Twenty years ago today, the legendary frontman of the Clash, Joe Strummer, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart defect at his home, sat on the sofa after taking his dogs for a walk, aged 50. He was always the one for me musically, inspiring me to form a band and pick up a guitar. Whilst the Haddock Brains only lasted for two years and never got out of the rehearsal garage, he was a long-time influence on my values, attitudes, and beliefs.
The first time I heard White Man in Hammersmith Palais when I was 16, it just hit me. The moment and the tune has stuck in the turntable in my head for the next 45 years. His voice wasn’t just angry, it was vulnerable and hurt. When he died, I didn’t play Joe’s music for a while afterwards because it meant having to confront the fact that he was dead. It’s amazing the influence music and musicians have on you.
In January 1977, The Clash signed with CBS Records and recorded their self-titled first album. Three years later, their London Calling album was voted Best Album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Also released in 1980 was the band’s fourth album, the epic triple Sandinista! In support of the album, The Clash went on a tour that included 17 consecutive dates at Bond’s International venue, in Time’s Square, NYC.
After releasing their final album in 1985, the Clash split, and Joe went into a personal wilderness for over a decade. Returning with what was to be his final music venture, The Mescaleros, he was reborn. Remarkably, his final music displays a renewed creativity, experimentation, and innovation. With the Mescaleros he recorded three magnificent albums. More insightful and mature, a collection of stunning, poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects close to his heart.
On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit gig for striking fire fighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones, his former partner in The Clash was in the audience, and in an impromptu act, joined the band on stage to play a few classic Clash tunes. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together. But within three weeks, Strummer was dead.
Strummer made his mark, redefining music, and reaffirming the principles of committed, intelligent political and social commentary and opposition through music. For someone who used his music to galvanise and promote progressive action, his final performance was most fitting.
Strummer – it seems like an appropriate name for a guitar player – although his pick usually hits the strings with a staccato regularity of a jackhammer. Watch his live performances, his left leg, it thumps out the rhythm and beat with genuine force. Strummer bashes out an urgent message with no time to spare. The tunes and lyrics with The Mescaleros aren’t as militant as his earlier work, he sounded more wistful and romantic than in his Clash days.
In 2018, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 was released, featuring previously unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This was the last time we heard from Joe. Through his songwriting he showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice. I wonder what he’d make of our country today.
After his death, the Joe Strummer Foundation was established for the promotion of causes close to Joe’s heart, one of which is Future Forests, an organisation dedicated to fighting global warming by planting trees.
Rebel’s Wood is a young forest on the Atlantic-facing North West side of the Isle of Skye. The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Bracadale is a woodland of native broad leaf trees, predominantly Birch, Alder, Rowan, Oak, and Willow. This healthy young forest is doing well after taking a while to poke their heads above the bracken, due to the slow growing conditions of the far North.
Strummer was dynamic, controversial, and confrontational. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talismanic musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity. Originality was a trait characterising both the man and musician. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his death, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making commercial music.
Strummer’s ideology of driving innovation and originality in his craft is very rare. His zest and restlessness puts him alongside the names we associate with C21st tech entrepreneurship, people who’ve built amazing digital services, devices, new business models or social-media platforms. Like them, Strummer wanted to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity, but through his music rather than tech. Strummer had the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation and individuality. Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein, Bowie, Jobs and Musk.
It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are. That’s entrepreneurship. It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are and be it the best way you know how.
So, how to remember Joe as we mark a sad twentieth anniversary of his untimely death? Reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions, and his personal values, what can we take from this individual and musician as a force of nature into our startup venture thinking?
Start small Bootstrap and learn your craft, with a strong work ethic and determination, will always give you the foundations to make your dream a reality. Strummer never forgot where it all started for him: I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99, and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play Johnny B. Goode. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and Johnny B. Goode. And that’s how I started.
Aim for the big picture Strummer wanted to be the best, get his voice heard above everyone else. He had something to say. He was ready to take big risks when there were no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in him or his music, but this did not dent his self-belief. He just kept going – keep the big vision, take small steps – and then with The Mescaleros he went again, saw success. Nothing is impossible.
Commit yourself to doing something special Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:
Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.
Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.
Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.
Build prototypes Joe’s risk-taking and creativity always had a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. He prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle. For each finished track, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.
He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. He was perpetually enthusiastic. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day.
Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? Make sure you connect with your customers. Music sells the album, t-shirts, and the concert tickets. Like music, content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.
Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. Strummer and The Clash had their own style and image too – what’s your business logo or icon?
The future is unwritten There were moments when Strummer wanted to be left with his thoughts. He liked being alone, he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard. He once said Thinking is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But according to his wife Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil: He would say, I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’And I would go: No you’re not, you’re just staying up!
The future is unwritten is a headline quote just before his death, which captures the essence of Strummer and entrepreneurs, restless, curious, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously searched out anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being. He was an individual, in every sense of the word.
In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. He was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy. Joe was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, and he inspired all. Strummer had integrity, romance, and was a brilliant sloganeer. Throw in a great soul of humanity and soul.
People say you should never meet your heroes, but I did three times and he never let me down. You start to feel old when your heroes die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for a whole generation of us, Joe Strummer was a hero.
It’s Christmas 2022. The offices are empty, the roads are quiet. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever. Go easy, step lightly, stay free. Take a leaf out of Joe’s book, and remember as a startup founder, your future is unwritten.
Directions to Rebel’s Wood – From Dunvegan follow the A836 South for half a mile; turn right onto the B884 and follow for half a mile; turn left to Orbost (signposted) and follow for two miles. Park in the yard and follow on foot the track to Bharcasig (Barabhaig) and continue south to the site.