A bio-doc looks at the punks who changed the complexion of white rock

If he sounds defensive, it's worth remembering the virulence with which the band's former champions in the British press led a late-Seventies backlash, especially against 1980's sprawling, meditative triple record, Sandinista! (In Westway Strummer still seems to be smarting: "Maybe we should have made it a double album," he says, "or a single album...or an EP.") The band had already fooled with American pop mythology on London Calling, but the music tabloids had a fit when the Clash started treating the States as a living audience ("The Call Up" was an open-handed plea to resist the draft). Worse, they began shaping their sound in response to Yank urban radio.

One of Westway's sweetest moments comes when Strummer recalls hearing the instrumental version of the Clash's "The Magnificent Seven," a Marxist rewrite of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," on WBLS in New York, playing alongside the disco and hip hop of the time. ("Us--weirdo punk-rock white guys!" Strummer chuckles.) Middle-class by birth, Strummer and company had belonged to their own underclass largely by choice, a fact eventually elaborated on in detail by Marcus Gray's 1995 biography Last Gang in Town. Yet if Gray demolished the band's original urban-tough mythology, he left a perfectly serviceable one in its place: that of four educated, privileged internationalists embracing the world and grooving against the machine. In the years after Clash openers Grandmaster Flash were booed off the stage by bottle-throwing punks, a hardcore band called the Beastie Boys decided rapping wasn't a joke after all, and Debbie Harry tried the wild-style. Two decades later, the Clash's supposed departure from punk sounds an awful lot like its future.



A Brief History of "Rock the Casbah"

August 21, 1952: John Mellor is born in Ankara, Turkey, where his father is stationed with the British Foreign Office. Years later, John changes his name to Woody Mellor, after Woody Guthrie, and then to Joe Strummer.

May 30, 1955: Future Clash drummer Nicholas Bowen Headon is born in Bromley, England. By the time he leaves grammar school years later, he's an accomplished jazz musician and experienced drug user.

One day in 1965: The future Joe Strummer buys his first Chuck Berry single, "Rock 'n' Roll Music," while visiting his father in Tehran, Iran's capital. He is surprised, he says later, that the Beatles didn't write it. He duly memorizes the Berry songbook.

April 3, 1976: Strummer sees the Sex Pistols for the first time and promptly disbands his Chuck Berry-inspired pub-rock band the 101ers to join the Clash. He even begins wearing a homemade T-shirt painted with the words Chuck Berry Is Dead. The band's fanaticism alienates drummer Terry Chimes. Headon joins in his stead, adopting the nickname "Topper."

January 15, 1979: The violently repressive Western-backed Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi is driven from power by a popular revolution in Iran. Within weeks he is replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini, who establishes a violently repressive Islamic theocracy and begins executing thousands of dissidents, prostitutes, and homosexuals. Hostages are taken. Pop music is banned.

December 17, 1981: In court Topper Headon is charged with smuggling heroin into a London airport. His lawyer argues for leniency given his importance to the Clash. Topper admits before the judge that he's an addict and is fined 500 pounds. One morning weeks later, in New York's Electric Ladyland studios, he records most of "Rock the Casbah," laying down the piano riff, drums, and bass line (the third of these played by an uncredited American engineer). Strummer pens the "shareef don't like it" lyric, thinking of Iran.

May 29, 1982: Mired in addiction, Topper is kicked out of the Clash. Terry Chimes appears playing drums in the video for "Rock the Casbah." Directed by Don Letts, the video shows the group lip-synching in front of an oil well while a turban-clad Arab and a Hassidic Jew rock out to "that crazy Casbah jive." The song goes Top 40 in America, peaking at No. 8.

August 2, 1990: Violently repressive Western-backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein offends the U.S. by invading Kuwait. Mobile vans containing American Armed Forces radio facilities are quickly dispatched to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Deejay Rick Yanku opens the station's first broadcast with a "Gooood morning, Saudi Arabia!" and plays "Rock the Casbah." Peace-minded American deejays program the tune alongside Edwin Starr's "War" as the bombs fall.

February 7, 1999: With the Ayatollah dead, Tehran launches an unprecedented 12-day series of Iranian pop concerts commemorating the 1979 revolution. Within months, the ban on imported Western pop music is lifted. Years of illegal imported bootlegs, including the Clash, have taken their toll.

November 9, 1999: Will Smith, star of violent, Western-backed films, releases his new album with the single, "Will2K," which samples "Rock the Casbah." Electronica duo Solar Twins cover the song. Joe Strummer does, too, during his American tour in support of a new solo album, his first in a decade. He also plays Chuck Berry. Topper apologizes to his old mates for ruining the band in a new Don Letts-directed documentary, Westway to the World. If he had gotten clean, he says, "I could see the band possibly still being together today."

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