In Erinnerung an Joe Strummer

joe strummer

Heute vor 12 Jahren verstarb Joe Strummer alias John Graham Mellor, und wie in jedem Jahr seit 2002 erinnert ein Spreeblick-Posting an eine der größten Stimmen im Rock’n’Roll.

In diesem Jahr gibt es neben dem fantastischen Livemitschnitt des Pariser Gigs am 27. Februar 1980 (den man leider nicht einbetten kann) auch die englischsprachige Version meines Textes „1984“, die ebenso wie die deutschsprachige auch in der Taschenbuchausgabe meines Buches enthalten ist.

Außerdem noch die Hinweise, dass das Blog Black Market Clash wieder online ist und dass Strummerville seit heute offiziell als „Joe Strummer Foundation“ agiert! UPDATE The Clash Blog ist ebenfalls wieder online!


At the end of 1983 my first band »System« had dissolved and my new combo called »Plan B« was just starting out. The first venue that had the guts to let us perform was the LOFT in Berlin. Even as we were rehearsing our first songs, I got wind of the fact that the only concert in Germany of The Clash’s current tour would take place on February 19th, 1984, specifically at the Philipshalle in Düsseldorf. Sold out, weeks ahead.

5.000 people? 6.000? Never mind, I had to go to Düsseldorf to see them for the third time. Especially since I had yet to experience their new lineup which, as it turned out, would be their last and most inglorious one.

As I got on the phone (there was no internet back then … I’m not even sure there were push button phones then … was it even a phone? Maybe I was using drums …?) to organise tickets, I was struck by a splendid idea to save some money:

Plan B from Berlin would play their second gig ever as the opening act for The Clash! Then surely we wouldn’t need to pay for tickets.
Keep in mind two things: Firstly, in spite of their separation from Mick Jones, The Clash had turned out to be a pretty successful band that got platinum in the US, worked with huge tour promoters and played in pretty big venues as far as punk rock goes. In a nutshell, they were a band that seemed every bit as much out of reach in the mid-eighties as those bands of the mid-seventies that they had once revolted against.
And secondly, I couldn’t care less.

The Clash were the most important band in the world for me, I was 19 years old, there was nothing I couldn’t achieve if I wanted it badly enough. And I wanted this badly. I wanted to play with Plan B as support for The Clash in Düsseldorf. With eight half-finished songs if memory serves.
So two weeks before the Clash’s gig in Düsseldorf I looked up their tour dates in the NME and found out which city and which country the band was currently at. At that time I was only vaguely familiar with the concept of tour organisation. I knew, however, that the band was always (really always?) with their personal manager and press spokesman Kosmo Vinyl. I also knew it would be futile trying to contact the band directly. So the one person I »knew» other than the band members, Kosmo Vinyl, would be the one I was intending to reach.
But how? And where?

In a hotel, of course, a pretty big one. In the city they were playing that day, obviously. On the first day of my research (and also on the next few days) that meant somewhere in the UK.

It is one thing if an insolent, naive 19 year old picks up the phone, convinced of his sufficient grasp of the English language to drive home a support gig during an ongoing tour. It is something else again, if that tour leads through Ireland and Scotland and the telephonists of the big hotels there have their very own concept of said English language that differed considerably from my own schoolroom and punk rock English.
It was easy to identify the five biggest hotels in each city. But it was next to impossible for me to understand the people in those hotels. Many times I simply couldn’t find out whether the band didn’t reside in the respective hotel, or the staff had been instructed to deny they were there, or nobody understood me, or I had interpreted their sentences wrongly. And after several days of research I had no idea how huge my phone bill would turn out to be.

By now my band was laughing at me. That won’t do. That will never work. Let it be.
Then, after a great many frustrating phone calls, two days before the Düsseldorf gig on February 17th, 1984, I dial the number of a hotel in Sweden, since Stockholm is on the tour plan that day.

