In today’s world of smartphones and cameras on every product you could think of, it seems incomprehensible that someone as famous as The Clash’s Joe Strummer. But in 1982, shortly before their tour and the release of Combat Rock, Strummer did just that. The story is one of our favourites.
Once upon a time, there was a band called The Clash and in 1982 they were one of the biggest bands on the planet. Following on from their run of brilliant albums (The Clash and London Calling) the group were being touted as “the only band that matters”. But all was not right in the camp.
There was a growing rift between Mick Jones and Joe Strummer slowly building to a head. The pair had been squabbling for months as the urge to provide for their growing egos refused to subside, it had grown far worse during the recording of Combat Rock as the leading men of The Clash began to bear their teeth. The fractious nature of the band didn’t stop there either. Topper Headon, the band’s drummer was struggling with his drug addiction and it had begun to affect the band heavily. All this culminated into a not-so-pleasant touring environment.
But the show must go on and the 1982 tour was beginning to take shape when slow ticket sales for the Scottish leg of the tour gave manager Bernie Rhodes a great idea. He would ask Strummer to “disappear” before the tour to encourage ticket sales and hype around their tour. The plan was for Joe to steal away to Texas to spend time with friend Joe Eley.
It seemed like a great plan but Strummer 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.”
It’s true, he really did, and rumour has it he did it after knocking back 10 pints the night before the race.
He also found comfort in the City of Light as he and then-girlfriend Gaby Salter “dicked around” Paris for weeks. They found refuge in the cobbled streets of the French capital and Strummer found some solace away from the tumultuous tension of the band. He even grew a beard.
As the time for his proposed disappearance came and went Rhodes and the band’s friends began to worry about the star. The intended impact on ticket sales was just as visible as ticket sales dwindle. As the days went by tour stops cancelled or were postponed and the NME began to run updates on his disappearance asking for leads to be sent to the band’s offices. Eventually, the Clash’s entire U.K. tour was postponed. The band’s new album, Combat Rock, was even released as the weeks went by.
Despite the rough beard Strummer wasn’t quite as disguised as he may have hoped and the rumours that Joe was in Paris began to swirl. Kosmo Vinyl, one of the band’s 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, Joe 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…”
This is one of our favourite stories from The Clash. The sad point though is that this was truly 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.