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Why Did Joe Strummer Of The Clash Disappear For 3 Weeks In 1982?

Music | August 26, 2019

Joe Strummer of The Clash performs on stage at the Brixton Academy on March 8th, 1984 in London, England. (Photo by Pete Still/Redferns)

Just as the band was releasing their biggest album, Joe Strummer of The Clash went missing -- for nearly a month. What seemed like a publicity stunt soon proved to be a real problem. Strummer was missing, and Combat Rock's release date was looming, and the band was having to cancel tour dates. This didn't help the growing rift between Strummer and co-founder Mick Jones. For a fiercely independent musician uncomfortable with success and adulation, it seemed like Strummer was trying to torpedo the band at its moment of triumph.

By 1982 The Clash was one of the most important bands on the planet -- "the only band that matters," they had been called. The blistering political anthems of their first three albums inspired fans across the world to pick up guitars and lose themselves in the band’s no rules philosophy, and after the massive success of London Calling the group leaned into full rock star excess.

The band did everything a group of self-destructive rockstars is supposed to do. They recorded Sandinista!, a triple album packed full of different influences and styles; they fired their management, and before the release of their most successful album ever their frontman disappeared. Joe Strummer’s relationship with the rest of the band, especially with Jones, was strained. When an opportunity presented itself for Strummer to ditch his warring band and take some time off, he jumped at it. On April 21, 1982, he vanished without a trace for three weeks. In an era before cell phones and social media, it was as if he was a ghost. 

The Clash Were At Each Other's Throats While Recording 'Combat Rock'

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Following the creative drift of Sandinista!, The Clash once again found themselves working without a tether. They returned to Electric Lady Studios - where they'd holed up to record the triple LP - and spent two months recording whatever came to mind. Drummer Topper Headon laid down most of the music for “Rock The Casbah” on his own while in the middle of heroin addiction, and Strummer convinced his bandmates to fire their management company in favor of Bernie Rhodes, the punk impresario who'd managed the group in its early years.

When The Clash finished recording they had another multi-album collection on their hands so they recruited producer Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etc.) to mix the album and help cut it down to a more cohesive single LP. The band now had Combat Rock. Jones and Strummer even re-recorded their vocals for a few songs to maximize their potential as singles. Everything was pointing towards the band regaining their place at the top of the mountain.

Late In Life, Strummer Said That He Disappeared To Sell Tickets

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Before the release of Combat Rock, the group had a tour in Scotland booked that wasn’t selling the way new manager hoped it would. Strummer told Uncut that he was never worried about slow ticket sales because of the band’s good fortune with walk-up ticket sales, but Rhodes thought that the band needed to start a controversy in order to move units. He panicked and asked Strummer to disappear, and the singer was more than happy to oblige. He told Uncut:

I f*cked off to Paris because Bernie Rhodes told me to. He had forgotten about the fact that we had a huge walk-up. It’s something I still have. A walk-up means people who don’t buy tickets for your shows up-front. You mightn’t sell a huge advance. But with a walk-up you’ll sell out, piss easy. For me, it’s a real honorable thing to have. It means you’ve got hipsters in the crowds who don’t plan things in advance. That’s the crowd you want.
There was a gig in Inverness that wasn’t sold out, but we could have filled it easy. He panicked and said, ‘Someone’s got to break their arm or something, you’ll have to disappear.’ I felt like disappearing anyway. I was supposed to call him when I went away but I thought, ‘This has got to look good.’ So I really did disappear.

This is just one version of the story that he told over the years.

Initially, Strummer Was Supposed To Hide Out In Texas

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It’s not clear why manager Bernie Rhodes thought that Strummer should hideout in Texas to sell a few tickets in Scotland, but that sounds like the initial plan. The idea was that Strummer would take off for a few days and upset the English and Scottish press. Rhodes smartly assumed that everyone would be looking for Strummer at his favorite pub so the idea was to send the singer to hang with his buddy country singer Joe Ely in Texas.

Ely had long been friends with Strummer, and The Clash had taken him on the tour for London Calling as their opening act. They even worked his name into the lyrics of “If Music Could Talk,” when they sang “Well there ain't no better blend than Joe Ely and his Texas Men.” Ely even sang back up vocals on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” But as close as Strummer and Ely may have been, Strummer didn’t want to go to Texas. 

During His Time Away From The Band, Strummer Ran A Marathon In Paris

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With his manager and his band under the assumption that he was going to Texas for a few days, Strummer took off for Paris after giving a phone interview on April 21, 1982. He moved into his girlfriend Gaby Salter’s apartment and got into the tourist life. With no commitments, Strummer grew a beard, spent time at a local bar and did his best to blend in. In the documentary The Future is Unwritten Strummer admits, “I thought it would be a good joke if I never phoned Bernie at all. He was going to be thinking, 'Oh, where has Joe gone?’”