Brilliant: The receptionist’s English is just as bad as mine. I reel off my by now well trained sentence with an intonation that leaves no room for doubt that the band and I are old chums and that this call takes more of my valuable time than I can really afford:
»Hi, can I speak to Mr. Kosmo Vinyl, please? He’s with a band from England called The Clash and he’s staying in your hotel.«
»Sure, just a second.«

Unfortunately the earphone melts at that moment (with coiled cable, since back then there weren’t any … oh, never mind). At least it feels that way. In fact it is only sweat by the litre that all of a sudden and without warning is pouring down my entire body including my hands. Furthermore, my muscles have decided in a spontaneous act of rebellion never again to bow to the terror regime of my brain and, damn it, it’s been a long, long time since I last went to the loo.

What the hell? The next line in my script is »Okay, thanks anyway, have a nice day!» as I said it each of the days before. I am not prepared for »Sure, just a second».

»Hey«, it chimes fiercely from the receiver.

He is in a foul mood, I better call back later. No, it isn’t him at all. It is another telephonist, a male this time, who is about to inform me that Mr. Kosmo Vinyl, who is with a band from England called The Clash, is not a guest in their hotel after all. And what about that lump in my throat?
»Am I talking to Kosmo Vinyl of The Clash?«
»Yes, you are.«
Now it’s over anyway, he’s completely stressed out, I
can hear these things, three words are enough for me and my lump and my brain-freed muscles and already I have also lost three kilos.
»Hi. Er. So. We are a band from Berlin we are called Plan B we like The Clash very much we wanted to ask if you have a support band for the concert in Düsseldorf or not we wanted to know if maybe it is possible to play before The Clash we could come to Düsseldorf we don’t need money we like The Clash.«


But he’s still on the line. And he hasn’t started laughing yet. He says:
»How do I fucking know that you’re not a fucking heavy metal band with fucking Flying V guitars?«
Fair question. Not really posed in a friendly way, but I decide not to get caught up in matters of style right now. The problem is, though, that I have no answer prepared for such a question. Then it goes »click«.

Not on the phone, but in my head: The man is a punk rocker! That’s his way of being friendly!

I decide to stake everything on one card and answer with the same kind of friendliness.
»I would hardly call you in Stockholm and ask you to let us support The Clash if we were a fucking heavy metal band with fucking Flying V guitars«, I answer in a trembling voice, surprising myself with the unexpected grasp of the word »hardly«.
And I quickly add a »would I?«, which even today is at the very top of the list of my personal linguistic triumphs.

Kosmo sighs.

»Tell you what, we actually haven’t got a support on this tour, so here’s what we can do. You’ll be there at six with your own amps and drums. Bring a tape so I can listen to it. If I like it, you can play.«
»Good!«, I say, even today at the very top of the list of my personal linguistic failures.

So that was that. I did it.

We would be the opening act for The Clash, all the Clash fans would love us, we’d receive a golden record and become famous.
Only we didn’t have any records or even demo tapes for that matter, just a horrible tape recording from our rehearsal room. And I couldn’t possibly tell my band mates that we’d be travelling to Düsseldorf on spec to maybe support The Clash.

So I decided to lie. I told the band the gig was going OK and the band was swept off their feet. And also pretty motivated, to put it mildly.
One of them knew someone with a van for the equipment, my dad lent me his car for additional passengers. So, two days after my conversation with Mr. Vinyl, we started out for Düsseldorf first thing in the morning. You never knew how long you’d have to wait at the border. Back then there was an inner German border and, by the way, no internet …

The Philipshalle in Düsseldorf could hold about a million people.

Or so I thought when I entered it on the afternoon of February 19th, 1984, for the first time in my life. Of course I had been to big venues before to see famous bands, but never before had I been in a big venue that was empty. And never before had I been to an empty big venue where The Clash were on stage doing their soundcheck.

Our entourage didn’t just consist of the band; about eight or ten of our friends had come along to Düsseldorf to witness the sensation. All of them were going to flail me should something go wrong, and accordingly I felt pretty uneasy.

The new Clash members I knew from a few photos, but next to them stood Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon. Those I knew from several thousand photos. We, the band plus friends, stood in the middle of the hall, maybe 10 meters from the stage. And I hoped.
I hoped that those guys whose work turned out to be so precious and important to me in the past years, and who had an amount of influence on my young life that my school could only dream of, would not disappoint me. And by that I didn’t mean primarily that they should let us play.

It was about more than that.

