Joe Strummer on why Johnny Rotten was “one of the greatest poets”

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The first wave of punk in the UK was a fairly fickle scene that seemed to be over almost as soon as it had begun. As such, the figures that defined that movement had something of a limited shelf life, with the notable exception of The Clash frontman Joe Strummer. Strummer is among the greatest rock and roll frontmen of all time, and his prolific work with The Clash has stood the test of time in a way that few of his contemporaries can claim. It did not take long for The Clash to eclipse the boundaries of the early punk scene, but Strummer never lost his appreciation for the artistry of that period.

Arguably, the only band to overshadow the influence of The Clash during the early days was the Sex Pistols. Despite their manufactured beginnings, from the ‘Sex’ clothes shop run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the Johnny Rotten-fronted group were responsible for popularising this daring new genre, and spreading its influence outside the squats of London Town. With defiant tracks like ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the republican anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, the Sex Pistols introduced punk to the musical mainstream.

While the Sex Pistols should be commended for their work in establishing punk, their recorded material certainly has not stood the test of time in quite the same way as some of their peers. Perhaps as a result of their relatively short tenure, the band’s only studio album, Nevermind the Bollocks, had not enjoyed the same enduring relevance as records like London Calling or Give ‘Em Enough Rope.

Nevertheless, the Pistols were instrumental in inspiring the early days of The Clash. In fact, Joe Strummer once revealed that the band had caused a realisation in him while playing with The 101’ers. “They played, there was hardly any audience,” he recalled, “It was a Tuesday or something. And I knew [The 101’ers] were finished, five seconds into their first song I knew we were like yesterday’s papers, I mean, we were over”.

Later, during a 1987 interview, Strummer heaped more praise onto the band, particularly their confrontational frontman, John Lydon. “I don’t wanna judge Johnny Rotten,” Strummer shared, “‘cause he’s very honest, he won’t bullshit you. I think Johnny Rotten is one of the greatest poets that have written in the English language, including Lord Byron”. A bold claim indeed, and certainly not one that Lydon would attribute to the work of Joe Strummer.

Over the years, Lydon has taken every possible opportunity to dismiss his fellow artists, rallying against everybody from The Beatles to his own bandmates. The Clash seem to be a particularly tetchy subject for the ex-Pistols frontman. During his memoir, Anger is an Energy, he took aim at a variety of beloved artists, including The Clash. In the book, Lydon claimed the band “didn’t have any content, and they really didn’t seem to stand for very much at all other than this abstract socialism”, adding, “they had nothing to offer, character-development wise”.

That last point seems particularly bizarre with regard to The Clash. Afterall, Strummer’s group were often noted for their ability to change and develop their sound. Over the course of their discography, the band embraced styles of rockabilly, ska, dub, disco and even hip-hop. In contrast, Lydon’s current band, Public Image Ltd., have been living off the sounds of late 1970s post-punk for over four decades.

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