It’s been a decade since Joe Strummer passed away. The former leader of The Clash, once deemed “the only band that matters,” woke up on Dec. 22, 2002, walked his dog, and returned to his home in Somerset, England, and quietly died from an undiagnosed heart defect.
Strummer -- whose real name was John Mellor, although for a time he went only by “Woody” as a tribute to American folk singer Woody Guthrie -- lived much of his 50 years as a fiery iconoclast, seemingly intent on aping his heroes before he’d go on to become one for the next generation of musicians.
The Clash were part of the first wave of British punk rock bands in the 1970s. Strummer co-founded the group with Mick Jones after bouncing between bands on the London club scene. Strummer was born to a British diplomat and raised in a middle-class household, but his strong political beliefs were clear when the band released “White Riot” in 1977, a song that decried the young, stagnant white population of London with the lyric: “Black people got a lot of problems / But they don’t mind throwin’ a brick.”
The Clash, which was rounded out by bassist Paul Simonon and most-of-the-time drummer Topper Headon, quickly stretched beyond their initial three chord limitations and embraced reggae, ska, rockabilly and early hip hop. “London Calling” was released in the U.S. in 1980, and the ambitious double album was almost instantly mentioned in the same breath as the classic works of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
The band went on to have two international hits with "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," their most widely known songs, before breaking up in the early 1980s. Just before Strummer’s death it was announced that the Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The honor shocked and flattered Strummer, who had spent the past two decades releasing solo material, collaborating with other bands and sitting behind the mic of his own radio show.
“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom,” Strummer said in “Westway To The World,” an essential documentary for any fan of The Clash. “But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control. And it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realized that you either become a power or you were crushed.”
During the Hall of Fame induction ceremony that came a month after Strummer’s death, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Pete Thomas, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt performed a medley of some of his best-known work. Strummer’s musical legacy went past The Clash, though, and fans and critics alike have celebrated his solo work -- particularly “Streetcore,” posthumously released in 2003.
Many tributes to Strummer have come since his death. The Gaslight Anthem, a Clash-inspired rock band that quickly ascended to arena status, released a song titled “Id’a Called You Woody, Joe,” but even that doesn’t compare to what folk icon Billy Bragg told NME in 1984:
“When a folk club artist goes out with his guitar, he might think he's James Taylor or Bob Dylan. When I go out, I still think I'm the Clash."