Strummer calling

As well as being a punk pioneer, Joe Strummer had an extraordinary hoarding instinct. Ian Burrell discovers the unknown side of the Clash front man
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The Independent Culture

In a slightly dilapidated country barn, piles of plastic bags were stacked on top of tea chests, suitcases and cardboard boxes, which themselves contained yet more plastic bags. The scene somewhat resembled an aid charity's collection for the victims of a foreign disaster zone. But these carrier bags contained, not food or clothing, but the writings and the polemics, the jottings, the doodles and the lost song lyrics that will shed new light on one of the most iconic figures in British rock music.

In a slightly dilapidated country barn, piles of plastic bags were stacked on top of tea chests, suitcases and cardboard boxes, which themselves contained yet more plastic bags. The scene somewhat resembled an aid charity's collection for the victims of a foreign disaster zone. But these carrier bags contained, not food or clothing, but the writings and the polemics, the jottings, the doodles and the lost song lyrics that will shed new light on one of the most iconic figures in British rock music.

Joe Strummer never liked to throw anything away. The former singer with The Clash kept his set list from almost every gig, along with the scraps of paper on which he drafted the words of the band's songs. He held on to the fan mail that he received from around the world, and he retained the scribblings that he made on a daily basis about Britain, the world and the universe.

For months, with the permission of Strummer's widow Lucinda, the artist Gordon McHarg and one of the late singer's old friends - who likes to be known simply "Pockets" - trawled through this bagged-up archive. They found the set lists from entire tours - torn off by Strummer from his Fender Telecaster each night - and they have dug out the lyrics that never made it into finished songs.

There was Strummer's original scrapbook, painstakingly put together between 1975 and 1977 as punk drew its first raucous breaths, and containing every flyer, every review, each advert placed in the music press and every tiny reference from the listings magazines. At the back of the scrapbook, Strummer - who never ate meat - had pasted clippings of fish recipes from a newspaper column called Angler's Kitchen.

Then there was his little black hard-backed song-book, containing the earliest drafts of the lyrics to The Clash's anthem "London Calling". Each turn of the page reveals slight amendments to the words as Strummer revised a song that was to become a classic. Among the cases and bags were notes on at least six of the tracks from the London Calling album, which is being re-released this year on its 25th anniversary. The album was voted one of the five best albums of all time by readers of Q magazine.

The treasures include Strummer's record of The Clash's American tour of 1982, with the set list of every gig - each about the size of a credit-card receipt - carefully removed from his guitar and pasted side by side beneath the name of the concert venue. Another scrap of paper torn from a spiral notebook has the original words to the militant song "Know Your Rights".

This collection has been gathered up and brought to London, and will form the basis of an exhibition on The Clash singer and guitarist, called Joe Strummer Past, Present & Future, that will open next month and later move to Japan.

McHarg says: "Joe kept everything. His archiving was unbelievable. He was constantly note-taking, although he didn't always have a notebook but just wrote on whatever he could find. But no one has seen any of this stuff."

McHarg and Pockets have even found Strummer's written version of the legendary Vanilla Tapes, the missing Clash recordings that were recently discovered by the band's other front man, Mick Jones, when he was moving house.

The tapes, which were recorded at Vanilla Studios in Pimlico, central London, were made in 1979 when The Clash were at the height of their creative powers. It had been thought that the recordings were lost when a roadie left them on a London Underground train. The reissued London Calling will include the Vanilla Tapes.

There are also stacks of photographs sent to Strummer by Clash fans, including entire albums lovingly compiled by Japanese Clash followers who met the band on arrival at Tokyo airport and went on tour with them.

The other key element of the Strummer exhibition will be a collection of photographs showing the musician in the earliest days of his career. The exhibition has been timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary next month of Strummer's first significant public performances. Julian Yewdall, who took these remarkable pictures, was a housemate of Strummer's in a squat at 101 Walterton Road in Maida Hill, west London.

It was here that Strummer and some of his fellow squatters formed a band called The 101ers, who have acquired cult status among music fans as one of the bands that paved the way for punk. Maida Hill was the centre of the squatting movement that emerged in the mid-Seventies in homes that had been run down by the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman. The squatters had their own "estate agency", called Ruff, Tuff, Creem Puff, which gave advice on newly-vacant buildings.

Yewdall says: "It wasn't easy, and we lived for years with just a cold-water tap. The mains electricity had to be connected to the grid by hand by jamming the wires in. No one had any money, they were just scraping along." Strummer arrived in the area after dropping out of the Central School of Art and spending a short time in Newport, south Wales, where he first experimented with the guitar.

Strummer's real name was John Mellor. Born in Ankara, Turkey, he was the son of a Foreign Office official and attended a boarding school in Surrey. When he was 18, he adopted the name Woody after the folk guitarist Woody Guthrie, but soon after he arrived in Maida Hill he came up with Joe Strummer, a self-deprecating reference to his then limited abilities on the guitar. The 101ers started rehearsing in the basement of the squat, using old mattresses as soundproofing.

