In the early 1980s, a time of notoriously catchy songs, few were as ubiquitous as “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash.
We all know the song: jet fighters and letting the raga drop and what sounds like a displeased ruler who fails to be amused by the Western world’s influence on his territory.
But where did all of this come from and what in the blue blazes does it mean?
Peering behind the curtain
In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Topper Headon, the band’s drummer, shed some light on the song he wrote nearly 30 year prior. He claimed he had no clear memory of the song’s original lyrics but a former manager suggested they were quite, um, graphic and a tribute to Headon’s girlfriend at the time.
Bombastic lead singer Joe Strummer had a different idea in mind for the song, teasing manager Bernie Rhodes who asked earlier if every song needed to be “as long as a raga.”
“I go back to the hotel that night and wrote on a typewriter, ‘The King told the boogie men You gotta get that raga drop,” Strummer reportedly said before his death 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 out for owning a disco album in Iran.”
Remember that, in 1982, things were unstable to say the least. Three diplomats and one photographer vanished in Lebanon during that country’s invasion. The country was still trying to settle in following the Islamic revolution of 1979, ending 2,500 years of Persian monarchy and starting the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. He encouraged the Iranian people to revolt and reject liberal and capitalistic ideas as well as communism but to embrace, instead, a more traditional Islamic-based culture. A movie theater was set on fire, killing 422 people who were trapped inside, considered the largest terrorist attack prior to the September 11 strike on the United States.
Naturally, given this more conservative and isolationist view of the world, a band like The Clash wouldn’t be welcomed in Iran, nor would its music be widely or openly played. Clearly this was unacceptable to the band. Strummer, re-writing the lyrics to Headon’s music, imagined a world where people were in open defiance of such a conservative regime.
“Rock” for freedom
In that sense, as many have suggested, the song is about freedom. It’s about throwing up middle fingers to things the listener doesn’t feel is right and standing up for what is, regardless of what’s acceptable.
“Joe wrote something more timeless and more universal, you can read dissertations about what it means but ultimately it’s about freedom – your freedom to do what is right even if others do not give you that freedom,” writes Muiris Mac Cartaine on Quora.
It was an obvious choice for Iran after the Shah was removed from power, but it also was used by American Army radio during the first Gulf War. One of these uses was OK in Strummer’s book; the other less so. Guess which was which.
Equally dismaying: the song was one of many banned from U.S. radio after the September 11 attacks because Clear Channel deemed it “inappropriate,” along with “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (both versions) and everything by Rage Against the Machine. Go figure.
“Rock the Casbah” was The Clash’s biggest hit in the United States, one of only two of the band’s songs to reach the Top 40 (the other was “Train in Vain”) and its only top 10 single there.
The video was filmed in Austin in June 1982, showing both the band performing the song – even though Mick Jones’ face is covered for the vast majority of it, allegedly because he was in a bad mood – and a Muslim hitchhiker and a Hasidic Jewish driver becoming friends on their way to a Clash concert.
His bittersweet ending
By the way, Headon didn’t get to enjoy the massive success of his song. He and the band had parted ways (i.e. he was asked to leave due to a nasty heroin addiction) before the song was released, but he had no hard feelings about the success of the band or the song. “The good thing about it was that we all ended up friends afterwards anyway,” he told Rolling Stone.