"Rock the Casbah" / The Clash
There's an ad on TV right now for...well, I can't even remember what product the commercial's selling (the mark of a failed commercial), but the premise is that two guys are singing along to a rock song and they both get the refrain totally wrong. One guy says it's "Stop the cat box" and the other one insists it's "Lock the cash box," and the doofuses are both wrong -- as any music fan would know, because it's "Rock the Casbah", that irresistible 1982 single by the Clash. As soon as I hear it, I can't get that song out of my head for the rest of the day. No wonder I tuned out the product message.
I don't entirely blame the guys in the commercial (although, come on, it is the title of the song they mangle, which is sheer ignorance). I myself have listened to this song countless times and I still can't catch all the words. But the ones that count -- boogie men, desert, muezzin, Cadillac, prophet, Bedouin, temple, jet fighters, minarets -- are jabbed and hissed quite clearly; you get the point, if not the whole story . . .which, frankly, is kinda fuzzy. Basically, some oil-rich Mideast tyrant is censoring rock music and other personal freedoms, and the fact that it was inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini is interesting but, 25 years later, not essential.
What matters is those threatening, guttural vocals, punctuated with an occasional hysterical yelp: Somebody is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more. And the real addictive hook is that chorus: the Middle Eastern shimmying wail "Shareef don't like it" counterpointed by the spat-out reply "Rock! the casbah / Rock! the casbah." The way they sing that line, I'm never one-hundred-percent sure they're not saying "F**k the casbah." It's probably the most significantly mis-heard lyric since the Kingsmen fumbled the line "Each night at ten I SEE her again" (wink, wink) on "Louie, Louie".
I'm sure that there are still devoted Clash fans around; me, I don't even know the names of the guys in the band. I once owned London Calling but I couldn't put my hands on it today. Still, the Clash's songs have stuck with me more than most of their punk-era contemporaries. I loved this particular song's video, its samizdat look a total slap in the face to MTV's creeping glossiness, with grainy amateur camerawork and the band members cavorting around goofily in home-made sheikh and rabbi costumes.
Sure, it's yet another trademark Clash groin-kick against authority, but it's also a celebration of the crazy joy of rock music; you hear the twiddling piano intro and the spunky drumbeat and immediately you can't help it -- you just WANT TO DANCE. The point being, of course, that dancing to a percussive rock song can be a subversive act in itself.