OriginThe song gives a fabulist account of a ban on rock music by the Sharif or King being defied by the population, who proceed to "rock the casbah." The King orders jet fighters to bomb any people in violation of the ban. The pilots ignored the orders, and instead play rock music on their cockpit radios.
The song′s lyrics feature various Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Sanskrit loan-words, such as sharif, bedouin, sheikh, kosher, rāga, muezzin, minaret, and casbah.
According to the album notes in the box set The Clash on Broadway, "Rock the Casbah" originated when the band's manager Bernie Rhodes, after hearing them record an inordinately long track for the album, asked them facetiously "does everything have to be as long as this rāga?" (referring to the Indian musical style known for its length and complexity). Joe Strummer later wrote the opening lines to the song: "The King told the boogie-men 'you have to let that rāga drop'". The rest of the lyrics soon followed.,
The instrumental opening was a tune that drummer Topper Headon had written on the piano some time earlier and had toyed with during rehearsals before being incorporated into the song. In the 2000 documentary Westway to the World, Headon said he played drums, bass and piano on the record for the song. Headon claims that, while he thought he was merely playing the song for the band, his performances were recorded without his knowledge. All that was left to record were the guitar parts and the vocals. However, in The Future Is Unwritten (a documentary on Strummer), he states that he was in the studio waiting for the rest of the band to come to record, got sick of waiting, so recorded the parts himself.
Popular cultureThe song was chosen by Armed Forces Radio to be the first song broadcast on the service covering the area during Operation Desert Storm.
VideoThe Clash made low-budget music videos for several of their songs, and the one for "Rock the Casbah" may be their most memorable. Filmed in Austin, Texas, it depicts an Arab, played by Austin actor Titos Menchaca, and a Hasidic Jew, played by local stage director Dennis Razze, befriending each other on the road and skanking together through the streets to a Clash concert at Austin Coliseum, often followed by an armadillo, interspersed with the band performing in front of an oil well.
The U.S. Air Force became an unwitting participant in the video. Two RF-4C aircraft landing at Bergstrom Air Force Base (near Austin) from the east are featured in the portion of the video with the lyrics "the King called out his jetfighters..."