Yewdall, who had a minor role in the band as a backing singer and maraca player, remembers: "Joe was working as a cleaner at the London Coliseum opera house. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life, and he said, 'I want to be a rock'n'roll star.' Even then, that was all he wanted to be."

To build a following, The 101ers (who drove around in a hearse) established their own venue by renting - for £1 a night - the upstairs bar at the Chippenham pub, 100 yards from the squat. They called it The Charlie Pigdog Club * * (after the squat's resident pooch), and they charged 10p entry.

Strummer was to play the Pigdog 16 times. "It was a dump," says Yewdall, who later managed the band. "It was mayhem every time the 101ers played there. There were a few nights when things really got out of hand." According to a 1997 article in Uncut magazine: "For a few months... The 101ers shook the pillars of heaven themselves."

Yewdall's pictures capture the evolution of Strummer's rock'n'roll persona, swigging beer at basement rehearsals and - at a 101ers gig in the Red Cow pub in Hammersmith, west London - looking uncannily like Bruce Springsteen. He had the Elvis Costello look off pat as early as 1975.

The exhibition is being staged at the London Print Studio, whose owner, Jon Phillip, designed posters for some of Strummer's earliest gigs. Those posters will form part of the exhibition.

By early 1976, the 101ers were being supported at gigs by another west London group called The Sex Pistols. Strummer was attracted to the attitude of punk, and by that summer he had quit the 101ers for The Clash.

Meanwhile, the squatters and tenants living in the area around 101 Walterton Road evolved into one of the most innovative housing co-operatives in Britain. This same community later fought the Conservative leader of Westminster council, Dame Shirley Porter, who was forced to pay a £12m surcharge over the homes-for-votes scandal.

Right up to Strummer's sudden death in 2002, the former Clash front man continued to take every opportunity to highlight social inequalities and to break down cultural barriers. Debs Bourner, the community services manager of Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, a housing association that has helped to put on the Strummer exhibition, said the singer had been an inspiration to local people, not only because he fought against social injustice but because he incorporated music from different ethnic backgrounds into his work.

When questions were being raised about the fondness of some early punks for the swastika symbol, at a time when the National Front was strong, Strummer was always at pains to make clear where The Clash stood. "I think people ought to know that we're anti-fascist, anti-violence and anti-racist. We're against ignorance," he said.

Bourner draws parallels between the musician's views and the stance of the local community in fighting for their housing rights. "The residents here have made their voices heard, which is what Joe Strummer was doing through his lyrics," she says. She hopes to have the words "Joe Strummer was here" built into the brickwork on the site of the 101 Walterton Road squat.

The housing association agency last month held its summer fair in a small park immediately in front of the spot where the penniless Strummer had honed his craft. Duke Vin, the first reggae sound-system operator to set up in Britain and a resident of the area, gave an airing to some old records from the Seventies. Strummer had been a fan and a regular member of Duke Vin audience.

In the sunshine, at a stall decorated with pictures of The Clash front man, local children sat and designed their own multicoloured flags to be displayed at the forthcoming exhibition. The flags are a reference to Strummer's internationalist outlook and to the fact that his campfire at the Glastonbury festival was always surrounded by the banners of many nations. Visitors to the show will be given the opportunity to contribute to the event by creating their own Strummer-inspired flag designs.

McHarg says: "This exhibition shows that Joe Strummer's energy can still create waves in the present day, bringing together different communities in a spirit of friendship and action to create something special."

When Strummer left the 101ers and joined the musicians who would become The Clash, Yewdall continued to follow his progress for a while. He photographed Strummer, Jones and the bassist Paul Simonon at the famous August 1976 gig with The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks at the Screen on the Green in Islington, north London. That show is now regarded as one of the most important events in the story of English punk. We know now that Strummer snipped out the music-press reviews of the concert and stuck them in his scrapbook.

Yewdall also pictured Joe backstage at the Royal College of Art in November 1976, wearing a jacket with the self-customised slogan "Passion is a Fashion". The expression is one of many phrases and idioms that recur in his writings.

Money from the exhibition will be donated to the Strummerville charity, which was set up after the musician's death to provide rehearsal space and studio time for young musicians.

The Strummer legend lives on. At this summer's Glastonbury, his former musical contemporaries Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers, Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols and the punk/reggae DJ Don Letts were among those performing on the Leftfield stage in a night dedicated to Strummerville. McHarg says: "Joe left a big hole. Everyone has to pitch in, because it is going to take a lot of us to fill that."

Joe Strummer Past, Present & Future, London Print Studio, 425 Harrow Road, London W10 (020-8969 3247), 4 to 18 September. The 25th anniversary edition of 'London Calling' is released on 20 September on Sony Columbia

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