From 1974 onwards I was completely under the spell of the New Musical Express (NME). This was my window on the world of music and I slavishly lapped up every word by the likes of Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent. The rival papers were Sounds which was OK but lacked the writers and Melody Maker which after years of being the music paper going back to the dance band days was now floundering. When Punk hit they were badly wrong footed to the extent that in 1977 chief writer Chris Welch was touting Sad Cafe as band of the year.
Sometime in early 75 for some reason I purchased MM instead of my usual drug of choice and came across a remarkable review by Alan Jones of a band called the 101ers. The review concerned a gig at the bands own Charlie Pigdog club in West London. By Jones’s account the pub in question held ‘extraordinary promises of violence’ which were fulfilled when fights broke out between gypsy/traveller factions and the police were called. Throughout this the band kept up a high octane performance led by their extraordinary front man who was trading under the name Joe Strummer.
This review was no accident. Jones was an old mate of Strummer (initially calling himself Woody) from Newport in South Wales where Strummer played in a local band called The Vultures. Strummer, real name Mellors, was a ner do well underachiever of the sort that I aspired to be. He moved back to London were he fell into the squatting lifestyle ending up at 101 Walterton Rd.Squatting was a viable lifelstyle choice for a few years and allowed the pennyless and dispossessed to live in areas close to the where a kind of bohemian lifestyle was easily affordable. His squat had enough space to allow rehearsal in the basement and so a loose band evolved, hence the name. The first line up featured two exiled Chileans, unfortunately one of them, the drummer, temporarily left a week before the first gig. Undeterred Strummer/Mellor got one of his mates to not only learn the set but also to learn to play the drums in that period of time. That’s the band in the basement at Walterton Rd heading this piece.
Early line ups of the band were low on talent but high on saxophones. At an early gig for Chilean refugees they were booed off stage not because of their musical incompetence but because of their choice of rock and roll classics which represented the worst of American imperialism to the refugees.
A few months later and the band had solidified and improved. Strummer has managed to purchase a Telecaster from a marriage of convenience and a Vox AC 30 from a compensation pay out following from a short lived job at the Royal Opera House. His old mate Richard ,Snakehips’ Dudanski had evolved into a powerhouse drummer, they had a regular bass player in ‘The Mole’ Chesterton and a proper musician had joined, Clive ‘Evil C’ Timperley on guitar. It is apparent from the names that Strummer was reinventing himself and his band mates and beginning his first steps towards self mythologising.
It all made for good copy though and the band soon started to accumulate interest from the press and venues throughout the Capital. They remained at heart a pub rock band but here was something a bit more ‘punk’ about them than similar bands on the circuit like The Count Bishops or Ducks Deluxe. No matter what anyone though of the band there was no doubt that Strummer was an incredible front man with an amazing voice. In among the Chuck Berry covers there were a few Strummer original, some of these sounded like Dire Straits numbers played with energy but others were fantastic high energy rock and roll gems .
In his heart however Joe Strummer yearned for better thing than just being the best pub band in West London. Seeing Bruce Springsteen on his first London gigs was a real eye opener as to the possibility of putting on ‘ a show’. With his rocker’s haircut, rotting teeth and a suit appropriated from his conservative father he was cutting quite a dash as the band’s front man and getting quite a bit of notoriety in the places that mattered. The Mole was soon sacked for being too bald and was replaced by the more hirsute Dan Keller, the first signs that Strummer has a ruthless side and big ideas.
As a big player on a small circuit they were being supported by up and coming bands which included The Sex Pistols. Apparently after seeing Lydon’s mob Strummer realised the writing was on the wall for a bunch of drop outs playing Rock and Roll.The band had just recorded the brilliant single ‘Keys to Your Heart’ but Strummer wasn’t going to hang around to promote it. He tried to no avail to persuade the band to go more in a Punk direction which led to Timperley being eased out of the band, following this failure he was open to negotiations with Bernie Rhodes about starting a bands with one of Rhode’s proteges Mick Jones.
And so the Clash were born.
Although delighted to have bagged a talent as great as Strummer his pub rock background was a bit of an embarrassment and was airbrushed out of his history along with a couple of superfluous years off his birth certificate. Dudanski was encouraged by Strummer to fill the vacant drum stool but his old bandmate so distrusted Bernie Rhodes that he took a raincheck although he later reappeared in PIL and The Raincoats to name but two influential bands.
And so Strummer cut the ties with his past and set sail on the good ship Punk Rock. At the time it was a massive gamble, the 101ers could probably made it big in a Dr Feelgood kind of way and for a few weeks he was grabbing the ear of anyone who would listen to ask them if he really had done the right thing.
There’s not much recorded of the 101ers but even the poorly recorded live tracks indicate a level incredible energy and excitement and whether Strummer could have sustained that impetus without Jones playing McCartney to his Lennon is debatable.
Without the 101ers however there probably wouldn’t have been a Joe Strummer and without Joe Strummer Punk would have been a lot poorer.