Clash drummer Topper Headon wrote the music and the original lyrics. In an interview, singer Joe Strummer claimed that "the real genius of 'Rock The Casbah' is Topper. He banged down the drum track. Then ran over to the piano and then the bass."
The sad irony about the song is that Headon wrote it musically, but had been fired from the group because of drug problems by the time the song became an enormous hit in the US. Indeed, in the music video for the song, its original Clash drummer Terry Chimes at the kit (he had returned to replace Headon temporarily).
Joe Strummer decided to take Headon's lyrics in a different direction. According to former Clash co-manager Kosmo Vinyl, Headon's original words were a filthy ode to his girlfriend. Vinyl recalled to Rolling Stone
: "He had really pornographic lyrics for it if I remember correctly. Very, very pornographic lyrics."
The first line of Strummer's re-written lyrics had a specific genesis: manager Bernie Rhodes was frustrated in the early Combat Rock
sessions with every track ending up being really long (stuff like "Straight To Hell
" and "Sean Flynn") and in one session shouted, "Does everything have to be as long as raga?!" Strummer told Rolling Stone
shortly before he died in 2002: "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.' 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." This served as inspiration for the rest of the lyrics, about the people defying the Arab ruler (Shareef)'s ban on disco music and "Rocking the Casbah."
This was The Clash's biggest United States hit, and along with "Train In Vain," one of only two that reached the Top 40. They had several Top 40 hits in England.
"Casbah" (also spelled "Qasbah" or "Kasbah") refers to walled areas in many North African towns, especially the one in Algiers. The lyrics use many different terms in humorous context from Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Sanskrit language and culture - along with Casbah, there are also Sharifs, Bedouins, Sheikh, kosher, raga and minerets in the song.
In the UK this single was backed on the B-side by "Long Time Jerk," a song mostly written by bassist Paul Simonon about his then-girlfriend Pearl Harbour. "Jerk" wasn't available anywhere else until it was included on the expanded Super Black Market Clash rarities compilation in 1993.
The US military used this as a rallying cry when they invaded Iraq in 1991. During Operation Desert Storm, Joe Strummer was irate over the song being one of the most requested on US radio because of the misunderstanding that it was an anti-Iraq in sentiment (a similar fate befell The Cure's "Killing An Arab
With electronic sound effects and an intriguing video, this appealed to Americans more than any other Clash song, but it wasn't a good representation of the band. For many young people in the US, The Clash were known as a British import with a catchy song, similar to MTV darlings like Thomas Dolby
and A Flock of Seagulls. In England they were revered for breaking new ground as rock rebels.
When this became a hit, Joe Strummer considered leaving The Clash. He couldn't justify singing rebellious songs when the band was rich and successful. In their early years, when they were struggling, their music was sincere, but he felt they were becoming a joke.
When the band broke up in 1985, it was speculated that their plan all along was to break up once they had conquered America, a feat that was achieved by "Rock the Casbah" becoming such a huge hit along with "Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The music video features an Arab and an orthodox Jewish person skanking, to go with the Middle Eastern theme. The parts of the Arab and Jew were played by Titos Menchaca (the sheik), and local theater director Dennis Razze (the Jew). Titos told us the story:
"We shot it in 1981 in and around Austin, Texas. This was a few months before MTV was even launched. At the time, I was a young film acting student (I had stage experience/training, but working in front of the camera is a different beast). My teacher was a guy named Loren Bivens. One day after class he mentioned that some guys were in from out of town to do some sort of film shoot. He didn't know much about it but thought it'd be a good opportunity to work in front of a camera.
I chatted with them at their hotel room later. There was Don Letts, a rastah from London who would direct, John Hazard, ace camera man from New York, and some guy named Barry, who I later learned was their DP (director of photography). They explained that they were with the Clash and working in a brand new medium called "music videos" that bands were going to be using to pitch songs to record companies and other powers-that-be. It was such a foreign concept at the time that I didn't think much about it after the interview until they called later and said they wanted me for the part of the sheik, they liked the contrast between my height (6'3") and Dennis', and the gig would pay $350 for one day's work. NOW they had my attention.
This was Don's directorial debut, so he was a bit unsure how to handle actors. But, he was extremely creative and we soon learned to glean from his instructions what he wanted from us in each scene.
