At the height of their fame – shortly before the release of Combat Rock, their most commercially successful album – The Clash were falling apart. Singer/guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones spent much of their time in the studio arguing; drummer Topper Headon was dealing (not particularly well) with a serious drug problem; and the band’s upcoming touring engagements throughout the United Kingdom were selling slowly.
Things took a worrisome turn when, on April 21, 1982, Strummer finished a phone interview for an upcoming show in Scotland, then vanished, along with his girlfriend, Gaby Salter. Weeks went by without a word from either of them. Strummer’s Clash bandmates were worried, then angry, then both. The band’s manager, Bernard Rhodes, was panicking (more about him in a moment). Shows were canceled, then the U.K. tour was scrapped. Combat Rock was released, to positive reviews and serious chart action, but there were no concerts to promote the album.
Then, about a month later, The Clash’s aide de camp Kosmo Vinyl discovered Strummer and Salter were in Paris, and went to retrieve them (Strummer had grown a beard, and Vinyl greeted him by jokingly shouting “Fidel!”). Once found, the pair agreed to return to London, and Strummer to The Clash.
"I just wanted to get away," Strummer told the New Musical Express a short time later. "We were about to start the British tour and I just didn't feel like it. Once I got there...well, I only intended to stay for a few days, but the more days I stayed, the harder it was to come back...”
“It was something I wanted to prove to myself: that I was alive,” he noted in the same interview. “It's very much like being a robot, being in a group. You keep coming along and keep delivering and keep being an entertainer and keep showing up and keep the whole thing going. Rather than go barmy and go mad, I think it's better to do what I did, even for a month.”
What hadn’t been made public, at least not at first, was that the initial idea for Strummer’s disappearance had come from Bernard Rhodes. When sales for the U.K. tour had gone soft, Rhodes suggested Strummer “disappear,” thinking that his absence would stir up interest in the tour and increase ticket sales. The plan was to send the guitarist alone to Texas for a short period, enabling him to hang out with his friend, the songwriter Joe Ely, while Rhodes drummed up business for the tour.
And indeed, when Strummer checked out, Rhodes issued a typically polemical press statement. “Joe’s personal conflict is: where does the socially concerned rock artist stand in the bubblegum environment of the day?” the statement read, indicating Strummer had “probably gone away for a re-think.”
Instead of going to Texas, however, Strummer had collected Salter and taken the boat train to Paris without telling Rhodes what he was doing, so that Rhodes, the instigator of the disappearance, had no idea where Strummer was, and no way to contact him. Strummer, according to his biographer Chris Salewicz, had called his mother to tell her to not worry about what the news was about to say about him, then slipped off to France.
“We just immersed ourselves in being Parisians for a few weeks,” Salter told Salewicz. “I had a beret and we traveled on the Metro with copies of the newspaper articles about Joe being missing...Joe took me to every museum and all the places every famous writer had ever mentioned.” The couple even ran the French marathon, allegedly the morning after Strummer had consumed ten pints of beer at a Paris bar.
Meanwhile, Rhodes’ plan to spur ticket sales had backfired spectacularly, with the U.K. tour getting scrapped, a U.S. tour left in doubt, and a one-off festival date in Amsterdam selling poorly, since news of Strummer’s vanishing had hit. Moreover, once Strummer and Salter returned, the rest of the band found out the disappearance had, at least initially, been a ruse concocted to sell tickets, exacerbating an already tension-filled relationship both between Strummer and Jones, and between Jones and Rhodes.
Soon after the Amsterdam show, Topper Headon was fired from the band, replaced first by his predecessor, Terry Chimes, then later more permanently by Pete Howard. The American tour went forward, and found The Clash playing to the biggest audiences of their career, including several stadium dates opening for The Who, and a headlining slot at the 1983 US Festival. The unraveling had begun, though, and soon Strummer would force Jones out of the band, all but ending the Clash as a source of power, and as a band that truly mattered.