Mary Wakefield

The thinking man’s punk

Mary Wakefield talks to Julien Temple about Joe Strummer and his latest film

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Sometimes you absolutely know, beyond the gentlest breath of a doubt, that you’re not going to like a person; something you’ve heard, or read about them, has tipped you over into a flinty conviction that they’re not your type. I took a preconception of this sort with me to meet the cult film-maker Julien Temple. He’ll be arrogant, I thought, full of humourless guff about rock festivals and his days documenting the lives of the Sex Pistols (Sex Pistols Number 1 [1977], The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle [1980] and The Filth and the Fury [2000] — though all three films were good).

I carried my conviction with me along Bethnal Green road to Temple’s recording studio; into the canteen and up to his table, where, as he lifted his head to say hello, it instantly collapsed. My antipathy, it turned out, had just been a front for a fear of punk. And though Temple is unquestionably hip — slim in denim, with gelled and tinted hair; handsome, with just a hint of eye make-up — he’s not the least bit frightening. He blushes as he says hello, and within five minutes we’re talking about toads: ‘They’ve suddenly appeared near our house in Dorset,’ he says. ‘Big fat ones. Lovely. The kids and I spent a whole day carrying them across the road to safety.’

So no need to be scared of Temple, and perhaps not of Joe Strummer either, the late front man of The Clash, and the subject of Temple’s new film, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. There was no one more terrifyingly cool than Strummer in the late 70s — he was the thinking man’s punk, all peroxide and political angst, a cut above the Sex Pistols’ anarchy — but he and Temple had a lot in common. Both men were hippies in their pre-punk days; both swaggered through their twenties and crashed at 30 (Temple’s rock bottom was the appallingly over-budget film of Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Strummer’s was The Clash’s last album, Cut the Crap, which didn’t). Both men picked themselves up in the late 90s and moved to the West Country, to broker peace between inner hippie and inner punk.

Your life story isn’t entirely dissimilar to Joe’s, I say to Temple. Is there an autobiographical element to this film? ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘In a kind of ghostly way there is. The reason I felt I could do it is because I’d lived it too. Joe and I were born the same year, and we both began by squatting in the same part of town. I was behind Porchester Baths, behind Queensway, in this amazing seven-storey mansion, fantastic stained-glass conservatory and all that and he had another, second squat which was round the corner. We were hippies then.’ So when did you become punks? ‘In the middle of ’76 or September there was a festival of Punk at the 100 Club, and that was the first time I saw The Clash,’ says Temple. ‘And suddenly there was this new version of Joe. He had dyed blond hair, total attitude and this huge mockney accent, which was weird because he was a middle-class boy. I said to Mick Jones [guitarist and vocalist with The Clash], “What about that accent?” Mick was so swept away by the new image that he said, “I never noticed it had changed.” I mean, come on!’

So, did you think Joe was a prat for re-inventing himself? I ask. ‘No, of course not!’ Temple looks shocked. ‘As soon as he walked out on stage and started to play I thought he was amazing. I didn’t think he was a prat at all; I thought, my God! Here’s a transformation on a Frankenstein scale, it was awesome.’

But you weren’t tempted to join a band? I admire Temple’s rock-star cheekbones, and detect a touch of rock-star botox in his unlined forehead. ‘No, no. I wasn’t any good at playing anything. I was in a band at school but I sang really badly. I used to pretend I was like Archie Shepp or John Coltrane.’ What were you called? ‘We were called the Bombers, actually,’ Temple blushes, and fiddles with his sleeve. ‘But it was a long time ago, before anybody else were called the Bombers.’

Though Temple wasn’t a rock star, and though he had made his name filming the Sex Pistols, not The Clash, in later life he and Strummer became great mates. ‘In ’95 or ’96, my wife said that her best friend was coming to stay at our house with her boyfriend,’ says Temple. ‘The boyfriend turned out to be Joe. It was hilarious. Later he decided he wanted to live here and bought a farm up the road and we saw each other all the time.’

So didn’t you find it inhibiting making a film about a friend? I ask. Weren’t you wondering all the way through what he’d think? ‘Definitely, and you also think if he was here I wouldn’t have to make this bloody film, so there’s a recurrent sadness in it. But I can very easily conjure up his chuckle — and I think he would have been laughing at the fact that I was even doing a film,’ says Temple. ‘Mind you, the worst thing you can do, even with a friend, is try to make out that they’re a saint. I mean, remember that Mick Jagger documentary? That was just such a wrong way to do it. Mick’s a cool guy but when the director licks, um, you know, in that way, it is just, argh, it’s horrible.’

It’s true, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten isn’t a hagiography, but if it has a fault it’s that it sometimes seems like a film made for Joe Strummer as much as about him. There are no titles for instance; no indication, for the uncool, or for those born after 1980, as to who is who. If you don’t recognise, say, Mick Jones, it implies, you shouldn’t be watching. And for those in the know, the endless interviews by firelight are a tribute to Joe and his late-life passion for campfires, but for those who don’t, they do go on a bit.

‘Well, campfires were very, very important to Joe,’ says Temple, a fraction defensive. ‘The fire thing started when he got into Glastonbury in the mid-90s — he’d just have this little fire backstage and he’d play music for people. Then he started making fires whenever he could in his backyard and invite people over. He didn’t reminisce; I mean, it wasn’t a slippers-and-pipe thing. To Joe, the fire meant bringing people from any background or tribe together as equals. Joe would have duchesses and thieves sitting together round the flames.’

It’s a lovely thought, Temple and Strummer sitting side by side, toasting marshmallows, for the posh and poor alike, and, even if the philosophy of the fire doesn’t quite translate to film, it’s good to know that Strummer’s life had a sort of symmetry. The young Joe may have railed against the inequality of the class system, but the older Joe succeeded in breaking it down around his fire.

‘Yeah, that was Joe all over,’ says Temple, ‘and that’s why he’s important. OK, he was a rock star, but there was real thought behind his lyrics and a system of distilling this thought down to the simplest, most effective way of saying things. For me he was the best kind of philosopher; he actually put his thoughts into action and showed people how to live a proper life, which is why I made this film.’

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten opens on 18 May.