WHERE WERE YOU IN ’82? Good lord, can you believe that The Clash’s Rock The Casbah hit the airwaves and seeped into our living rooms 40 years ago! Remember when Mtv seemed to be on 24/7– especially on those lazy days of summer when we were glued to the TV like zombies waiting to see our favorite videos… To this day, I cannot think of many music videos that had the same impact on me as The Clash’s- ‘Rock The Casbah,’ and ‘Should I Stay Stay or Should I Go.’
Joe Strummer had been toying with the phrase “Rock The Casbah” prior to hearing Topper Headon’s musical track that would form the basis of the song. 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!” Not hearing Strummer properly, Dogg thought that Strummer had been shouting at him to “Stop, You Cadger!”
“Rock the Casbah” was loosely composed 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. However, 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 Topper’s lyrics and said, ‘How incredibly interesting!’, screwed the piece of paper into a ball and chucked it backwards over his head.” Joe Strummer decided to take the original lyrics in a different direction. According to former Clash co-manager Kosmo Vinyl, Headon’s original words were a filthy ode to his girlfriend. Vinyl recalled to Rolling Stone: “He had really pornographic lyrics for it if I remember correctly. Very, very pornographic lyrics.” Topper was fired from the band at the same time due to his heroin addiction, and Terry Chimes (their original drummer) temporarily rejoined The Clash and can be seen in the music video.
The new lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” came from Strummer, and 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 told Rolling Stone shortly before he died in 2002: “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.’ 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 served as inspiration for the rest of the lyrics, about the people defying the Arab ruler (Shareef)’s ban on disco music and “Rocking the Casbah.”
I Want My MTV, is the 2012 oral history of the early years of MTV, and finally gave an explanation for Mick Jones’s brooding attitude behind a camo facemask in the music video.
[Director] Don Letts: I was in Texas with the Clash to shoot “Rock the Casbah,” and Mick Jones showed up one day wearing red long johns, because he was in a mood. I said, “You really want to wear that for a video? If you look like a cunt on film, you’ll look like a cunt forever.” So he changed what he was wearing.
Mick Jones: I wanted to wear red long johns, but Don wouldn’t let me. That’s why I put a mosquito mask on my face, ’cause I was in a bad mood.
Oh, by the way… Barry’s last name? Sonnenfeld… who would later go on to film Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, and direct the Men in Black trilogy and The Addams Family. And the two brothers that were hanging around, scouting locations for their movie? Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie? Blood Simple. The crew explained that they were with the Clash and working in a brand new medium called “music videos” that bands were going to be using to pitch songs to record companies and other powers-that-be. It was such a foreign concept at the time back in the early 1980s.
The music video features an Arab and an orthodox Jewish person skanking, to go with the Middle Eastern theme. The parts of the Arab and Jew were played by Titos Menchaca (the sheik), and local theater director Dennis Razze (the Jew). Titos told these stories about the music video shoot:
“We shot it in 1981 in and around Austin, Texas. This was a few months before MTV was even launched. At the time, I was a young film acting student (I had stage experience/training, but working in front of the camera is a different beast). My teacher was a guy named Loren Bivens. One day after class he mentioned that some guys were in from out of town to do some sort of film shoot. He didn’t know much about it but thought it’d be a good opportunity to work in front of a camera.I chatted with them at their hotel room later. There was Don Letts, a rastah from London who would direct, John Hazard, ace camera man from New York, and some guy named Barry, who I later learned was their DP (director of photography).
They explained that they were with the Clash and working in a brand new medium called “music videos” that bands were going to be using to pitch songs to record companies and other powers-that-be. It was such a foreign concept at the time that I didn’t think much about it after the interview until they called later and said they wanted me for the part of the sheik, they liked the contrast between my height (6’3″) and Dennis’, and the gig would pay $350 for one day’s work. NOW they had my attention.
This was Don’s directorial debut, so he was a bit unsure how to handle actors. But, he was extremely creative and we soon learned to glean from his instructions what he wanted from us in each scene.A few quick notes about the shoot: The rock quarry scene near the beginning where I’m running – we shot that about 6 times because Don wanted to see dust flying off my shoulders à la Indiana Jones when he’s running from the natives at the beginning of the original Raiders movie which had just come out and was all the rage. He kept heaping more and more dirt on me and we kept doing takes until, mercifully, John and Barry told him it simply couldn’t be seen from that distance.
The scene where we’re jamming down the highway with the Austin skyline in the background – John was shooting out an open panel van door and there was lots of honking traffic behind us. That was real beer we were drinking all day.For the final scene where we’re dancing in the crowd at the concert – some punk kept trying to worm his way into the shot and Don had to physically block him out (like a basketball player) so we could get the shot. (that venue has since been torn down to make a park).We got to hang out with the band for a bit before the show. They struck me as quiet, serious. Sober, too. Joe Ely was there, also.
That night, I hung out at a local reggae joint in Austin called Liberty Lunch (now torn down also) with Bivens, Barry, and these two brothers from New York who were former students of Bivens’ – in town to scout locations for their first feature, which Barry was going to DP for them.
I enjoyed some notoriety from the video when it became an MTV (and later VH1) mainstay, but that all kind of quieted down after a few years except for rabid fans of the band (of which there are many). I find it interesting that it has such social relevance now, as it did then. Maybe more. Also, kids today are rediscovering the Clash and when I do guest artist gigs at colleges my ‘cool factor’ shoots up immediately. Heh heh! Oh, by the way… Barry’s last name? Sonnenfeld. And the two brothers scouting locations? Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie? Blood Simple.
Dennis Razze, who played The Rabbi, shared:
“A casting agent friend of mine suggested I audition for this video shoot, so on a lark I went down to the Sheraton Hotel that night to audition. At 8pm or so was a long line around the block of guys auditioning, and finally around 11pm I was ushered into the hotel room to meet three guys who were doing the shoot. Titos, who was a friend of mine, was next in line so we went in together. They had a boom box on which they played this song I had never heard (“Rock the Casbah”) and asked us to improv to it. We danced around a bit and did some interaction as the two characters they wanted – the Sheik and the Rabbi.
When we were done they told us on the spot we got the job. We were told to be back there at 5am for makeup and costume!I had to wear three layers of dark heavy wool and also fake “locks” that were glued to my sideburns.
The day of the shoot was ungodly hot as Austin can be in the summer. Close to 100 degrees. They drove us around in a van from location to location and by mid day we had also met the band who didn’t have much to do with us (and I didn’t have a clue who they were). They had rented an expensive film camera to do the shoot (most people don’t realize that music videos were shot on film). The director loved the little bits I added like the “Fiddler on the Roof” dance and spitting beer in the pool. He encouraged me to have fun and I had no trouble being silly.
As the day went by, I began to really like the song that they played over and over again at each location. The coolest thing was doing the scene with the armadillo – what a cool creature, bigger than I thought one might be.
We didn’t end the very long day till around midnight after the concert shoot which was 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. I was drenched in sweat by that time, exhausted, and just wanted to go home to bed.
I never thought I would hear another thing about the video, but six months later, friends of mine form the East Coast would call and say they saw me on HBO and later MTV. (I never saw the video myself till almost two years after it was shot). We were paid a few hundred dollars for our work, and because there were no residuals in the early days of music videos, we never made another cent off of our success.
Given the number of times over so many years the video has been aired, Titos and I would have made a sizable sum I think if the video had been shot a year later when it was determined that music videos would work the same way as commercials.