The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #260: Rock the Casbah by The Clash (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #260: Rock the Casbah by The Clash.

“Rock the Casbah” was released from an album by The Clash called “Combat Rock”. The song is somewhat unique among Clash songs because of the way it was written. Normally, most songs released by The Clash were Joe Strummer/Mick Jones collaborations. But, in the case of “Rock the Casbah”, the musical structure was created first by drummer, Topper Headon. He found himself alone in the studio one day and started playing around with a piano segment and decided to record it. He, then, recorded his normal drum track and several other instrumental tracks as well. When everyone else showed up at the studio, Headon played them the completed instrumental version of, what ended up being, “Rock the Casbah”. The rest of the band liked what they heard but they rejected Headon’s lyrics, which were about his girlfriend at the time. Instead, Joe Strummer spent a few hours alone and wrote the lyrics to what is, arguably, one of the most well-known songs in the entire Clash catalogue.

Like many songs from The Clash, “Rock the Casbah” is based on real life events. In this case, if you can believe it, the lyrics for this song were inspired because of the way the winds of History were blowing in a country called Iran. Iran is located in the area of the world known as The Middle East. It has been an Islamic country for many centuries. If you know anything about the religion of Islam, you will be aware that there are many aspects to it that are quite beautiful. But, like all matters pertaining to religion, from all regions of the world,(including where we live), there are always those who take a harder line when it comes to their interpretation of the laws or rules for their particular religion. After World War II, Iran was lead by a man known in western society as The Shah of Iran. The Shah married a lady who presented as glamourous, in the mold of a Jackie Kennedy. The very broad strokes of the Shah’s reign saw Iran move away from strict orthodox Islamic teachings and laws, to a more western-influenced, secular nation. One of the most dramatic moments in this transformation occured when the Shah’s wife appeared at a function without wearing the traditional veil worn by all women in accordance with strict Islamic law. Soon, women were appearing in short skirts, men were wearing casual slacks and open neck shirts, schools were allowing women to enroll and so on. Iranian society was becoming cosmopolitan.

But, the Shah’s reign was also characterized by the manner in which he enriched his own bank account from the national treasury. As public opinion began to sour on the Shah and his family, Islamic fundamentalist clerics (who had been appalled at many of The Shah’s modernizations) started to actively campaign to overthrow him. If you know your History at all then, you may know that an uprising eventually happened, The Shah fled from Iran and an Islamic cleric named the Ayatollah Khomeini became ruler. In accordance with Islamic laws, all modernizations enacted by The Shah were declared illegal, as were, all activities of any type that contained any hint of influence from western civilizations. One of the big areas that faced a crackdown was in the playing/listening to music from the West.

“Rock the Casbah” is Joe Strummer’s take on the situation that was unfolding in Iran. “Rock the Casbah” deals with a King who seeks to ban music but, who ends up being defeated, time and time again, by those who believe in the power of Rock n’ Roll. The song is a little cartoonish but, the idea of the power of music to move the masses, as it were, is strong and forceful. As an ironic aside, several decades later, when the U.S. invaded Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, as part of a campaign known as “Operation Desert Storm”, the phrase “Rock the Casbah” was painted on to some of the bombs the US pilots dropped on Iraq. This action mortified Joe Strummer who always believed in the power of music to unite people, not hurt them.

In the historical DNA of many nations, there are cyclical spasms of individual liberty and freedom, contrasted with periods of societal restrictions that often appear, dressed in the uniforms of the religious and the pious. As you read these words today, the Taliban are re-introducing harsh Islamic law unto the citizens of Afghanistan. Just like in the Iran of the 1970s, all traces of western influences are being scrubbed clean from Afghani life. That includes Rock n’ Roll, too. So, as a symbolic recognition of what in Iran and what is happening now, in Afghanistan, I present “Rock the Casbah” by “The Clash”…..not as a way of putting down The Taliban but, in fact, the opposite, which is maintaining Hope via the power of music. Many blessings are given to all those involved. May they find safety and peace.

The link to the video for the song, “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Clash, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the power of music to inspire others for the greater good. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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