Joe Strummer, the snarling and uncompromising frontman of The Clash, was a complex, passionate and highly emotive individual.
The brains behind one of the most iconic British bands of all time, Stummer and his bandmates emerged as the key players in the original wave of British punk rock and did so with prolific effect before the band imploded at the height of their fame.
Now, of course, Strummer is well known for his direct and brutally honest methods of sacking core members of the group—a contributing factor to The Clash’s eventual demise. The first member to be ousted, drummer Terry Chimes, was replaced in by Topper Headon just as The Clash began to enter the world of international fame.
Topper, who would go on to contribute to a number of the now-iconic albums such as London Calling, Combat Rock and more, lived through five fast and intensely furious years as The Clash’s sticksman and did so with sex, drugs, booze and all that comes with touring with one of the biggest groups on the planet.
The booze soon led to cocaine and, as can often happen in the world of rock and roll, the coke led to heroin. With his behaviour spiralling out of control and his drug habit becoming a major issue, Topper was eventually sacked by Strummer after the drummer went through a number of failed rehab stints and spurned multiple ‘final chances’ which were offered to him by Strummer and the band.
“Joe wouldn’t have sacked me if I hadn’t been a raving heroin addict, trashing hotel rooms, throwing up, late for rehearsals,” he once said on reflection. “He had no choice,” he explains. “I was in a state. We were kids.”
Headon was finally kicked out by the band after he was handed one last chance, an opportunity to save his spot in the group. Turning up to a gig in Amsterdam, unaware that his behaviour was being monitored, the drummer went searching around the city looking for drugs. “I don’t know I’m being tested, do I? I don’t know it’s my last chance,” he recalled in a spit of laughter. “And I’m running around trying to score coke. They’re all sitting in the dressing-room, combing their hair in the mirror against the wall and I run in and go: ‘Can I use the mirror?'” to which the room fell silent, each band member knowing what it meant for Headon’s future.
But prior to that moment, Strummer had repeatedly tried to help Topper through his addiction and, one occasion, did everything he could to protect his drummer from the scrutiny of the media and the rolling television cameras. Leaving the country to partake in new tour dates, Topper was allegedly suffering from signs of withdrawal and, becoming dope sick, vomited on the floor of an airport.
“Even when I’m vomiting on the carpet in an airport it’s him who is standing up for me, having a go at the journalists, saying leave him alone,” Headon narrated as part of the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten—and defend him he did: “Shut up will ya, you stupid cunt,” Strummer snarls with a raised, passionate voice while his arm is borderline cradling a downbeat Headon who looks humiliated by the line of questioning.
Strummer adds: “Yeah, that’s what you deserve with that sort of crap. What do you think we are? Do you think this is 1976 and you’re talking to the Sex Pistols?”
“Piss off or I’ll fucking piss all over you. If he feels like throwing up it’s because his stomach hurts, I don’t need your fucking jokes to contend with. Now if you haven’t got something serious to say then piss off. How about life or death? Never mind who pukes on stinking carpets.”
See the clip, below: