So, Mr Blair, when
did you become a Clash fan?
Until, in about 1975, mass unemployment, crisis and uncertainty returned and we were blamed. We were lazy, had no respect and were told every hour that "You've got all the opportunities we never had" and "Don't you know we fought a war for you". So we were angry in return. Why should we take the rap for the disintegration of their Nixon-riddled, apartheid-blighted planet, and surely there was more to life than a sideboard full of china ornaments in the first place. It wasn't fair, and there was no one to turn to. Communism offered little – no one would stick posters of Leonid Brezhnev on their wall. And the Labour Party was led by men that resembled the committee of my dad's bowls club. It's doubtful whether anyone ever thought "Che Guevara may be dead but we've still got Jim Callaghan".
Then, crashing into every disgruntled teenager's bedroom exploded Joe Strummer. The first few bars of the first track on the first Clash album screamed out of the chipboard speakers and hurtled round the room. The lyrics were indecipherable but it was obvious what they meant – "you be as angry as you like, mate. You think you're angry – how about this?" From then on, the antidote to hearing grumpy neighbours moan that "these days they don't want to bloomin' well work" was to wallow in a deafening blast of "Career Opportunities". Now it felt like we were winning. We had Joe Strummer and they had David Owen.
The Clash didn't just legitimise anger; they politicised it, giving meaning to the directionless rage that drove early punk. They celebrated multiculturalism and supported the Sandinistas; they weren't just against, they were for. And where most adult advice involved how to earn a few bob or save a few bob, they sold their records so cheap that they threw away a fortune.
Twenty-five years after that first album, a Strummer gig was still fantastically uplifting, and not as a piece of retro nostalgic Seventies bollocks. There was never going to be a tacky musical called London Calling in which two semi-finalists from Fame Academy played a couple called Janie Jones and Tommy Gun battling in the casbah, chased by Julie from the drug squad, played by Leslie Joseph. Strummer's new songs were poignant, especially on asylum-seekers, and he still belted out every note with a ferocious passion.
A few weeks ago I performed at a benefit for striking firefighters, at which Strummer and his band the Mescaleros were the main attraction. Comedy and music is usually a disastrous mix, and after 10 hopeless minutes I sloped off. Later, despondent, I went backstage, where Strummer was getting changed after fronting a magnificent frenetic hour, and he signed my record while I said: "Thanks, er, thanks, er, right, er, such an influence, chipboard speakers." Then he chatted, to me and to a flurry of fans and firefighters that invaded the dressing room, in the neighbourly effortless manner that politicians practise for a lifetime and never understand why they can't accomplish.
Tony Blair once praised "bands such as The Clash" for creating a much undervalued source of exports. So, he was a Clash fan, was he? I look forward to him telling George Bush: "I'm so bored with the USA". Maybe he'll begin his next conference speech: "No man born with a living soul can be working for the clampdown. Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall, how can you refuse it?" And he'll replace Blunkett with a Home Secretary whose mission statement ends: "You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you'll have to answer to – oh oh – the guns of Brixton."
I've never liked Blair, but I've never despised him as much as I did in that moment. Every soulless fraudulent icy pore in his body was illuminated in that statement, from a man who, if he lived to be a thousand, would never comprehend how most human beings are driven by higher ideals than poxy import/export ratios. I suppose that Blair's a fan of Shakespeare as well, on account of how he improved the balance of payments in the budget of 1601 by becoming a leading exporter of soliloquies.
The sadness in Joe Strummer's death is not that he was
an icon for a generation – that's relatively easy. It's that 25
Thatcher- and Blair-dominated years later, Strummer was still fuelled
by his original passions, principles and humility. Better to be a king
for 25 years than a schmuck for a lifetime.