Joe Strummer's pub rockers the 101ers recall their frontman...
The Chip, as they used to call it, is still there, re-branded now as The Chippenham Hotel, signs outside promising ‘accommodation’ and ‘en suite rooms’. There’s a large screen in the bar, golf being played in foreign sunshine, the bar itself otherwise empty on a sweltering recent afternoon. Frank Sinatra’s on the sound system, singing “Young At Heart”, which makes me laugh, thinking of Joe at 22 in 1975, standing in this room with The 101’ers, none of them much older than he was then.
The band’s old digs at nearby 101 Waterton Road are long gone, the derelict row of houses that included their squat demolished in the late-70s to accommodate Abinger Mews, a gated community of pricey townhouses and equally expensive flats. Standing where we are now 40 years ago, you might have heard from what used to be the band’s rehearsal room at 101 the thumping sound of them practising, perhaps for a gig that night at The Charlie Pigdog Club, which is where I see them first in February, 1975.
Joe is an old friend from Newport, where I’d been a student at the art school before moving to London in July 1973 and then joining Melody Maker. He calls with an invitation to see a band he’s in. Joe, still Woody then, has been in a couple of art school bands – The Rip-Off Park All-Stars and The Vultures – who had been rowdy fun, so I go, not expecting too much of the band but thinking it’ll be good to see Woody again. As it turns out, The 101’ers are raw, but also sensational, blasting out mostly R&B covers, the staple repertoire of what’s known back then as pub rock. Joe himself is a revelation, amazing even then, clearly already on the road to legend. At times, there are too many of them to count in this early line-up – bass, guitars, drums, four or five saxes, Joe’s recent busking partner and later Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg on violin. The set ends with a roaring 20 minute version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, Joe playing on even as the police arrive to close things down, oblivious, in thrall to the mayhem of the moment. Later, the band drives me home to south London in their newly-acquired hearse, which seems impossibly cool. This is the first of many great nights that follow, mainly at The Elgin, a pub in Ladbroke Grove, just south of the Westway, where they start a residency in May that runs through to the following January. By now, they’re a four piece, with Joe on guitar and vocals, Richard on drums, Clive on lead guitar and Mole on bass and they’re on fire every time they play, their set now peppered with the songs Joe’s recently started writing, including crowd favourites “Keys To Your Heart”, “Letsagetabitarockin’”, “Motor Boys Motor”, “Rabies From The Dogs Of Love” and the pile-driving “Steamgauge 99”.
“We rehearsed all the time, three or four times a week, for hours,” Clive remembers, “and every Thursday we played the Charlie Pigdog Club. Everyone got better really quickly, especially Richard who became this powerhouse drummer, absolutely fantastic. And Joe went from strength to strength as a front man, especially after he saw Bruce Springsteen at the Hammersmith Odeon in November. He was very impressed. After that he totally modelled himself on Springsteen. He thought Springsteen was where it was at. That’s what Joe wanted to be like on stage, he was absolutely inspired by seeing someone that hard working and just turned into this incredible showman.”