A few years ago, I was surprised to learn the true origins of “Rock the Casbah,” the only Clash single to make the top 10 in the Billboard Hot 100.
“Rock the Casbah” was musically written by the band’s drummer Topper Headon, based on a piano part that he had been toying with. Finding himself in the studio without his three bandmates, Headon progressively taped the drum, piano and bass parts, recording the bulk of the song’s musical instrumentation himself.
This origin makes “Rock the Casbah” different from the majority of Clash songs, which tended to originate with music written by the Strummer–Jones songwriting partnership. Upon entering the studio to hear Headon’s recording, the other Clash members were impressed with his creation, stating that they felt the musical track was essentially complete. From this point, relatively minor overdubs were added, such as guitars and percussion.
However, Joe Strummer was not impressed by the page of suggested lyrics that Headon gave him. According to Clash guitar technician Digby Cleaver, they were “a soppy set of lyrics about how much he missed his girlfriend”. “Strummer just took one look at these words and said, ‘How incredibly interesting!’, screwed the piece of paper into a ball and chucked it backwards over his head.”
Strummer had been developing a set of lyrical ideas that he was looking to match with an appropriate tune. Before hearing Headon’s music, Strummer had already come up with the phrases “rock the casbah” and “you’ll have to let that raga drop” as lyrical ideas that he was considering for future songs. After hearing Headon’s music, Strummer went into the studio’s toilets and wrote lyrics to match the song’s melody.
The version of the song on Combat Rock, as well as many other Clash compilations, features an electronic sound effect beginning at the 1:52 minute point of the song. This noise is a monophonic version of the song “Dixie”. The sound effect source was generated by the alarm from a digital wristwatch that Mick Jones owned, and was intentionally added to the recording by Jones.
Sadly, Headon was kicked out of the band for heroin addiction just four days before Combat Rock was released. Also, one of my friends had that same “Dixie” digital watch when we were in the sixth grade. He annoyed the shit out of us with it.
Anyway, on to those isolated tracks …