College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 6

6 rock

6. The Clash, “Rock the Casbah”

In many respects, “Rock the Casbah” was the beginning of the end for the Clash. The third single off the of the album Combat Rock, which was released in 1982, “Rock the Casbah” first stirred into existence as a result of the fracturing cohesions of the band. The Clash went to New York City’s Electric Lady studios to toil away at the recording their follow-up to the sprawling, three-album set Sandinista!, but they weren’t working together all that often.

“We’d lost that unity and had stopped hanging out together as friends, and would all turn up at the studio at different times, writing stuff as and when it came up,” drummer Topper Headon told Mojo magazine, years later. “The sessions were supposed to start at two in the afternoon, though by the time everyone turned up it was seven. I got there early, and what else was I going to do except put down an idea?”

Without his bandmates, Headon began laying down tracks for a song he’d been noodling with. He took advantage of the time alone in the studio to create a full version of the song than the average demo, largely because it was the easiest way to convey his ideas for the song.

“I don’t actually know what notes I’m playing, so rather than try to tell everyone what to play, I went and recorded piano, and then the drums, and then the bass,” said Headon.

The intent was to present the resulting recording to the band as a guideline, but all agreed that the music track was excellent as it was. It was the lyrics that needed some help.

“He had really pornographic lyrics for it if I remember correctly,” Kosmo Vinyl, the occasional manager for the Clash, told Rolling Stone. “Very, very pornographic lyrics.”

Vocalist and guitarist Joe Strummer set to fixing the words. In keeping with the spirit of the band’s fraying sense of community, the catalyst for the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” was Strummer’s frustration with much of the music the Clash was creating.

Strummer was getting frustrated with the length of the individual tracks being recorded for Combat Rock, blaming the sprawl on the tendency for the band to lean on raga riffs.

“I got back to the hotel that night and wrote on a typewriter, ‘The King told the boogie men/ You gotta get that raga drop,'” Strummer told Rolling Stone. “I looked at it and for some reason I started to think about what someone had told me earlier, that you get lashed for owning a disco album in Iran.”

Strummer expanded that thought to come up with a song about citizens of the Middle East defying those repressive laws to play music. It is meant to be celebratory and empowering. So when it was later co-opted to become a rallying soundtrack for U.S. military forces dropping bomb to the dropping of bombs in the Gulf War and other brutal skirmishes in the region, Strummer was incensed.

It’s likely that the song would have never had the chance to be so horribly misunderstood if not for its status at the biggest hit the Clash ever had in the U.S.  “Rock the Casbah” became the band’s second Top 40 single in the U.S. and their first to cross into the Top 10. For Strummer, that also was a sign the end was near. He felt it was impossible to keep up the Clash’s necessary rebel spirit when they were chart-anointed rock stars.

Even before they reached that elevated point in popularity, the Clash were already imploding. Shortly after the tour to support Combat Rock got underway, Headon was dismissed from the band, the result of a mounting heroin addiction that was making his presence untenable.

Headon’s ouster happened so quickly, in fact, that he wasn’t even included in the eventual music video of “Rock the Casbah,” a sad turn since he was so central to the song’s creation. Terry Chimes, the Clash’s original drummer, took Headon’s spot in the music video.

As for that music video, it was directed by Don Letts, who shot with the band in Austin, depicted an odd scene with culturally conflicting individuals bonding over burgers while road tripping through the Lone Star State.

“Can you imagine?” Letts marveled. “I’m in the middle of Texas, a Dread, filming an armadillo, a Jewish guy, an Arab, and a limo with cow horns on the front. It really was the most talked about thing in Texas for that whole week.”


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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