Joe StrummerAugust 21, 1952-December 22, 2002

The lead singer, guitarist and political soul of UK punk rock band, the Only Band That Matters, was only 50 years old when he died of a heart attack at his home in Somerset, England on December 22, 2002. It had been less than 20 years since The Clash had been a functioning unit, releasing five classic albums in as many years, but the effects of his contribution can be seen in nearly every rock band that followed.

Born in Ankara, Turkey to a British diplomat, Strummer (née John Graham Mellor) grew up traveling the world before being sent to boarding school in England. By 22, he was done with a stint studying to be a cartoonist, and living in London singing for a pub rock band, the 101ers. When his band opened for another neighborhood act, The Sex Pistols, he saw the possibilities in this new, angry genre.  He soon hooked up with guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, who had recently lost their singer, an Ohio-bred musician named Chrissy Hynde (later front-woman of the Pretenders). But in Strummer, they got more than just a man who knew how to strum on a guitar: They got a force that would shape how politics and music fit together, transforming this new, angry punk sound into something with purpose.

“Mick’s song I’m So Bored with You morphed into I’m So Bored with the U-S-A! (referring to the Vietnam War),” Hynde wrote this year in her memoir, Reckless. “Nice touch, Joe. Strummer was turning the band into a banner-waving gang of social—conscience freedom fighters … [He] put the aggression in and the songs were better with me out.”

From Bored and White Riot on their first album, to Spanish Bombs and The Guns of Brixton on their 1979 double-LP London Calling, to the new wave-y number 8 hit Rock the Casbah off their final true album, Combat Rock, Strummer brought an international sensibility to his music, and was just re-entering a productive period with his new band, the Mescolaros, when he passed away. But instead of mourning his untimely death, perhaps it’s better to appreciate that we had him as long as we did: In 2002, Paul Simonon’s wife Trisha told Rolling Stone that his death was the result of a defective artery near his heart. “The coroner says it’s something he would have been born with,” she said. “This could have happened at any point in his life. He walked his dog, sat on his sofa and that was that.”

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