25 Years of "Rock the Casbah"

Anthem of US Marines

The British punk band "The Clash" stormed the charts 25 years ago with the legendary "Rock the Casbah". But Joe Strummer, the band’s cult singer, would never have imagined that his song could become the anthem of the Gulf War soldiers. By Amin Farzanefar

​​Thanks to its catchy piano intro and singalong chorus, "Rock the Casbah" not only made number eight in the American charts, it has also been covered over the decades by numerous musicians, spanning the electronic duo "Solar Twins", the pop group "Something for Kate", the Christian punk-metal band "One Bad Pig", the lounge arranger Richard Cheese to the rapper Will Smith.

Cover versions as an electronic, pop, lounge and hiphop song – and to top it all even a guest appearance on the Simpsons – are something the composer "Topper" Headon and the charismatic lyricist Joe Strummer would never have thought possible – and wouldn’t necessarily have welcomed.

"Goood morning Saudi-Arabia!"

But one thing the pacifist anarchist Joe Strummer certainly never intended was for "Rock the Casbah" to become the anthem of the Gulf War soldiers during Operation "Desert Storm".

British soldiers during Operation Desert Storm, 1990 (photo: AP)
Gulf War anthem in the fight against Saddam – British soldiers during Operation Desert Storm, 1990

​​DJ Rick Yanku started his morning radio show in the US army base at Dahran with a cry of "Goood morning Saudi-Arabia" immediately followed by "Rock the Casbah", which soon became the battle-tune of the marines fighting the war against Saddam. They took the lyrics, which are still often misinterpreted, to be a call to literally “rock” the old Arabian town and bomb the minarets.

As a result, the Republican magazine "National Review" put the "Clash anthem" at number 20 on its list of the 50 top conservative songs of all time. Yet later the tune ended up on the infamous blacklist of songs deemed inappropriate for radio airplay after 9/11. All this begs the question of what the song – peppered with Arabic, Indian and Persian words – really is about.

Bombs between the minarets

Surprisingly, "Rock the Casbah" comes across as very light-hearted and humorous: the shareef, the fundamentalist king of an unnamed Islamic dictatorship, is angered by a sudden outbreak of raga dancing, in the end even ordering jet fighters to put a stop to the spreading chaos – and drop their bombs between the minarets. But the jet pilots are not immune to the lure of the music and soon join in the chorus of "Rock The Casbah!"

It all fits in so well with the past and present political climate: Ayatollah Khomeini dethroned the despotic Shah in 1979; even then, the newly declared "Islamic Republic of Iran" had no time for fun and games, and launched a wide-ranging cultural revolution.

No humanity in fanaticism

It was the strict ban on western disco music that inspired Joe Strummer’s lyrics. With "Rock the Casbah" he wanted to express that "there’s no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism," he said.

In fact it is down to Joe Strummer’s unusual biography that a punk band ever came up with such unorthodox sounds and lyrics. Born in the Turkish capital of Ankara, the son of a diplomat grew up in India and Mexico, later visiting Teheran after moving to London. As a result, the Clash’s songs are an early combination of British rudeboy attitude, reggae, folk and Oriental sounds.

After the untimely end of the Clash in 1985, Strummer confirmed his standing as a political activist and advocate of multiculturalism, exerting a clear influence on world music writers and performers such as Manu Chao.

And had he not died unexpectedly in December 2002, he would most likely be among the anti-G8 activists today.

All that goes some way to explaining why the Arab musician Rachid Taha recorded the only successful cover version of a punk song in Arabic: "Rock el Casbah".

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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