Joe Strummer: The Man Who Would Be King

The 101’ers were about to hit the big time. But then Joe Strummer found punk. 

CHISWICK RECORDS WAS faced with a problem in July 1976. The debut single by The 101’ers was ready for release, but the band was no more. Joe Strummer had sidled up to Chiswick’s Roger Armstrong in a pub and asked: “Have I done the right thing?” It took Roger a moment to work out what Joe meant, but once he understood him it was clear — Joe was joining a new band managed by Bernard Rhodes.

The single, ‘Keys To Your Heart’, was released anyway and the press release stated that “Joe Strummer, ex-101’ers vocalist, rhythm guitarist and human dynamo, has joined a new band, The Heartdrops”. A few weeks later, Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon reviewed ‘Keys To Your Heart’ and announced that Joe’s new band was now called The Clash. She even interviewed him; leaving The 101’ers “was very traumatic. I formed the group with my sweat. I slogged at it. I used to think I was a crud. Now I realise I’m the King and I’ve decided to move into the future.”

In saying that he’d effectively been a piece of shit in The 101 ‘ers, Joe drew a line between himself and his immediate past — just as he had done in 1975 when Woody Mellor was reinvented as Joe Strummer. From crap to crowned head in a few weeks.

New eras and new movements demand radical words, but Joe had done himself and The 101’ers a disservice. ‘Keys To Your Heart’ was a great pop record: vital, kinetic, concise and melodic — totally in keeping with everything that would be associated with the best punk. The 101’ers’ roots were in R&B and they were part of the pub rock circuit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They didn’t have the manic quicksilver flash of Doctor Feelgood or the blokeish swagger of Eddie & The Hot Rods, but they did have a pile of great songs and an unbeatable front man, as revealed on the releases issued after the band’s demise, most recently EMI’s Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited) compilation. For every high-speed rocker like ‘Letsgetabitarockin” and ‘Steamgauge 99’ there’s an atmospheric growler like ‘Silent Telephone’ or the Latin-tinged, sweetly acoustic ‘Sweet Revenge’. The 101’ers weren’t one-dimensional blusterers.

The band began as a piece of fun. Then their mercurial front man took control and attempted to mould the band in keeping with his dynamic new persona. It’s the story of Woody Mellor becoming Joe Strummer; a persona too big for the 101’ers.

Woody Mellor returned to London in July 1974. He’d spent the last year-and-a-half in Wales, mostly hanging around Newport College, which was orbited by a thriving music scene. He’d been the singer in covers outfit The Vultures, a band formed from the remnants of rock’n rollers The Rip Off Park All-Stars. Although R&B was their staple, The Vultures also dabbled in country and ’60s-styled beat music. But apart from Woody the band was made up from students, so it had a built-in shelf life.When the college courses wound up in early summer 1974, it was over — London beckoned.

Schoolfriend Paul Buck — alias Pablo Labritain — had visited Woody in Wales.”I saw the group,” Pablo recalls, smiling. “It was a bloody racket.”

In London, Woody looked up his old friend Tymon Dogg, then squatting at 23 Chippenham Road, Maida Hill, in west London. South of Kilburn and north of Notting Hill, Maida Hill was — and remains — traversed with streets of terraced housing, mainly built in the 1860s and 1880s. Peppered with bomb sites and recently built post-World Wir II housing estates, mid-70s Maida Hill was hardly chichi, but it was central. More importantly, many buildings were vacant, ready for occupation by adventurous squatters.

Tymon Dogg’s house was full, so Woody was directed towards 101 Walterton Road where a room was thought available. Among those living at 101 was Julian Yewdall, who says “that whole triangle of Walterton Road, Elgin Avenue and Chippenham Road was squatted, especially Elgin Avenue. There were hundreds of squatters along that particular section. I wouldn’t say squatting was a political act, but politics came into it in the sense that it was necessary to know your legal position, your rights as an occupant, standing up to the police, the authorities, getting the electricity connected. There were all kinds of people living in those squats: junkies, alkies, people who had come into the country with no money…” 101 proved full, so Joe was pointed towards 86 Chippenham Road, a property’ backing on to 101. Another resident of 101 Walterton Road was Alvaro Peña-Rojas, a Chilean who had fled to England in 1970 after the Pinochet coup. He had formerly been in chart bands The Challengers and The Boomerangs, so Woody’s arrival in the area was in keeping with the musicianly complement living at 101.

“Joe was really keen to get a band going,” recalls Julian. “101 evolved into this group of musicians. Anybody who lived in the house was in the band. I played a bit of harmonica and did a bit of singing. Joe was getting better on the guitar, but he wasn’t that confident. He was finding it difficult to sing and play at the same time. I was in it for a laugh really, I had no great ambitions to become a musician. I didn’t play any instruments well.”

