Charlie Don't Surf

Album: Sandinista! (1980)

Songfacts®:

  • The title comes from a line of dialogue spoken by the character Colonel Kilgore, a US cavalry officer obsessed with surfing played by Robert Duvall in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. His most famous quote from that film - "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" - perhaps also inspired the lyric "Charlie's gonna be a napalm star."

    The synthesizer drone at the start of the song is also perhaps a nod to the sound of helicopters at the start of the movie. The influence of the film on the song is unsurprising given that singer Joe Strummer had admitted that he had "become obsessed" with the film. He told Robbi Millar in an interview for Sounds magazine in February 1980, "It doesn't leave you, it's like a dream."
  • The lyrics take the perspective of a Vietcong soldier, told to "keep the strangers out," and presents a counterpoint view of the America's imperialist policy in Asia at the time, concluding that the US wishes to impose its values and beliefs on other countries by aggressive force if necessary. It also notes the changing technological face of war, mentioning "satellites that make space burn."
  • "Charlie Don't Surf" was first played live in Gothenburg in May 1980, and became one of the star songs of the band's epic residency in New York in 1981, as well as their similar residencies in Paris and London in the same year.
  • Singer Joe Strummer told an interesting story to Musician magazine in 1988 about how he proved that popular 1980s group Tears for Fears stole a line from "Charlie Don't Surf" for the title of their hit "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." He was apparently in a restaurant and saw Roland Orzabal, lead songwriter for Tears for Fears, and told him that "you owe me a fiver," explaining that the name of their hit song was an exact lift of the first line of the middle eight in "Charlie Don't Surf." According to Strummer, Orzabal simply reached into his pocket and gave him a five pound note, effectively admitting that this had been the case.

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