who speak instinctively and spontaneously from the heart are often more vulnerable to self-contradiction. In Strummer’s case, the amount of negative energy and hostility he encountered via such profoundly human characteristics, are way beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of people. The almost incalculable ”Pressure” that dropped on Joe Strummer’s mental reserves, ultimately place him beyond the boundaries of much ‘normal’ conceptualising.

As concerns the nature of Strummer’s impact and influence on people’s lives, Gall mainly approached this territory with detailed questionnaires. These combining his fans perceptions of Strummer’s political positioning and their own subsequent life journeys as relating to activism, vocations and personal convictions. The fact that a clear majority of those polled identified Strummer’s political leanings as ‘Socialist’, is perhaps not surprising. That said, such perceptions maybe underline my points here in relation to Strummer’s own deliberations on that quest for elusive ”truth”. Are any of us ultimately capable of assessing at which moments – throughout an entire lifetime – our thoughts and verbal expansion of them, reflect the most profound encapsulations of the collective human experience?

Personally, I think such attempts at self-examination are beyond our rational abilities. What I do know – again from a personal friendship perspective – is that there are a very significant amount of activists across Britain, who are extremely capable of articulating the way in which Strummer’s material and messages inspired them to undertake lifelong engagements with genuine Left Wing orientated political activism. I have conducted in-depth face-to-face interviews with many such people myself and the themes voiced collectively are most certainly consistent. I believe Strummer would have found that pleasing, given his constant urgings for people to take his lyrical contributions and use them as a compass or springboard for their own social energies.

Although a number seemed to have viewed him in such a romanticised fashion, Strummer most certainly never pictured himself as a revolutionary political leader, something Gall again emphasises with acute precision. I do feel that such elements represent a minority and Gall is bang on the nail when he claims that this is a result of projection and convenient ‘shapings’ of a mythological Strummer, as connected with people’s own sometimes sectarian political agendas and loyalties.

Finally, I believe this is an innovative, important book. Joe Strummer was a unique tour-de-force in the realms of popular music and culture and Gall has approached his responsibilities with great diligence. The sheer scale of Strummer’s influence on so many, warrants attention in such fashion, irrespective of the problems the author of any such endeavour will encounter. Dissecting the vibrant and sometimes dark soul of a rebel poet like Strummer, presents a momentous challenge and Gall has not ducked acknowledging certain human deficiencies, with reflections on feminism being a notable example.

Ultimately, in the horrendous contemporary political climate, despite all of his contradictions, complexities and various incarnations, Strummer was and remained generally ”Of the Left”. How that is defined in microscopic, periodic analysis, is not of the greatest relevance in an era like this. We live in a time when neo-liberalist, authoritarian and bona-fide Fascistic energies threaten to define the next half century across much of the west. In Belfast last December, the city’s Punk Godfather Terry Hooley, told me ”We still need to fight against Fascists and Racists. Show me where the barrier is and I’ll be there.”

In broadest Left terms and whether it was represented in physical or mental solidarity, I think Gregor Gall’s book confirms as to which side of such barriers, Joe Strummer’s energies would have been directed. That was something which needed to be clarified and ‘The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer’ achieves that objective. An absolute ”must read” for all those who believe ”It’s more important than just music.’

All words Richard Chorley 

The book can be bought from here 

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