Damien Hirst and other friends of the late Joe Strummer are helping young bands to get started.
by Ed Potton, The Times Online
Joe Strummer was known, in his later years at least, as one of rock’s most hospitable men. But Strummerville, the musical charity set up by family and friends after the death of the Clash frontman in 2002, is based in one of the least welcoming places in Christendom.
To get there, you have to negotiate a maze of concrete and barbed wire. Overhead, traffic thunders along the Westway, the flyover that hangs over this corner of West London like a long grey cloud. Next door is a miserable-looking camp of Gypsies, one of whose dogs sinks its teeth into my leg as I walk past. Wiping the blood off, I finally locate, with considerable relief, Strummerville HQ, a bohemian oasis in the apocalyptic gloom.
The charity has been kept afloat by fundraisers, including a Christmas bash this Sunday and all-night summer parties on this sport attended by the likes of Kate Moss and Lily Allen. But a crucial boost was a £960,000 donation from Damien Hirst, from a specially commissioned painting he sold. “After Joe died we wanted to create something that he would have approved of,” explains Hirst, himself inspired to become an artist by Strummer. “We set up Strummerville as a way of continuing what he believed in and offering opportunities to budding musicians who otherwise have little chance of getting their music out there.”
On this December day the doors of a small auditorium are flung wide open. Five young men and one woman are belting out fine, ska-inflected tunes against a backdrop of leopardskin sofas, glitterballs and Native American ornaments. They are Riff Raff, one of a growing number of young British bands who have benefited in these tough times from facilities and advice provided by Strummerville.
“It’s meant the world to us,” says Alex Thompson, their singer-songwriter, clambering off the stage. “Without it we were struggling, especially in the credit crunch: we have no money, we’re all on the dole.” Strummer, he says, was “massively inspirational” for him, growing up in Coventry. “This whole area of the Westway has Joe’s name written all over it. How can you not be touched by the Clash?”
The stage and adjoining offices belong to Jason Mayall, the son of the guitarist John Mayall and a good friend of Strummer, who used to be a regular visitor here. The charity itself is based in a Portakabin that is plastered with Clash set lists, photographs of Strummer and quotes from the man himself: “Be keen, be eager”, “Be mythic, be prolific”. It’s run by Trish Whelan, a veteran of the music industry. “It’s so London-centric that it’s quite scary for bands who are from out of London,” she says, putting the kettle on and examining my dog bite.
Riff Raff first heard about Strummerville from the London musical community and their regular stage at Glastonbury. Thompson had been sending Whelan demos for several years, and the band had tweaked their style following her feedback. Then, three months ago, the charity began helping them out with rehearsal costs, including the use of their room at the Roundhouse in North London, where musicians can borrow instruments and practise for £1 an hour each.
Whelan also used her contacts to get the band a weekend at Trevor Horn’s legendary SARM West Studios in Notting Hill. “Grace Jones recorded there,” Thompson smiles. “I think Stairway to Heaven was recorded in the top room; Prodigy and Basement Jaxx are in there at the moment, so it’s a buzzing little hive.”
As well as providing bursaries for rehearsal and recording, Strummerville also offers help and advice from mentors including musicians such as the former Clash drummer Topper Headon, agents, managers and top-line producers, including Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack, Björk). “Instead of saying, ‘Here’s your 500 quid, go off and we’ll never talk to you again’,” Whelan explains, “we’re saying, ‘Here’s your 500 quid and you can have an hour on the phone over the next six months with one of these people’. ”
Strummer’s widow Lucinda is on the board of trustees, alongside Hirst and Strummer’s two daughters from a previous relationship. “There was such an overwhelming reaction to the sad loss of Joe and so many people who wanted to make a contribution to charity to honour the impact he had on them,” she says. “So in a way Strummerville gave birth to itself.”
Although the Clash remain icons for many, some have doubted the punk credentials of Strummer, the son of a diplomat who was as much of a canny opportunist as he was a counter-cultural firebrand. But his commitment to socio-political causes was unarguable, from his work for the antiracism movement and his support for Aids charities to his major role in setting up the CarbonNeutral Company, dedicated to planting trees in various parts of the world.
Strummerville continues to champion causes that would have captured his imagination, such as the fight against new legislation requiring music promoters to provide detailed information about the type of music their acts are playing. It is “ultimately racist”, says Whelan, an attempt to target basement and garage events that often have large black and Asian audiences. “The important thing is that Joe would have said: ‘Wicked, that’s a good idea, let’s help them’.”
Another supporter is the film-maker Julien Temple. For his 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, Temple interviewed his subjects beside campfires, a setting reminiscent of Strummer’s all-night gatherings at the Glastonbury Festival, where guests included Hirst, Keith Allen, Temple and his wife Amanda. Strummer’s worldview, more hippy than punk in many ways, is especially apposite in today’s troubled times, Temple believes. “As time goes by, Joe’s ways of seeing things just seem to get more and more relevant,” he says.
Indeed, Strummer’s famous campfires form the basis of another Strummerville project, a series of music therapy events to be held outside various British cites in 2009. Whelan hopes to bus out disadvantaged kids to the countryside, plonk them down next to campfires, give them instruments and let them jam away. For anyone pondering the wisdom of letting wayward kids loose with fire, Whelan promises that wardens will be on hand.
Monday will be the sixth anniversary of Strummer’s death, from a congenital heart defect, at the age of 50. “All of us try to keep his memory alive in some way,” Temple says, “but it’s great to know that Strummerville exists out there in the wider world and is working to turn people on to those things that Joe stood for.”
For Whelan, a moment of vindication came when she heard Riff Raff’s latest demo. “I thought to myself, ‘God, you’re starting to sound really good’.” The band have a series of gigs lined up for the new year, and hope to release their debut single, My Blood is Brave, in February. “Strummerville has grabbed us up by our bootstraps and pulled us into 2009,” Thompson smiles.
It’s a heartening thought as I wander off in search of a tetanus jab.