In early 1983, The Clash were enjoying the biggest American hit of their career. Never a band noted for their internal harmony, they were on showing symptoms of last legs syndrome by the previous year’s Combat Rock; an underrated mess even more diverse than the artily experimental Sandinista!, yet cleverly packaged as a more pop-friendly move.
Joe Strummer had the punk rage, Paul Simonon had the reggae bass, and Mick Jones had the guitar flash. But the set’s second single Rock The Casbah was just drummer Topper Headon messing around in the studio waiting for the others to show up. Four decades on, it sure doesn’t sound like a band in freefall either — it’s a rowdy not always white riot of slash guitar, disco bass, digital bleeps from a Casio watch. Oh, and that crazy casbah jive. Sound familiar?
Though many punk purists consider The Clash’s brief career to have peaked with 1979’s London Calling, I have to confess a sentimental attachment to Rock The Casbah — or Rock The Cashbah as the school person I occasionally used to chat about music to called it. I didn’t keep a diary back then, but I have a strong recollection his name was Paul. He was older and his tastes seemed fully formed, whereas in 1982 mine had only just begun.
“I really like Rock The Casbah,” I beamed, vaguely knowing he was a Clash fan. “Oh, do you? It’s OK, but I prefer their old stuff. They’ve kind of sold out now.”
Well, what did I know? I was an Adam Ant aficionado with no previous reference points that could help me ascertain whether he was right or wrong. All I knew is that he wasn‘t planning to see his favourite band play* at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium in a few week‘s time, and it was only 20 minutes away. “He thinks it’s not kosher,” perhaps.
Perhaps he’d just discovered Joe Strummer wasn’t quite the punk anti-hero he’d imagined, and was even more middle class than us: a self-confessed “thick rich kid” son of a diplomat who went to boarding school and credited his entry into the music world to the Beach Boys. My knowledge was little more than a vague recollection that, like Adam, The Clash were punks but not punks who’d been around for a while.
After hearing Rock The Casbah blast out of the radio when Andrew Thelwell and I decided to doorstep our classmate Jonathan Etienne at his home on Heelands (literally — we weren’t invited in), I genuinely did like the song. Though not enough to buy it, free stickers or no free stickers.
Curiously, Rock The Casbah charged into charts — Light Brigade style — at a limp 68 in Britain, on the listing dated 26 June 1982, the day I became a teenager, and the day the band’s Mick Jones turned 27.
Amazingly, despite being regarded as one of The Clash’s signature songs, the single peaked at the thirty-mark, though, significantly, number 8 on the American Billboard Hot 100 in early 1983, their lone stateside Top 40 showing. Back in Britain, its legend was greatly enhanced when a reissue in 1991 did twice as well, reaching No. 15 on the back of a Levi’s-sponsored revival of the Jones-voiced Should I Stay Or Should I Go, another Combat Rock 45 which inexplicably reached No. 1 sandwiched between two ‘comedy’ chart-toppers by the Simpsons and Hale & Pace.
Either way, Rock The Casbah is arguably the most fully developed and richly produced single of The Clash’s career. And it perhaps points to the direction the band might have sounded if they’d continued to develop with their full lineup, rather than Strummer rashly firing everyone except Paul Simonon. The frontman went on to claim that Jones had become “like Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood.” I’m sure Cleopatra was thrilled.
Anyway, a little curiosity, the isolated voice of Joe Strummer himself:
“By order of the Prophet. We ban that boogie sound”
Written at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Rock The Casbah is a joyous and pacifist anthem, with the lyrics a response to the new Iranian hardline leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s prohibition of “decadent” Western staples such as listening to rock music.
Furthermore, the song recounts an imaginary revolt during which the inhabitants defy the ban by going to a Clash concert and “rockin’ the casbah”. And is it me or is the “hazy cosmic jive” of David Bowie’s Starman deliberately invoked in the line “crazy Casbah jive” that also leads into a chorus? No, t’s just me.
If you’ve ever wondered what a Casbah is, the dictionary definition describes it as a variant spelling of Kasbah, from the Arabic Qaṣabah, which are the historic walled fortresses of North African cities that contained the Arab quarter. In other words, a Citadel. All along the watchtower then.
Although the wordage was mainly the domain of Turkey-born Strummer, drummer Topper Headon played a major role in composing the music. In Don Letts’ documentary Westway To The World, he recounted how that during a rehearsal sessions he had a melody and motif in his head which resulted in him using drums, bass and piano to get his creation out. He claims that although he thought he was just playing his track for his colleagues, his performance was recorded without his knowledge, with the others just overdubbing guitar and vocals.
For the filming of the video, the band members perform the song dressed as soldiers in the desert. That‘s the American desert near Austin, Texas:
- Paul Simonon in a British red beret
- Mick Jones as a desert soldier, his face masked
- Terry Chimes in commando-style green beret
Chimes stood in as Topper had already been toppled out of the group the previous month, a result of his heroin addiction. In the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, the sticksmith admits viewing the clip with “someone else in my place, playing my song was very difficult.”
A drumming whiz from Dover who’d learned his chops in soul and jazz bands. Headon’s exit came on 10 May 1982, at the beginning of the Combat Rock tour and just four days after the album of the same name was released, which features the newly departed drummer on the cover, looking sheepish, diverting his eyes from the camera.
In one of those strange circular things, that same month I was on a school trip to France, my first holiday outside the UK and the first without my parents. Staying in a beautiful Normandy coastal town called Etretat, the only city on the itinerary was Rouen, where Joan Of Arc met her flaming end and where Topper Headon’s first live performance with The Clash took place, at Le Chartreux Cinema in April 1977.
Fuelled with anarchic rage, The Clash was really a band that clashed within themselves. At a time when there was widespread anger over Conservative policies that led to mass unemployment and Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarianism, they seethed with anti-establishment hatred and anti-commercial stance. Yet with the military-style manipulation of manager Bernie Rhodes, The Clash became a James Bond-style franchise.
From supporting The Who to the lure of megabucks playing the mega-corporate US Festival with David Bowie in 1983, and that aforementioned Levi’s tie-in: everything they stood against and laughed in the face of when they emerged from the punk movement of the late 1970s is what they essentially became.
And no better example of that is how and where Joe Strummer ended up. When he died in December 2022, the pseudo-socialist class warrior had become the very thing he professed to despise: the country squire of a nice big detached house in the country. It‘s a manor estate situated where the village of Monkton Heathfield sits atop the Quantock Hills of Somerset, looking down on the little people. The king of his casbah then.
Sharif don’t like it.
*In October 2000, I was in-house at MOJO magazine and actually covering for editor Paul Trynka, who was on paternity leave. Thus, while many of the office all piled down the 100 Club a mere two blocks away for a special warm-up gig by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros I declined the invite, thinking there would be other opportunities. He died two years later. Oooops.