The CLASH – ” Rock the Casbah “

Posted: December 19, 2020 in MUSIC
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An old photograph of a Clash concert

It all began with Marty Robbins, whose cowboy ballads entranced and inspired Clash co-founder and vocalist Joe Strummer from across the Atlantic for years. When Amarillo-native Joe Ely toured London in ’78, Strummer went backstage to introduce himself and the band. They were huge Ely fans, and while he had never heard of them, they bonded over shared interests in rockabilly, movies, and poetry. They spent the next few days showing Ely around London, even taking him to their studio.

“It was like the West Texas hell raisers meet the London hell raisers,” Ely said. In Ely, the Clash finally had a direct connection to the world they’d only heard on records and seen on television.

“To them,” Ely said, “Texas was a mythical place that they only knew about in old Marty Robbins gunfighter ballads and Westerns and stuff.”

When Strummer brought up an upcoming American tour, the only places he wanted to play were those he’d heard about in songs—El Paso, Laredo, Wichita Falls. Ely returned home to Lubbock, and soon enough, the Clash called to book several Texas dates with Joe Ely Band as opening act. They played their first Texas show at the Armadillo World Headquarters, the 1970s venue that propelled Austin’s music scene to national attention and forever shaped the city’s image.

A ticket stub for The Clash at the Austin Coliseum

The night was October 4th, 1979, and Michael Corcoran’s in-depth article, “25 Most Significant Nights in Austin Music History,” features it at number twelve. Corcoran quotes the oft-cited description of the performance as “Ely and his band pouring gasoline all over the stage and then the Clash coming out and lighting a match.”  The all-night jam session that followed, with Ely and the Clash joining local punk band the Skunks on stage at the Continental Club, turned an unforgettable night into one of true, incendiary fame.

When the Clash returned in June of 1982 to film “Rock the Casbah,” the Armadillo had been closed a year and a half. Perhaps in homage to the venue that hosted that first Texas performance, the video features a recurring armadillo running through various shots. Maybe it was just a funny thing to include, but a photo from that show did end up on the back of the London Calling album, suggesting the ‘Dillo’s significance to the band.  The song was released as the second single from their fifth album, Combat Rock. “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 song writing 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, relatively minor overdubs were added, such as guitars and percussion

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.  This phrase had originated during a jam session with Strummer’s violinist friend Tymon Dogg. Dogg began playing Eastern scales with his violin and Strummer started shouting “rock the casbah!” 

Further inspiration for the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” originated from Strummer observing the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes moaning about The Clash’s increasing tendency to perform lengthy songs. Rhodes asked the band facetiously “does everything have to be as long as this rāga?” (referring to the Indian musical style known for its length and complexity).

Strummer later returned to his room at the Iroquois Hotel in New York City and wrote the opening lines to the song: “The King told the boogie-men ‘you have to let that rāga drop.’ The song gives a fabulist account of a ban on Western rock music by an Arab king. The lyrics describe the king’s efforts to stop his population from listening to this music, such as ordering his military’s jet fighters to bomb any people in violation of the ban. The pilots ignore the orders, and instead play rock music on their cockpit radios. The population then proceed to “rock the casbah” by dancing to the music. This scenario was inspired by the ban on Western music in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution

To watch the video now is to see glimpses of the Austin that long time natives speak of wistfully, reverently. As much as I wanted to believe in Austin Motel’s place in punk rock history after learning about the Clash’s Texas connection, I am sorry to report that the shots of a motel swimming pool were not taken at the Austin Motel.  After a deep dive into obscure internet wormholes about the video, my best guess for the pool featured at 2:05 and 2:08 is the Sheraton Hotel near Interstate 35 and 11th Street. According to Songfacts.com, the actor who played the Rabbi, Dennis Razze, said auditions were held at the Sheraton, and pictures of that hotel pool do look like those in the video.

At fifty-four seconds, the two main characters, The Sheik and The Rabbi, drive in to Austin with the Capitol Building in the background. That skyline sure looks different, though, doesn’t it? Other noteworthy shots of 1982 Austin are fun to spot, and often difficult to discern. The Winchell’s Donuts is now a Subway. A close examination of this location, and a trove of trivia about the video, can be found in Adam Norwood’s delightfully obsessive blog.

The Burger King 27th and Guadalupe didn’t change too much—it’s now a Whataburger. Texans love Whataburger, if you don’t know, so this is one change that old-timers probably aren’t mad at.  The Alamo Hotel at the corner of 6th and Guadalupe appears to now be the Extended Stay America. Fun fact: scenes from the music video for Willie Nelson’s “Pancho and Lefty” were filmed at the hotel’s bar. It was knocked down in 1984. The planes are flying into Bergstrom Air Force Base, which is now Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

The City Coliseum, which is now the Palmer Events center, was originally an aircraft hangar. Footage from inside The Coliseum was, according to Razze, “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.”

The legend of the Clash lounging poolside at our motel may be debunked, but if you want to walk the same path as the armadillo featured in the video, it’s tough to find a better starting point. Plus, the former site of the Armadillo is only a ten-minute walk away, and located next door is Threadgill’s World Headquarters, a restaurant dedicated to honouring the renowned venue. Memorabilia covers the walls, and the juke box features one hundred albums by artists who played the ‘Dillo. In the spirit of two worlds colliding—Texas’ Joe Ely and London’s definitive punks—you can chow down on chicken fried steak while listening to that “crazy Casbah sound.”

Just be sure to wait thirty minutes before jumping back in the pool to avoid any cramping.

The music video for “Rock the Casbah” was filmed in Austin, Texas by director Don Letts on 8th and 9th June 1982.

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