DJ and film-maker Don Letts was a key member of The Clash’s inner circle through the punk legends’ career and had a ringside seat when the group’s songwriting partnership Joe Strummer and Mick Jones began to splinter.
Nothing encapsulates the tumult the band encountered in the wake of releasing their divisive fifth album Combat Rock than the video shoot for their big hit single Rock The Casbah, which was directed by Letts. In a 2022 interview with the music Substack publication The New Cue, he recounted how he tried to hold things together while the London quartet were very visibly coming apart at the seams.
“On the face of it, that whole period looks like it’s coming together for the band, but internally [there was] a lot of struggles going on,” Letts told The New Cue’s Ted Kessler. “It was compounded by Joe rehiring Bernard Rhodes as manager, which I don’t think Mick was too happy about. The irony is that Joe and Paul brought Bernie back to help get some of the chaos and madness back of the early days but I don’t think they envisaged the madness and chaos that actually happened. Him coming back set ripples off that ultimately destroyed The Clash.”
Letts recalls shooting the video in the Texan desert, with vocalist/guitarist Jones turning up to the set in a decidedly disgruntled mood.
“Mick turns up and he’s pissed off about something,” Letts said. “Everyone is in their Clash get-ups and Mick turns up in red long-johns and black Doc Martens. I’m, like, ‘Mick! You look like a matchstick’. He’s trying to make some point or other. I had to remind him that film is forever and if you’re going to be a dick on film, you’re going to be a dick forever. He quickly changed, but was still a bit miffed so he wore a face-mask. Joe has had enough and towards the end just pulls the mask off Mick and lo-and-behold it’s Mick Jones! None of it was choreographed. But MTV absolutely hammered it."
MTV support for the single helped it become The Clash's biggest ever US hit, peaking at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its parent album, meanwhile, reached number 7 in the US, and went on to sell two millions copies Stateside.
And Don Letts does at least have one positive memory of the turbulent shoot.
"It was cool to show Texans a live armadillo because usually they only saw them dead as ashtrays in bars," he explained.