Last week Rolling Stone rang up former Clash drummer Topper Headon to talk about the making of the band’s classic 1982 album Combat Rock (read the full story in our new issue, on stands now). When we asked him how he wrote “Rock The Casbah,” he delighted us by sitting down at his piano and playing the initial sketch of the song he presented to the band in 1981.
Headon has no memory of his original lyrics, though former Clash co-manager Kosmo Vinyl told us it was a filthy ode to Headon’s girlfriend. “He had really pornographic lyrics for it if I remember correctly,” Vinyl says. “Very, very pornographic lyrics.”
Strummer decided to take the song in a different direction. His inspiration came from the Clash’s other manager, Bernie Rhodes, who asked the band, “Does everything have to be as long as a raga?” after a particularly long take of the track “Sean Flynn.”
“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 said shortly before he died in 2002. “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.”
By the time the song became a worldwide smash Headon had been kicked out of the band due to his severe heroin addiction. He didn’t even appear in the video. “It was tough,” Headon says. “In 1983 Pete Townshend paid for me to come to Los Angeles to have the electric box treatment for heroin addiction. And while I was there the Clash were playing the U.S. festival and ‘Rock The Casbah’ was all over the radio waves of course it hurt. The good thing about it was that we all ended up friends afterwards anyway.”