During his stay in Paris, Strummer mostly drank and looked at art, but he also ran the Paris marathon as an unlisted participant -- as he did in 1981 and a year later in 1983 -- but while he was alive Strummer didn’t recommend adopting his training regimen which included 10 pints of beer the night before and no running for a few weeks. He told an interviewer:

Drink 10 pints of beer the night before the race. Ya got that? And don’t run a single step at least four weeks before the race… None at all. And don’t forget the 10 pints of beer the night before. But make sure you put a warning in this article, ‘Do not try this at home.’ I mean, it works for me and Hunter Thompson but it might not work for others. I can only tell you what I do.

Strummer’s Disappearance Didn’t Sell Tickets 

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It’s safe to say that on top of the bad ideas list “sending your singer away under the guise of a disappearance and then actually losing him” sits in the top five of the worst decisions ever. Especially as a means for gaining publicity and selling tickets. During Strummer’s disappearance, everyone thought he was in Texas, but when he didn’t phone, the band realized something was wrong.

It wasn’t just the band and their manager who knew that not all was okay with their subterfuge. The group’s fans could smell a rat, and when they found out that Strummer was missing, ticket sales slowed to a full stop. Either as a means of publicizing the event, or to actually find Strummer, the NME began running updates on the singer, which led to many of the band’s shows being canceled. The release date for “Combat Rock” came and went, Strummer stayed gone, and the band postponed the rest of their UK tour. 

There Was An Active Hunt For Strummer

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By the time the NME was posting updates about Strummer-Watch, fans and interested parties were searching for the singer in the pubs and dance halls of Britain. He was reportedly spotted by a Dutch journalist in Paris around May 17, but it’s not like Joe Strummer isn’t recognizable. Even with a beard he’s clearly the singer of The Clash, and he hadn’t even been missing for that long, how much could his appearance have changed?

The Dutch journalist reached out to the Clash’s people, who sent publicist and longtime friend of the band Kosmo Vinyl to bring Strummer back to the fold. When vinyl saw Strummer in the bar he reportedly shouted “Fidel,” as he was reunited with his old friend. Vinyl brought Strummer back to London in time for the group to head to the Netherlands, where they played the Lochem Festival. Unfortunately, this was the last show that the band played with Headon on drums, and because Strummer had been missing for so long, fans didn’t even think the band was going to play, making attendance sparse. 

Headon Thinks That Strummer Disappeared To Make A Point To The Band

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If Strummer had simply laid low for a few days in Texas as Rhodes asked him to, it’s possible that the group would have been able to spin the press into something positive, but by disappearing for a month he effectively grounded the band and prevented them from rehearsing, playing gigs, and making money.

Drummer Topper Headon believes that Strummer wanted to remind the band that he had the power in the group and that he could send them back on the dole any time he wanted. Headon also believes that Strummer wanted to fire him before he disappeared, but that he didn’t have the political juice to do so before he left. Once he returned and the band was able to work again, Headon believes that Strummer flexed his control of the group to send him packing. 

At The Time, Strummer Said He Felt Like A 'Robot'

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Even though the initial idea of Strummer disappearing was planned, he clearly wanted to get away from the spotlight and the tensions within his group so a vanishing act was exactly what he needed. Rolling Stone states that Strummer said of his disappearance in Paris, “I felt that freedom, you know, like in a Hank Williams song.” He also told the NME

Well… it was something I wanted to prove to myself: that I was still alive. It’s very much being like a robot, being in a band… rather than go barmy and go mad, I think it’s better to do what I did even for a month. I think I would have started drinking a lot on the tour, maybe. Started becoming petulant with the audience, which isn’t the sort of thing you should do.

When Strummer Returned, The Band Was Over

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Once Strummer was back in the fold the group was able to tour on “Combat Rock,” their biggest selling album, but the writing was on the wall for the group. After firing Headon, Strummer brought in the group’s original drummer and soldiered on, but Strummer believes that the band never captured the groove of their best years. He said:

I don’t think, honest to God, we ever played a good gig after that. Except for one night in New Jersey, we played a good one, but I reckon that was just by the law of averages. Out of a 30-gig tour, one night was OK – you’ve got to say it’s a fluke.

Following his return to the band, Strummer once again found himself in a place where he wasn’t particularly happy. He was sharing the stage with people he didn’t like and playing songs that he didn’t enjoy. As the group closed out ’82 with an opening stint for The Who, Strummer felt that he was looking down the barrel of the rest of his life and he didn’t like what he saw. He told Uncut:

We did eight gigs in super-stadiums, all the biggest joints – LA Coliseum, Oakland Coliseum, Shea Stadium. I realized that was where we were heading and it didn’t look good. We just had to crash and die. I never said nothing to nobody about it, but I was in deep sh*t with that in my mind.

After the Combat Rock tour, Strummer fired Jones, breaking up the songwriting team at the heart of the band. Strummer tried to keep the clash going, releasing a Jones-less album (Cut The Crap), but it wasn't the same band if it was even a "band" at all. In early 1986, The Clash ceased to exist. Will we ever know the whole story of Strummer's disappearance? It seems unlikely, as Strummer died in 2002 due to an undiagnosed heart condition. He was just 50.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Joe Strummer | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Clash

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.