Joe Strummer’s Radio Show Captured a Punk Legend at the End of His Life
The Clash frontman’s gig as a DJ for the BBC was a brilliant glimpse into the mind and record collection of a rock icon.
When most casual fans of The Clash recall the band’s late frontman Joe Strummer, the picture that typically comes up in their mind’s eye is a portrait of the artist as a young punk. Maybe he’s snarling “White Riot” as a spit-curl pops out of his slicked-back mohawk, or sneering on a mural outside a Lower East Side bar, or smashing a guitar on the cover of London Calling (which of course wasn’t him at all). But few remember him in his post-Clash years, when he had a daughter under each arm and his curls lost a bit of their bounce. It was in these years, just before his untimely death in 2002 at the age of 50, that he slipped the world the most intimate look at himself in the form of his radio show, London Calling, on the BBC World Service.
London Calling hit the airwaves in 1998, after Strummer emerged from what friends have described as a dark period. In these “wilderness years” following The Clash’s demise in 1986, Strummer suffered a bout of depression that sent him on a soul-searching journey. For ten years, he’d ruled the world with “the only band that matters,” but for the first time in his adult life, he suddenly found himself without drive or purpose. He tried his hand in a bit of everything during this time—touring as a fill-in member of the Pogues, making soundtracks for movies, and even dabbling in acting.
At Glastonbury festival 1995, at the age of 42, Strummer took ecstasy for the first time and suddenly understood the appeal of techno and dance music. Soon he rekindled the love of psychedelic drugs he’d developed in his wandering pre-Clash hippie days—mushrooms, LSD, DMT, MDMA. He began going to more raves and festivals—T in the Park in Glasgow, Womad in Reading, and others—and loved spending long nights around campfires, catching up with old friends and making new ones from around the world. It was through these late nights, talking and listening to wayward travelers by the warmth of the fire, that he was introduced to international music styles, from Colombian salsa to African rumba. He became an avid collector of sounds that inspired him, and the more raves and festivals he attended, the greater his campfire collection became.
The records and cassettes he’d amassed would get put to good use in the summer of ’98, when he took a gig as a DJ for the BBC, the short-wave radio station with an estimated audience of 40 million listeners. Strummer started each episode with the same proclamation: “All transmitters to full, all receivers to boost! This is London Calling!”
If the fanbase of punk rockers Strummer had amassed in his Clash days was expecting a 30-minute selection of straightforward punk tracks, they’d be sorely mistaken. While he did occasionally throw in a few three-chord classics, kicking off one episode with “the godfathers of punk rock, The Ramones,” he bucked against the notion that punks had to be one-track music fans, and treated listeners to an impressive breadth of world music.
Strummer sounded less like a DJ on London Calling and more like a United Nations ambassador, somehow making seamless transitions from impossible intercontinental pairings. The Jamaican reggae of The Upsetters was blended into Françoise Hardy’s French pop singing on one episode, and on another, Rufo Garrido’s Caribbean saxophone met the Hawaiian ukulele of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (whose name Strummer took great care in pronouncing). He spun the obscure, like Tariq Lohar Mehabooba, to the obvious, like The Beatles, with a particular fondness for protest music, from South African anti-apartheid artists to American Civil Rights singers.
Strummer even made songs by ubiquitous acts like the Rolling Stones and Elvis feel like whimsical experiences. “Now I’d like to roll a bit of scratch-fest, and by that I don’t mean you’ve got eight arms and it’s gonna go wikka-wikka-wikka,” he said on one episode, miming a club DJ. “What I mean is this...” He then threw the needle on a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina” that was nearly drowned out by the old record’s hisses and pops, yet never sounded so good as it did in that moment.
London Calling was peppered with wonderful little Joe-isms, giving the world a glimpse at the charismatic punk icon in his later years, when he seemed to have found peace as a family man. While the albums he created gave fans a look at Strummer the musician, the albums he played as a DJ gave them a look at Strummer the music fan. Strummer, who was often accompanied to the BBC studio by his wife and two daughters, had a way of introducing every song like it was the most important thing the listener would ever hear. “Let Nina Simone rule the world!” was his introduction to her 1969 song “To Love Somebody.” “This’ll put the wind through your hair,” was how he threw to a track by La Cumbia Primero. “This is the sort of tune that’s like honey to the soul,” he said of Izinkomo Zombango’s South African tune “Mzikayifani Buthelezi.”
Sometimes he would toss in short personal vignettes. On one episode, he thanked his friend Bez Berry from Happy Mondays and Black Grape for some of that week’s song selections. “That last song we were rocking to in the proverbial kitchen the other night, and when morning came we went out in the yard and danced to this...” he said, launching into Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown.” He was fond of the phrase, “If your radio’s tuned here, your radio’s tuned right!”
Strummer occasionally tossed old Clash hits into the mix and, to the pleasant surprise of listeners, also used the platform to introduce some music he’d been working on with a new project, which eventually came to be known as Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. His work with the Mescaleros saw him harnessing all of these sounds from around the globe and putting his own spin on them. The group released two albums, one in 1999 and another in 2001. A third, Streetcore, which was released posthumously in 2003, stands as one of the most cohesive and important records of Strummer’s long and decorated career. It’s a brilliant capsule of the headspace of an artist—a wide spread of sounds stitched together by his hippie-punk spirit, and its inspiration can be traced directly to London Calling.
London Calling ran for only 14 half-hour episodes spread out from August, 1998 to July, 2001. Strummer died of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect on December 22, 2002, while reading The Observer at home, but his passion for spreading multicultural sounds and ideas carries on today through The Joe Strummer Foundation and Strummerville, which keeps the campfire blazing annually in his honor.
It’s been said that a person’s eyes are the window to their soul, but any music fan can tell you that their record collection is the more direct route. London Calling was short-lived, but served as a journey through the mind of the man who lived for music, and who had much more in him to spin. As he said in one episode: “Ah, there’s so much music in the world to play, and we ain’t even scratching the tip of the iceberg.”
London Calling is archived in its entirety on PRX's website.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.