Strummer Left Balm and Battle Cries for Left


As I was writing an article for a new web-based publication, Music Aficionado, about Joe Strummer, best known as the lead singer and primary co-songwriter of The Clash, I realized my subject merited a hearty tout here in the publication where the matter of political music has been an ongoing theme. Few other musical artists have been so devoted to making music with such Leftist radicalism. And though Strummer died in 2002, his music continues to resonate.

And my admiration for Strummer is as profound as it is for any rock star. The Clash became the standard bearers for the punk rock revolution, and the band’s political slant was firmly sewn on their sleeve. This is, after all, a band who titled their sprawling 1980 album of 36 songs over three vinyl discs Sandinista! in honor of the Nicaraguan democratic socialist party of that name.

They began as a raw punk rock band a few years prior to that album. Pressing matters at the time such as Thatcherism in native England and ongoing concerns like racism, militarism and capitalist exploitation were in their musically activist sights from the beginning. As their music opened up to wider and more varied styles on their third album, London Calling, and then Sandinista! that followed – most notably reggae and rock’n’roll’s deepest roots; they were also admirers of the Black power undercurrent within the newly born style of hip-hop that emerged from the South Bronx at the time – The Clash followed what may have been a somewhat diffuse internationalist vision of justice and humanism. The band’s fervent devotion to to the notion of agitating for revolutionary change was a major skein in their lyrical and thematic scheme.

A song from their next provocatively-titled album, 1982’s Combat Rock, became one of the group’s best-known numbers – “Rock the Casbah.” Inspired by the ban on Western music imposed in Iran a few years previous, with lyrics that depict a mullah ordering pilots to bomb violators of a no rock edict, it was sadly misused by American bomber crews and support teams during the Iraq War as a soundtrack for their attacks.

Alas, the law of unintended consequences is sometimes unavoidable. Like Ronald Reagan playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA as a campaign tune. Or the current misuse of a number of rock music artists’ songs by Donald Trump, whose near-countless sins on his campaign trail includes not respecting the wishes of the musical creators when they wish that he cease from playing their recordings at his rallies. (As long as any political campaign obtains a performance license, and hopefully pays the attendant fees – I’ll lay odds on Trump welching on that deal as he’s done so many times within the fiction of him being a “successful businessman” – they can play the songs. But I digress.)

On the other hand, “Rock the Casbah” brought me to a wonderful world music artist they admired who covered it – Paris-based Algerian singer and activist Rachid Taha. It’s a delectably potent version with English and Arabic lyrics well worth seeking out, as is the rest of his catalog. Taha also aptly described The Clash as “militant and hedonistic in equal measure.”

They were able to sell millions of records with considerable Leftist content, no small achievement. Their approach was sometimes criticized as naive. But they also managed to deliver an important and potent political consciousness to at least some of the masses.

In addition to his legacy with The Clash, Strummer left behind three marvelous albums of internationalist rock leading his solo band The Mescaleros. And a foundation in his honor works to alleviate poverty and advance the arts.

He left us a legacy that shares with Bob Dylan’s political work being fervent and tuned into its times yet timeless. Within the wild electoral season we are currently cursed with as I write this and the years beyond, Strummer’s music continues to provide a much-need balm and battle cry for those of us on the Left.

Populist Picks

Book: Rasputin by Jane Oakley – I find all sorts of interesting tomes at my favorite place to browse for and buy books; The Half-Price Books chain. This lavishly illustrated biography of the mad charlatan monk who helped bring down the Russian monarchy reads with even greater relevance in this time of Trump.

Documentary: Atari: Game Over – This history of the groundbreaking computer-gaming company follows the archeological mystery of truckloads of copies of the company’s failed “E.T.” game dumped in an Alamogordo, NM dump. And in the process traces the rise and fall of a modern digital business in a revelatory tale.

CD: The Traveling Wilburys Collection – This set with the two albums and a video disc of the short-lived supergroup of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne has recently been reissued, and is a must buy for fans of any of the above. At their best, the Willbury’s lived up to the splendors of their other endeavors.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2016

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