Regardless of ability, a band took shape during August 1974 — an ad hoc group, with up to nine members. Joining Joe and Julian were Alvaro on sax, Simon Cassell playing sax and trumpet, and neophyte bassist Patrick Nother. It was good enough for Alvaro to secure a live date on a Chilean Solidarity Campaign bill at Brixton’s Telegraph pub on 7 September with reggae band Matumbi.

Billed as El Huaso and the 101 All Stars, the band performed six songs. Despite the Latin-sounding name, the material was old standbys, including ‘Gloria’, ‘Bony Moronie’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Woody’s old friend from the pre-Wales days Clive Timperley was there: “They were God-awful, fun but amateurish. But Woody was amazing.You could see that Woody had that ambition, but the rest of them thought: ‘This will be a laugh.'”

After the Brixton debut the band that would become The 101’ers played odd political benefits and shows in abandoned buildings, such as an old cinema. The push to take it seriously came from Liz Lewis, a friend of the band who talked them into renting a room above the Chippenham pub on Shirland Road, at the junction of Chippenham and Walterton Roads. On Wednesday 4 December 1974, The 101’ers debuted under their new, truncated name. Between then and late April 1975 they played around 17 shows at the Chippenham, pretty much once a week from January 1975, under the billing of the Charlie Pigdog Club, named after 101’s resident canine, who sometimes took the stage to howl accompaniment to sax player Simon Cassell.

The ambition that Clive Timperley had seen in Woody came to the surface over the next few months. “Woody had seen me in a band I was in at the time, Foxton Flight.” recalls Clive. “He was impressed that we were playing at the Marquee and it spurred him on. I saw Strummer shaking his leg upstairs at the Chippenham, and he was just fantastic. 1 thought this band could be good. They were much more organised than I thought they would be.”

Clive joined the band in January, and Patrick Nother’s younger brother Richard became the permanent drummer. Bass duties were taken by Marwood Chesteron — another local squatter, dubbed Mole owing to his looks and predilection for the night time. In a major shift to the band’s power base, Alvaro got the boot in late March. “There was a time when it wasn’t determined if it was Alvaro’s or Joe’s band,” explains Julian. “It was mainly Joe picking the music he wanted to do; he was listening to early blues. Eventually Joe forced the issue, took control and sacked Alvaro.The band got whittled down. He sacked me as well. He wanted 100 per cent commitment, no going on holidays, no doing this, no doing that. I was interested in travelling, so that was seen by Joe as lack of commitment. If you were taken out for a drink by Joe, you knew you were out. I was probably pissed off at the time, but not that much.”

The changes weren’t limited to the line-up. Woody decided that new names were needed, and in February 1975 announced that he was now Joe St rummer. “We always knew him as Woody, but he couldnt call anybody by their real name,” says Clive.

By the end of May 1975 The 101’ers were a more serious proposition. They’d settled on Joe; Richard Nother (renamed Richard ‘Snakehips’ Dudanski — ‘dude’ given a Polish spin by Joe), drums; Clive Timperley (Evil C — Clive backwards).guitar;and the already nicknamed Mole on bass. Joe wrote ‘Keys To Your Heart’, his first song for the hand, around this time. They also began a new pub residency that May, at The Elgin on Ladbroke Grove, where they would play regularly until January 1976. By June Joe had written mote songs: ‘Motor Boys Motor’ and ‘Steamgauge 99’.

“Those were great days at The Elgin, fantastic.” enthuses Clive. “Everyone knew and loved Woody and the squatty scene was so linked, everyone’s wives, friends would come along, so the audience expanded. We used to call them rent-a-crowd because they were all friends of ours. The floorboards used to sag at The Elgin because of the dancing and the amount of people. They could have had the whole roof down. We played everything at 1000 miles per hour, so everyone was pretty shagged out when we’d finished.”

Despite being sacked by Joe, Julian Yewdall remained close to the band: “For a period I was unofficially managing them. I got a few gigs — the St Moritz Club, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s.” Playing Londons gigging circuit — The 101’ers began playing at colleges and other pubs in July 1975 — meant the band became tighter and more noticeable. The more they played, the more they became part of London’s musical furniture.

In late July 1975 Melody Maker‘s Allan Jones — who knew Joe Strummer from Wales — penned a wildly enthusiastic article on the band. The NME followed three weeks later with a review of a show at Islington’s The Hope & Anchor pub.

In October The 101 ‘ers began a residency at The Nashville Rooms — not a pub that they had booked themselves, but part of the live circuit with a proper venue and stage in its large back room. As they played, the momentum grew. Their confidence also grew. “We didn’t have anything to do with other bands,” says Clive. “We had that feeling of self- centeredness, containedness.”

