The Clash were not in a good place in the spring of 1982. Although the British rockers had a new album about to come out and tour dates booked in Europe and North America, the members weren’t getting along. The relationship between frontman Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones was becoming increasingly strained due to ego, while drummer Topper Headon’s drug addiction was wreaking its own havoc.
It’s no wonder that Strummer wanted to run away from all the internal and external pressures of leading the Clash. When manager Bernie Rhodes noticed the group’s April and May U.K. gigs weren’t selling out, he concocted a publicity stunt in which Joe would “vanish” for a couple days, stirring up the local papers. The plan was that Strummer would steal away to Texas and hang out with buddy Joe Ely for a while.
Strummer’s family, who spent a lot of time moving from place to place in his early youth following his father’s career as a diplomat, resulted in the future Clash frontman himself spending chunks of his early childhood living in Cairo and Mexico City before being sent to boarding school at the age of nine.
“At the age of nine I had to say good-bye to them [his family] because they went abroad to Africa or something,” Strummer once said. “I went to boarding school and only saw them once a year after that,” he added before clarifying it was because the Government paid for him to see his parents.
“I was left on my own, and went to this school where thick rich people sent their thick rich kids,” he added. It was during this time, it would seem, that Strummer developed the skill to run like the wind.
Strummer had other plans for his 'disappearance'. After doing a phone interview on April 21, 1982, to promote the Clash’s scheduled concerts in Scotland in a few days, the singer-guitarist took a boat across the English Channel and headed for Paris, unbeknownst to anyone. In the City of Light, he shacked up with girlfriend Gaby Salter, hung out at a local pub and grew a beard.
“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.”
Yes, according to not just Strummer, but also Salter and some other friends, the Clash leader ran the city marathon as an unregistered participant with his girlfriend. Although she gave up early on, others claim that Joe finished the race, despite a lack of training and a heavy diet of alcohol. While some remain skeptical, it is documented that the musician ran the London Marathon in both 1981 and ’83. Perhaps he was just that driven.
When Strummer didn’t report back from his planned Texas trip, Rhodes and other Clash associates began to worry. Joe’s actual disappearance did not have his manager’s intended effect on ticket sales. As fans discovered that Strummer was missing, they were even less inclined to buy Clash tickets. The NME began running updates about the star’s disappearance, asking for leads to be sent to the band’s offices. Concerts started to get cancelled.
Eventually, the Clash’s entire U.K. tour was postponed. The band’s new album, Combat Rock, was released. Almost a month went by.
Meanwhile, rumours began to circulate that Strummer was in Paris, because a scraggly beard hadn’t really rendered him incognito during the frequent pub appearances. Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl was sent to find the runaway frontman. With the help of a detective, he discovered Joe’s favourite Paris pub. Reportedly, when the two encountered one another on May 18, Vinyl greeted the bearded Strummer with “Fidel!”
The pair returned to London, in time for the Clash to travel to the Netherlands to make the group’s scheduled date at the Lochem Festival. Because Strummer’s disappearance had become such big news, many of those in attendance didn’t wait to see the band close out the evening, figuring that the Clash would be forced to cancel another show. Instead, the group played its last gig with Headon on drums.
Topper, who was fired by Strummer soon after, said that Joe’s vanishing had something to do with his departure from the band. He theorized that the frontman had to prove his value to the Clash by hiding away, thus giving him the power to dispatch Headon. In an interview after being “found,” Strummer claimed his sabbatical was for other reasons.
“Well… it was something I wanted to prove to myself: that I was still alive,” Strummer 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…”
After the Holland show (and Topper’s firing), the Clash brought in original drummer Terry Chimes to pick up the sticks and the band completed a run of dates in the U.S. and Canada, before playing the rescheduled shows in the U.K. in the summer. With the success of Combat Rock's singles, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah,” the Clash would play some of their biggest gigs throughout the next year, despite the fact that the band was crumbling from the inside.