The Meaning Behind The Clash’s 1982 Hit “Rock the Casbah”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Released in 1982, off The Clash’s fifth album Combat Rock, “Rock the Casbah” made its radio rounds and got the then-obligatory video rotation on MTV, quickly becoming the biggest U.S. hit for the British punk band.

The song itself started out as one thing and meant another by the time late singer Joe Strummer was done with it, transforming the song into something that better fits the band’s punk rock ethos—fighting against musical persecution. 

Topper Headon’s “Genius”

It was Clash drummer Topper Headon who initially wrote the lyrics and music for “Rock the Casbah.” “The real genius of ‘Rock The Casbah’ is Topper,” said Strummer. “He banged down the drum track. Then ran over to the piano and then the bass.” Unfortunately, Headon left the band because of a drug problem before the song was released at the beginning of the band’s Combat Rock tour, and was replaced by Terry Chimes, who appears in the “Rock the Casbah” video.

From Pornographic to More Prolific meaning

When it was first written, the meaning of the lyrics was more pornographic and centered around Headon’s longing for his ex-girlfriend at the time. Strummer was intent on rewriting the lyrics in keeping with the music Headon initially tracked for the song and took the meaning in an entirely different direction. “Rock the Casbah” turned into an anthem centered around the persecution of the Iranian people for enjoying music, particularly for owning a disco album at the time.

“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,” said Strummer. “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 directed the remainder of the lyrics for Strummer, the idea of people rising up against the Arab rulers’ music bans and “rocking the casbah.”

Now the King told the boogie man
You have to let that raga drop
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top
The Sheik, he drove his Cadillac
He went a-cruisin’ down the ville
The muezzin was a-standin’
On the radiator grille (ow!)


Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah
Sharif don’t like it
Rockin’ the Casbah
Rock the Casbah

New York City

“Rock the Casbah” and the rest of Combat Rock was recorded at the Electric Ladyland studio in New York. “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,” said Headon on how he came up with the drum pattern around the song. “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?”

Kasbah

Casbah, also referred to as “Kasbah” and “Qasbah,” refers to a citadel or fortress surrounding towns in North Africa, particularly Algiers.

Rock the U.S.

Along with the band’s London Calling track, “Train in Vain,” in 1979, and previous Combat Rock single “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” released in 1981 (both also reached the Top 40), “Rock the Casbah” was The Clash’s bigger hit, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Tracks chart and No. 8 on the Hot 100. Still imparting The Clash’s ska and punk base, it was something about the more funk and dance-y elements of the song that caught on in the U.S. It even peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. 

1982-1985, and The Mescaleros

The song remained a staple on The Clash setlist from its release through 1985, when the band broke up. Strummer also performed the song live with his solo band The Mescaleros, which he founded in 1999 and played with through his untimely death in 2002.

Photo credit: Pennie Smith / Sony Music

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