The Punk Strategy

Throughout his political shifts, The Clash's frontman Joe Strummer taught one crucial lesson: that popular music is an unparalleled means for reaching out to the public.

Left to right: Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon of The Clash perform on stage in 1979. (Steve Morley / Redferns via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, to far too many people, the radical left has a bit of an image problem. Of old, the stereotype consisted of boring meetings during the week and newspaper stalls on the weekends; of new, the stereotype consists of middle-class university-types becoming advisers and policy wonks without ever having had ‘proper’ jobs. What both the individuals represented by these stereotypes have at their core is a belief that politics is a full-time business in mind, if not body; that it has to be an all-encompassing pursuit.

Fortunately, this is not the full picture. In reality, most people come to an interest in and commitment to left-wing politics through life experiences, popular culture, and the influence of others, rather than through independently locking themselves away in a library or bookshop. This is where someone like Joe Strummer comes into play.

For me, three Clash gigs at the Brixton Academy in 1984 were among the most enthralling nights of my life. Joe Strummer displayed an incredible power to convey radical political ideals through popular music. What he represented was a key part of my formative political education: not something taught in a classroom or learned from a textbook, but something made through lyrics and pronouncements in the weekly music press. And when I took testimony for my book on the politics of Strummer, I found out I was just one of many.

Initially a hippie and squatter in South Wales and West London in the early 1970s, Strummer’s first proper band, the 101ers, was a squat band playing benefit gigs for Chilean exiles in London who had fled the dictatorship of General Pinochet after the coup that deposed and killed the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. But the songs he penned for the 101ers were not political, despite of what was going on around him: the revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Britain, France, Italy, America, and Vietnam.

When The Clash was formed in 1976, Strummer articulated its manifesto in the NME music paper. ‘I think people ought to know that we’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative,’ he wrote. ‘We’re against ignorance.’

This was progressive and potentially radical, but it was not socialist. Within the space of a few years, however, that—for Strummer, if not for other Clash members—had changed. In late 1980, he stated in the music press: ‘I’m a socialist, not by persuasion but from my own experiences.’ And early the next year: ‘I believe in socialism because it seems more humanitarian, rather than every man for himself and “I’m alright Jack” and all those arsehole businessmen with all the loot… I made up my mind from viewing society from that [‘have-not’] angle.’

These politics quickly came to infect his lyrics, evident in tracks like ‘Something about England’, ‘The Equaliser’, ‘The Call Up’, and ‘Washington Bullets’ from the Sandinista! album, which was released at the start of that decade. His espousal of anti-imperialism, advocacy for a general strike, and recognition of the class nature of society shone through in these songs. In Combat Rock two years later he developed the notion of an ‘urban Vietnam’, describing how the capitalist countries wrought havoc over populaces both at home and abroad. In the last Clash album, Cut the Crap, he returned to more domestic issues of unemployment and de-industrialisation, best typified by ‘This is England’.

Crucially, Strummer recognised that the mass of youth at the time were largely not interested in painting or poetry. Film and television mattered not much more. They weren’t reading Jean-Paul Sartre or Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, either. Instead, he understood that most youth, in any age, are really into music—and its association with clothes, style, and attitude. It was for precisely that reason that music couldn’t be left to platitudes about love and loss.

Nor could it be about the de facto advocacy of individualism, materialism, and hedonism, represented politically by Thatcherism and New Labour and the neoliberalism they shared. Instead, Strummer wrote lyrics about the experiences of unemployment and poor housing, before moving on to tackle racism, de-industrialisation, militarism, and capitalism. And it wasn’t just about reflecting and representing the issues; his lyrics also started to lay out, however tentatively, the possibility of an alternative.

As is so often the case, this radicalism was not to last forever. In the 1990s, Strummer moved away from socialism and toward a humanist perspective, favouring an ethical form of decentralised, small-scale capitalism. This was linked to a sense of abject betrayal by Tony Blair and his Labour. ‘Now we’ve got Blairism. We are so completely confused,’ he said in 2000. ‘If you think of England as a patient laying on the couch in a shrink’s office, I’d say it’s time for the strait jacket. Imagine the party we had in England when Blair got into office after all those years of Thatcher.

‘The Blair administration just wants to get into bed with the richest corporations, and the very notion of Labour has vanished… I think people are feeling a bit cheated and frustrated. They’ve come to realise voting is basically useless because either side you vote for has no more than a shade of difference from the other side.’

For him, the alternative was ‘shopping locally’. ‘I’m going to use my dollar bill as a vote—I’m not going to give it to the corporations,’ he continued. ‘Every time I spend it in a small, independent, local spot, it’s like one less dollar I’m giving to massive global corporations. The only vote we’ve got is the dollar bill.’ This shift did not, however, stop him from still aligning himself with radical causes, and his last albums with the Mescaleros are imbued with heartfelt humanitarianism for refugees, migrant workers, the poor and downtrodden.

The lesson the left can learn from Strummer—and his socialist period in particular—is that popular music and pop culture more broadly is a vital bridge into the soul and consciousness of the mass of people, youth especially. We know that culture is a key battleground on which political wars are fought, especially in these times of ‘cancel culture’ and anti-wokeism. In our culture war age, rebel music remains a vital force for winning over an audience—for making clear both an idea, and how to do something about it.