A few quick notes about the shoot: The rock quarry scene near the beginning where I'm running - we shot that about 6 times because Don wanted to see dust flying off my shoulders à la Indiana Jones when he's running from the natives at the beginning of the original Raiders movie which had just come out and was all the rage. He kept heaping more and more dirt on me and we kept doing takes until, mercifully, John and Barry told him it simply couldn't be seen from that distance.
The scene where we're jamming down the highway with the Austin skyline in the background - John was shooting out an open panel van door and there was lots of honking traffic behind us. That was real beer we were drinking all day.
For the final scene where we're dancing in the crowd at the concert – some punk kept trying to worm his way into the shot and Don had to physically block him out (like a basketball player) so we could get the shot. (that venue has since been torn down to make a park).
We got to hang out with the band for a bit before the show. They struck me as quiet, serious. Sober, too. Joe Ely was there, also. That night, I hung out at a local reggae joint in Austin called Liberty Lunch (now torn down also) with Bivens, Barry, and these two brothers from New York who were former students of Bivens' - in town to scout locations for their first feature, which Barry was going to DP for them.
I enjoyed some notoriety from the video when it became an MTV (and later VH1) mainstay, but that all kind of quieted down after a few years except for rabid fans of the band (of which there are many). I find it interesting that it has such social relevance now, as it did then. Maybe more. Also, kids today are rediscovering the Clash and when I do guest artist gigs at colleges my 'cool factor' shoots up immediately. Heh heh! Oh, by the way... Barry's last name? Sonnenfeld. And the two brothers scouting locations? Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie? Blood Simple.
Dennis Razze, who played The Rabbi, told us:
"A casting agent friend of mine suggested I audition for this video shoot, so on a lark I went down to the Sheraton Hotel that night to audition. At 8pm or so was a long line around the block of guys auditioning, and finally around 11pm I was ushered into the hotel room to meet three guys who were doing the shoot. Titos, who was a friend of mine, was next in line so we went in together. They had a boom box on which they played this song I had never heard ("Rock the Casbah") and asked us to improv to it. We danced around a bit and did some interaction as the two characters they wanted - the Sheik and the Rabbi. When we were done they told us on the spot we got the job. We were told to be back there at 5am for makeup and costume!
I had to wear three layers of dark heavy wool and also fake "locks" that were glued to my sideburns. The day of the shoot was ungodly hot as Austin can be in the summer. Close to 100 degrees. They drove us around in a van from location to location and by mid day we had also met the band who didn't have much to do with us (and I didn't have a clue who they were). They had rented an expensive film camera to do the shoot (most people don't realize that music videos were shot on film) The director loved the little bits I added like the "Fiddler on the Roof" dance and spitting beer in the pool. He encouraged me to have fun and I had no trouble being silly. As the day went by, I began to really like the song that they played over and over again at each location. The coolest thing was doing the scene with the armadillo - what a cool creature, bigger than I thought one might be.
We didn't end the very long day till around midnight after the concert shoot which was absolutely crazy because they just worked us into the audience in front of the stage and shot us and the band in real time during the concert. I was drenched in sweat by that time, exhausted, and just wanted to go home to bed.
I never thought I would hear another thing about the video, but six months later, friends of mine form the East Coast would call and say they saw me on HBO and later MTV. (I never saw the video myself till almost two years after it was shot) We were paid a few hundred dollars for our work, and because there were no residuals in the early days of music videos, we never made another cent off of our success. Given the number of times over so many years the video has been aired, Titos and I would have made a sizable sum I think if the video had been shot a year later when it was determined that music videos would work the same way as commercials.
Combat Rock was recorded at the Electric Ladyland studio in New York. Topper Headon recalled to Mojo magazine November 2008: "I loved New York, the 24-hour city. (But) 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. 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?" That idea was the drum pattern and tune for this song.
Live performances of this song often took a different direction, since by this time the band had given up on taking a keyboard player on tour. This meant the piano part couldn't be played live, and the song took on a heavier, more all-out rock feel in a live setting.
It was a live staple from its introduction in 1982 through to the band's breakup in 1985. Joe Strummer was so proud of the song that it was one of the Clash songs that he performed live with his solo band, The Mescaleros (who did indeed have a keyboard player!).