[Joe Strummer] had been a pub rocker in a forgettable band called the 101ers before his punk days. Then in 1976, he caught the Pistols in concert and, like a lot of performers in that era, he thoroughly revamped himself and his sound. The next year, with his songwriting partner and co-vocalist Mick Jones, bass player Paul Simonon and a soon-to-be-fired (later rehired) drummer named Terry Chimes, the Clash released its self-titled debut, a garage masterpiece. The production was so unrefined that it didn't get a U.S. release until 1979 and then only after the band dropped some of the grimier- sounding tracks and replaced them with glossier singles. Among the standouts you'll find on both the U.K. and U.S. versions: "Career Opportunities," which captured the state of the beleaguered British economy from the viewpoint of a teenager trying to find work.
It wasn't just Strummer's temper that made him the focal point of the Clash's now-legendary live shows. He may have been downright average-looking offstage, but nobody ever took a dull photo of the guy in concert, where he usually gave off the intensity of a cornered gladiator. Critic Lester Bangs watched the Clash once and reported that Strummer was in an "outside-of-self-frenzy, snarling through his shattered dental bombsight with the face screwed up in all the rage you'd ever need to convince you of the Clash's authenticity."
After the group disbanded in 1982, Strummer acted in movies and in the late '90s made fine albums with a new band, the Mescaleros, but he never attained anything close to his former glory. Like Lennon and McCartney, Strummer and Jones were less than the sum of their parts once they went their separate ways. But during his years with the Clash, Strummer helped write a new chapter in the history of agit-pop by proving that a band can sell records and evolve without losing its polemical edge. It's a lesson that acts like U2 and Billy Bragg would internalize, and it's the reason that for years fans called the Clash "the only band that matters."
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