While it is unclear whether or not The Clash‘s 1982 hit, “Rock the Casbah” was written specifically about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ban of rock music in Iran, it makes a good story, and is so often told that it bears repeating here.
While the song doesn’t mention Iran or any other Islamic nation, specifically, it tells the story of a Middle Eastern nation where rock music is banned, then goes into a fantastic account of how the people defy the order and rise up to dance in the streets. The military is sent out to stop them, but instead join in the revolt, fighter pilots playing rock music in their cockpit radios.
It is one of the very few songs in rock’s discography to deal (however tangentially) with Middle Eastern affairs and the rising tide of faith-justified totalitarianism in the region in a light-hearted manner. Even so, the fact that a punk band was dealing with any ideology other than anarchism was unusual. Still, the Clash were more political than most punks, and became known as ‘the Thinking Man’s Yobs.’
“Rock the Casbah” appeared on the album Combat Rock, and became the band’s only Top-10 hit, reaching #8 on the U.S. charts. According to the liner notes, the song had its genesis when manager Bernie Rhodes heard the Clash record an excessively-long album track and complained ‘Does everything have to be as long as this raga?’ (referring to the Indian music style known for long, complex songs). Joe Strummer wrote the opening lines of the song “The King told the boogie-men ‘you have to let that raga drop’” and the rest came soon after.
The video below for “Rock the Casbah” is typical of the Clash’s low-budget efforts, but for all that, it comes off pretty well. Filmed in Austin, TX, it features local actors playing an Arab and Jew rocking through the streets (as well as being followed by an armadillo). The U.S. Air Force became an unwitting participant when two jets landing at a nearby air base were caught on film and used to accompany the line ‘the king called out his jet fighters.’
After the first vid, check out a version of the song as it was performed live, which sounds substantially different from the studio version (even allowing for the relatively low quality of the tape).
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