40 Years Ago: The Clash Fire Topper Headon Amid Downward Spiral
The Clash were mere days away from releasing Combat Rock when drummer Topper Headon was unceremoniously fired. Fittingly, he appeared to be pained and out of focus on the subsequent album cover.
Bandleader Joe Strummer never really forgave himself, though the formerly heroin-addicted Headon has consistently agreed with the decision.
"Joe went to his grave blaming himself for the Clash breaking up – but he had no choice," Headon told Uncut in 2007, just three years after finally kicking the habit. "When you're an addict, you lie all the time. I didn't give a fuck about anyone else. He didn't have a lot of choice, but he was a great friend ever since."
The Clash originally got together in 1976, during punk's messy and violent early days. Original drummer Terry Chimes quickly had enough of the chaotic scene, reportedly quitting after a bottle was smashed on his hi-hat during a show. The auditions to replace him were grueling.
Headon, who'd been in an earlier band with the Clash's Mick Jones, was the 207th and final person to try out. Born in Bromley, he was the child of educators but started in a decidedly different field of work. "I first played drums when I was 13," Headon told Time Out in 1978. "I was working at the butcher's, cleaning up, and I saved the money to buy a kit for £30."
He had a memorable year-and-a-half-long tenure with a prog group that opened for Supertramp. Those experiences, along with his time alongside Jones in London SS, convinced Headon that he'd been right to hand in his meat cleaver. "We hit it off straight away," Headon said of Jones in a 2018 talk with Kent Online. "I then went on a tour with an American soul band, and he formed the Clash."
Listen to the Clash Perform 'Guns on the Roof'
Months passed, then Headon ran into his former bandmate. "We met at the Rainbow Theatre [in north London] at a gig by the Kinks," Headon added. "Mick said to me, 'Do you want to join my new band?'" Headon took over for Chimes just a year into the Clash's existence, as they were preparing to record 1978's Give 'Em Enough Rope. The group's classic-era lineup was set.
"I loved the way the band looked," Headon told CBS News in 2013. "I loved the energy and power of the group. I loved the way they were like a gang and rebellious. It was very charismatic, but I did think that the music could be improved somewhat. It wasn't me in particular, but gradually over time, the four of us just gelled. The music became better and better. I felt like I was in the greatest band in the world."
Headon earned an initial cowriting credit on "Guns on the Roof," which was inspired in part by Headon's arrest for shooting racing pigeons with an air gun from atop their rehearsal hall. It wouldn't be his last notable musical contribution with the Clash or Headon's last run-in with the law.
He then cowrote "The Card Cheat" on 1979's London Calling, while Headon's deft playing style helped the Clash broadly expand their musical palette. Headon took his first lead vocal with "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe," while cowriting "The Magnificent Seven" on 1980's Sandinista! All of it set the stage for "Rock the Casbah," his offhanded masterpiece from 1982's Combat Rock.
"One day I turned up at the studio and waited for a while and there wasn't anyone there, so I thought I'd put a drum track down to this song I had in my head," Headon told CBS. "So I put the drums down. Then I got on the piano and played it. And I thought when the others turn up, I'll show them how it goes, and no one turned up. So I put the bass on it and then I put percussion on it. By the time they turned up, it was all recorded."
Watch the Clash's Video for 'Rock the Casbah'
The Clash had their biggest U.S. single but were losing their drummer to drugs. Occasional usage had turned into a raging problem with heroin and cocaine that was reportedly costing Headon £100 per day. Strummer made the difficult decision to let Headon go on May 10, 1982, only to watch as the promise of his lightning-fast career-making song evaporated into addiction.
"This is, like, I suppose, within 25 minutes, and 'Rock the Casbah' is there – boom," Strummer told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "Topper Headon did that in 25 minutes – and now he's serving 15 months in [prison] ... for partially supplying the heroin that killed some guy."
"Rock the Casbah" went to No. 8 in the U.S., joining 1980's No. 23 hit "Train in Vain" as the Clash's only Billboard Top 40 songs. Headon was left to watch as Terry Chimes returned to mime his drum parts in the celebrated video that followed. By the time the Clash's clip earned heavy rotation on MTV, Headon was headed toward sad anonymity that included driving a mini-cab and busking on the London Underground to underwrite his heroin habit.
Chimes was only a temporary replacement. The Clash ended up hiring Pete Howard in 1983, but then Jones was also fired later that year. The Clash released a final album before skidding to a halt. Meanwhile, Headon said he went 26 years at one point without playing the drums.
"Joe wouldn't have sacked me if I hadn't been a raving heroin addict, trashing hotel rooms, throwing up, late for rehearsals. He had no choice. I was in a state," a sober Headon told the Independent in 2009. "We were kids. It was the best thing that could have happened. We made all that fantastic music and then imploded at the top."