As 1975 wound down it seemed as though a band like The 101 ‘ers might have a chance with the mainstream. Doctor Feelgood had signed with United Artists and R&B band the Count Bishops had issued their debut EP on the new independent label Chiswick Records. Eddie & The Hot Rods were making waves, and went on to sign with Island Records in 1976. Things looked up for The 101’ers when Doctor Feelgood’s producer, Vic Maile, took them into the studio in late November 1975 to record six tracks, all originals, all credited to Strummer/101’ers. There was no doubt now about whose band this was.

The new year began with The 101’ers lurching forward in their usual unstable way. The Vic Maile demos hadn’t led to a contract and Joe tinkered with the line-up. Mole was sacked and recently joined guitarist Dan Kelleher moved over to bass. The 101’ers had been a five-piece since October 1975, but Joe wanted the band to be a classic four-piece. Clive Timperley remembers Joe explaining that the four-piece line-up was his ideal, saying that the model was The Shadows.

“We were getting really good”says Clive.”There were ego clashes a iitde bit. Dan especially would help Strummer write songs and I’d been arranging the songs. But there was a feeling that Strummer wanted to go somewhere.”

Just how good The 101’ers had become was evident to Chiswick Records’ Roger Armstrong, who saw them in January 1976 at Kensington’s Imperial College. “I’d seen them before at The Elgin. Then they were very weird, they had the trumpet player. It was all a bit shambolic. My partner Ted Carroll saw them and said you should see this funny guy. We went to this college gig. where the band played on the floor in the comer. There was Ted and Land a couple of other guys. Everyone else was sitting around the bar. They had grown out of the chaotic band they had been. Joe was playing to save his life, like he was playing to a huge crowd at a festival. He wasn’t trying to impress us, it’s how he was — wind him up and off he went. It was so obvious Joe was a star, he had that charisma. He was riveting, a human dynamo in this big baggy suit. It’s amazing that people ignored them, but we saw it differently because this was the music we were into. The outside world was listening to Roxy Music, but this racket in the corner was neither here nor there to them.”

Chiswick Records duly approached The 101’ers and offered them the chance to make a single, taking them into Pathway Studios in March to record ‘Keys To Your Heart’, ‘Rabies (From The Dogs Of Love)’ and ‘Sweet Revenge’. “‘Keys To Your Heart’ was a catchy tune,” says Roger. “It had a good structure, Joe’s passionate bit in the middle. It was the obvious single. “A subsequent March session at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio resulted in three more tracks (including an alternate ‘Keys To Your Heart’), and it seemed that The 101’ers were a viable — and perhaps stable — proposition.

But then they played two dates in April at the Nashville Rooms with a support band called the Sex Pistols. “We were playing at the Acklam Hall and someone said: ‘You’re playing at the Nashville Rooms with this new band the Sex Pistols’,” recalls Clive Timperley.

“Who are they?’

“‘They’re a mad bunch and they steal equipment. You’ve got to keep hold of your guitar.'”

“We thought: ‘Oh shit, they’re going to be all over us.’ But Steve Jones, Glen Matlock I and Paul Cook made a point of coming to the Acklam Hall to see what we were like. I thought that was really nice — they came backstage and chatted. But when I saw them live, I was appalled. I thought it was all publicity, all staged; there were hecklers planted in the audience.” 

The Sex Pistols might have appalled Clive but they had a galvanising, missionary effect on Joe. It wasn’t long before he tried to mould The 101’ers to his new vision. “Joe had this long talk with me about this is the way we’ve got to go, the direction we’ve got to go in,” recalls Clive.”There were two words he used all the time — maximum impact. He wrote it down on the wall in my kitchen — this is what we are after, with everything: stance, politics, music, clothes. I thought I’m not into that. I’m a sideman, I like to stand at the back and play really good guitar. I liked Steely Dan and Little Feat. I might well have had a beard, there was an underlying theme that it had to go. I felt I was too old at 28.”

Roger Armstrong thinks that “Joe looked at his bandmates and saw they had long hair, a bit hippy. His band probably did look a bit old-fashioned to him.”

Clive left The 101’ers on 26 May and the band carried on for another week-and-a-half with a stand-in guitarist. They played their last show — which Clive guested at — on 5 June at Haywards Heath. The Clash played their first show in Sheffield a month later supporting the Sex Pistols. Where The 101’ers had been content to grow up in public. The Clash debuted out of harm’s way.

If the SexPistols hadn’t come along, could The 101’ers have continued? What would have they become? Julian Yewdall was there throughout and saw many of the early Clash shows. He says that “The 101’ers would have become a redundant R&B band that didn’t quite make it and would have been swamped by punk. Joe sensed that. The 101’ers were resistant to managers, to being told what to wear. The Clash was completely different, being moulded and formed, with the manager. The whole stance was completely different. The Clash were completely new.”

For Clive Timperley, whatever his problems with the Sex Pistols, “if The 101’ers had continued, Strummer would have got disenchanted with the direction we were going in. Something had to change.There had to be some kind of head-on collision. Punk rock had to happen.”

© Kieron TylerMOJO, 2005

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