By Alan di Perna
Joe Strummer’s battered 1966 Fender Telecaster is one of the principal guitars responsible for igniting the punk rock revolution during the mid to-late Seventies. It was his main instrument throughout his tenure with the Clash and his post-Clash solo career. The iconic guitar remains one of the most popular objects in the exhibit London/New York/Los Angeles—Blank Generation: 1975–’80 at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Strummer purchased the Tele used in 1975 with £120 he’d obtained in exchange for marrying South African national Pamela Moolman so she could become a British citizen. The instrument originally had a sunburst finish, but in 1976, just as the Clash were forming, Strummer took it to a car repair shop and had the body and pickguard sprayed with gray primer prior to applying a top coat of black automotive paint.
“It was part of the ‘outside of the box’ aesthetic choices that punk rock was all about,” says R&RHOF associate curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger. “Paul Simonon, the Clash’s bassist, was a visual artist, and he helped shape the aesthetic of that band. The whole D.I.Y. principle of taking a nicely finished instrument and distressing it was very punk.”
Also quintessentially punk rock is the collage of stickers Strummer attached to the guitar’s body. The most famous one, reading “Ignore Alien Orders,” can be seen as an oblique reference/homage to Strummer’s hero, folksinger Woody Guthrie, who emblazoned several of his guitars with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists.” The instrument also boasts a circular promotional sticker, seen below the bridge, for “Trash City,” a song by Strummer’s short-lived post-Clash Band, the Latino Rockabilly War. Many of the other stickers Strummer attached to his Telecaster wore off over time.
Strummer swapped out the Telecaster’s original Kluson tuners for Fender F-style tuning machines and replaced the original three-saddle bridge with a six-saddle bridge. The automotive paint has completely worn off from portions of the pickguard and body, a sign of the heavy use the instrument saw on concert stages and in recording studios with both the Clash and the last band of Strummer’s life, the Mescaleros. The guitar as it exists today is unfortunately in poor condition. The hardware rusted heavily as a result of being carelessly stored in a damp English barn following Strummer’s death in 2002.
R&RHOF curator Craig Inciardi arranged the museum’s extended loan of the guitar through Strummer’s widow, Lucinda Tait-Strummer, in 2006. He discovered the guitar in the barn along with Strummer’s typewriter, articles of clothing, and several notebooks containing song lyrics. All of these items were included in the loan to the Hall.
“Some of the lyrics had been eaten by mice,” Rutledge-Borger says. “Clearly, Mrs. Strummer was initially more concerned with the loss of her husband than making sure that his legacy was ensured. But once we’d gathered the objects and pointed out how important they were, she became very concerned. She’s been very generous with the loan, and we’re happy that she’s so willing to share Joe with the world.”