It was about the question whether punk, specifically the punk as propagated by The Clash, was real. Whether they really were »different« from all the other bands. Whether you really could talk to them or whether they were arrogant assholes. I was young, but I wasn’t clueless. I didn’t expect the Redeemer nor better human beings nor the official commando to save the world. But I did expect cool guys. I hoped for cool guys.

Somebody led us behind the stage into a backstage room (the backstage room: myth and legend. Refuge for endless sprees and orgies, goal of all hardcore fans and groupies. So they say. Best imagine backstage rooms of small venues as a loo that hasn’t been used in years or as a boxroom. And those are the better ones. Backstage rooms in big venues on the other hand are nothing else than locker rooms, which makes sense, since many big venues are sports halls in real life. And then there are the backstage rooms of open air festivals, those are caravans…).
Nervously we paced our locker room, planned the set list, made nervous jokes. Then came the question I had been dreading: »What happens next?«
Before I could shrug my shoulders a guy appeared who looked like someone who played with The Clash.


He asked for me, we exchanged greetings. I handed over our crappy rehearsal room recording and slowly, doubt started to spread among the other guys. What was that about? I explained. Obviously they want to hear something from us, I argued.

»But not from this frigging tape!«, the others objected. Sure.
We had no other.
We didn’t have to wait five minutes before Kosmo reappeared. No way could he have received an impression in that short time and I was positive that now we had to pack our things.

»You will be on stage exactly at eight. You have 30 minutes, no encores. Now relax, get a beer and enjoy yourselves!«

Had the »Boris Becker fist« been around then (which it wasn’t, as, incidentally, neither was the internet), all of us would have performed it then. Instead we showed our delight like normal human beings, fell around each others‘ necks, laughed, cheered.

And all of us were aware that the situation was both absurd and sublime:
A completely unknown band from Berlin plays their second gig ever as the opening act of The Clash. And why?
Because they asked!

In case you didn’t know: Things like this essentially do not happen. Apart from the fact that most famous bands leave the decision about the support to their label or tour promoter, it is also the rule that support bands have to pay for their place in a bigger concert or even a whole tour. That is not necessarily as nasty as it sounds, not only because the support band can count on the marketing effect deriving from the famousness of the main act. A support band actually produces additional costs: Technicians have to work extra time, additional settings are necessary on sound and light desks, the stage has to be rebuilt an additional time. Those additional costs are typically passed on to the support band or their label and they can easily sum up to a five digit number when opening for a famous band on a 20 cities tour. Normally. The exception proves the rule.

After The Clash were done with their soundcheck it was our turn to setup our amps and drums and we were able to have a short soundcheck of our own (which again is quite unusual for a support band). The crew was nice and helpful and we actually did relax a little.

At eight o’clock sharp we stood at the edge of the stage, nervous as hell, armed with our guitars.

The lights went out in Düsseldorf’s Philipshalle and the audience started a deafening hooting. At that moment, I became aware for the first time that my idea had been an extremely crappy one indeed. Because in my euphoria, I had neglected one not so unimportant detail:
Nobody in the audience knew we were going to play. Even worse, nobody in the audience knew there was going to be an opening act in the first place. The crowd was expecting just one thing the moment the lights went out: The Clash.

A few scrawny teenagers teetered on the stage instead. As if that meant anything, I shouted »We are Plan B from Berlin!« into the microphone (I didn’t dare to go for »Hello Düsseldorf, it’s good to be back!«) and we stumbled into our first song to leave no time for negative reactions.
I cannot remember if we were any good. My guess is we were rather bad, but we were under some sort of puppy license.

Booing was just as sparse as applause, the mood was resigned waiting, time for another round (back then there was real beer in the big venues – but no internet …). I remember that at some point I shouted some statements against Helmut Kohl, who was German chancellor back then, into the microphone (hey: punk!) and no-one was interested. I remember how strange it felt to see the other guys playing so far away from me, the stage seemed incredibly huge. I also remember how quickly our fear of this big venue was gone. During the gig you could only see the first few rows from the stage anyway. Behind that everything appeared black.

And I remember my random gaze to the edge of the stage after the second or third song. There they were. Joe and Paul. Watching their support band, twitching their legs a little. I was proud as Punch.

The Clash gig itself was a blur, too impressed were we by what had just happened. Also, we had to arrange a place for us to sleep. Fritz, our bass player, was from Dortmund and knew the area. He had some contacts, and somehow we ended up in the flats of German band Fehlfarben later that night.
But before that, still on the venue, we wanted to meet The Clash after their gig. Before the gig, there was far to much nervousness all around, but now I didn’t intend to miss out on at least shaking Strummer’s hand.

To thank him.
To ask him what he thought of us.
Kosmo entered the backstage room as we were packing
up our things. He thanked us (!), took 300 Deutsche Mark out of his pocket (back then there was no Euro and no internet and coaches drawn by chickens travelled the mud-covered roads) and handed them to me. Did this roughly cover our travel expenses, he asked. Yes, of course, it did, but there really was no need and blah blah blah, but he insisted.

What a great guy. I was impressed.
»Wanna meet the band?«, he asked.

And so suddenly we ended up in the backstage room of The Clash, who were engaged in animated conversation with those of their fans that had managed to get here. The legends about the band’s fan affinity weren’t rubbish after all.

Strummer was talking to two young girls, discussing their situation at their school (no kidding – the man had an insatiable and genuine interest in other human beings, as I could confirm in later meetings) and slowly we were involved in the conversation.
Eventually Strummer took off to pack up and I saw my chance to say hello to him in private.
I thanked him, we chatted. How did he like the band, I wanted to know. His answer was brief:

»You’re a good leader. But you need to work hard.«

You can do it, but you need to practice.

Not the answer I had expected. Not an answer I had hoped for. Maybe even an answer he gave unthinkingly, but an important answer for me and the further history of my band all the same.

We were a little successful later, and though we never made much money in the following years, we did tour half the world, had a lot of fun and created a number of good songs, too. And now, in 2012, we’re back on the road again!

I am aware of how foolish and ridiculous all of this will sound to some. Despite my young age back then I was not looking for »leaders« (nor am I today), but I searched for and found artists that weren’t disguising themselves and whose lyrics I could trust.

I can voice my admiration for a band and for Joe Strummer without fear of embarrassment, simply because it never was embarrassing.
There are many bands out there and even more fans adoring and loving them, following them every step of their way, hanging on their every word, knowing every single interview, every single photograph. I have never been a fan like that, because most bands either consciously or unconsciously confirm the social position and status of their fans as just this: Fans. Devotees. Buyers. Consumers. Me, band: here. You, fan: there.
The early punk rock, and thus not only but first and foremost The Clash, have proved things can be different, art can be inspiration and motivation for the individual after all, to become more than just the perpetual recipient. They have proved it is possible to become a producer of art yourself.

Because that’s what punk means: You can do it, too!

Übersetzung: Stefan Lipgens

Es sei außerdem noch angemerkt, dass ich mittlerweile noch einmal die Gelegenheit hatte, mich bei Kosmo Vinyl persönlich für die Geschichte damals zu bedanken.

6 Kommentare

  1. 01

    Der rss-link für diesen und den Eintrag davor führt direkt zu Flattr anstatt auf den Eintrag.

  2. 02

    @#1396889: Huch? Danke für den Hinweis … mal checken, was da falsch läuft.

    Ähm … bei mir wird der Artikel im RSS-Reader angezeigt und der Link führt zu Spreeblick.

  3. 03

    @Johnny: Hmm, na ich kann mal noch n bisl mit anderen Clients testen. Vllt ist bei mir auch was kaputt. Kam halt einfach so. Und gilt wie gesagt nur für die letzten beiden Einträge. Ich nutze http://feeder.co als Plugin für in Safari.

  4. 04

    Nicht „Plugin“, „Erweiterung“ heißt das.

  5. 05

    Ok, hab repariert bekommen. Bis eben hatte ich links in der Form: link

    Habe nun in der Sqlite-Datenbank von der feeder.co-Extension die letzten beiden Einträge gelöscht. Danach die Extension deaktiviert und aktiviert. Jetzt wurden die korrekten Links abgerufen. Alles wieder schick also.

  6. 06

    @#1397020: Prima, das freut mich …