In today’s world of smartphones and cameras on every product you could think of, it seems utterly incomprehensible that someone as famous and adored as The Clash’s snarling lead singer Joe Strummer could seemingly vanish from the face of the earth. But in 1982, shortly before the band’s tour — one of their final jaunts as the quartet we know and love — and the release of Combat Rock, Strummer did just that. He simply vanished. Below we uncover the truth behind his disappearance.
In 1982 The Clash were one of the biggest bands on the planet. Following on from their run of brilliant albums having released two of punk’s greatest ever LPs in The Clash and London Calling, the group were being touted as “the only band that matters” and had found widespread acclaim. But all was not well and harmonious in Camp Clash.
There was a growing rift between guitarist Mick Jones and Strummer that had been slowly building to breaking point. The pair had been squabbling for months as the urge to provide the songwriting credits for their growing egos refused to subside. It had grown far worse during the recording of Combat Rock as the leading dogs of The Clash pack began to bear their teeth. The fractious nature of the band didn’t stop there, either.
Topper Headon, the band’s drummer, was struggling to deal with his escalating drug addiction and it had begun to affect the band heavily. All this, it goes without saying, had culminated in a not-so-pleasant touring environment. However, as with today’s business, touring still offered some of the group’s best opportunities to fill their bank accounts.
The show, therefore, must go on and the 1982 tour was beginning to take shape. However, when slow ticket sales for the Scottish leg of the tour became a worrying aspect of their designated dollar drop, manager Bernie Rhodes had a great idea. He would ask Strummer to “disappear” before the tour to encourage ticket sales and hype around the expected run. The plan was for the singer to steal away to Texas to spend time with his friend, Joe Eley and allow the furore over his apparent vanishing to drive fervor and, upon his arrival back in Blighty, found safe and well, ensure that tickets would fly out the door before the singer could slope off once more.
On paper, Rhodes’ ploy seemed like a great plan. Well, it was certainly a plan. However, Strummer had his own ideas and used the opportunity to his advantage. After conducting a phone interview on April 21st, 1982, to promote the Clash’s tour in Scotland in a few days, the singer took a ferry across the channel and headed for Paris. “I thought it would be a good joke if I never phoned Bernie at all,” Strummer said in The Future Is Unwritten. “He was going to be thinking, ‘Oh, where has Joe gone?’… And I ran the Paris Marathon, too.” A key factor, bizarrely, that remains true. Rumour has it, Strummer completed the marathon after knocking back 10 pints the night before the race.
With a large amount of uncertainty clouding his thoughts, Strummer found comfort in the City of Light as he and then-girlfriend Gaby Salter “dicked around” Paris for weeks. The couple found refuge in the cobbled streets of the French capital and Strummer found some solace away from the tumultuous tension of the band. In France, he could melt away in the milieu of the metropolitan, far away from the prying eyes of London’s punk scene.
As the time for his proposed disappearance came and went, Rhodes and those closest to the band began to worry about the Strummer’s whereabouts. The intended impact on ticket sales was just as visible as ticket sales began to dwindle. As the days went by, tour stops were cancelled or postponed and the news publications around the world began to run updates on Strummer’s disappearance. Eventually, The Clash’s entire UK tour was postponed. The band’s new album, Combat Rock, was even released as the weeks went by and Strummer was still nowhere to be found.
Despite sporting a new rough beard, Strummer wasn’t quite as well disguised as he may have hoped and the rumours that frontman was holed up in Paris began to swirl. Kosmo Vinyl, one of the band’s closest friends, was sent (with a private detective) to track down the frontman. After locating his favourite pub, the pair finally met in May 1982 with Vinyl reportedly greeting Joe as “Fidel”.
The Clash did catch up with the Netherlands leg of the tour and completed their set at a Dutch festival. It would be the last gig that Topper Headon would play with The Clash with Strummer firing him shortly after.
While Headon would suggest that Strummer vanished so as to prove his worth (and increase his power within) to the band, the lead singer had another reason for missing dates on the tour: “Well… it was something I wanted to prove to myself: that I was still alive,” he would later tell the NME. “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…”
While the story remains integral to the Clash’s somewhat reckless reputation, the truth remains that Strummer’s disappearance sparked the beginning of the end for the band. But at least it provided Joe Strummer with one of the best marathon stories you will ever hear.