Joe Strummer and the Paris Marathon

You may think that long-distance running is hardly the stuff of rock n’roll living, but you’d be wrong. This is the story of how Joe Strummer, at the height of The Clash’s fame, ran the Paris Marathon.

Train In Vain? Joe Strummer at the start of the 1983 London Marathon…

It’s April 1982, and The Clash are arguably the hippest rock band in the world. However, their previous album, the wildly ambitious reggae-punk triple disc ‘Sandinista’, had received a poor critical and commercial reception, and the forthcoming release of ‘Combat Rock’ (a deliberate reference to the ongoing Falklands War, and a title guaranteed to minimise official radio play but maximise rebel cred) on 14 May would therefore be crucial for their career.

As told by Chris Salewicz in his Strummer biography ‘Redemption Song’, Clash manager Bernie Rhodes had several publicity stunts in mind for the release, one of which was that Strummer should ‘disappear’ in order to generate hype and sales.

Strummer, though, trumped his manager by deciding to disappear for real. So, on 21 April 1982 – three weeks before the album’s release date – Strummer took the boat and train from London to Paris, accompanied by his then-girlfriend Gaby Salter, who had a friend offering the pair the use of a flat in Montmartre.

As The Clash were huge in France (so much so that for the next twenty years nearly every French rock band would depend on reggae beats, punk guitars, lame sloganeering and leather trousers), Strummer grew a beard as a disguise and kept low-profile. He did his own bohemian sightseeing tour of Paris, visiting museums and locations made famous by artists and writers. (He was a fan of Rimbaud, the quintessentially dissolute 19th century French poet.) Salter, in Salewicz’s book, says that the pair travelled around the city by metro, reading articles about Strummer’s disappearance. And together they ran the Paris marathon. (Salewicz includes in his book a photo of Strummer and Salter before the race.)

…and during the 1981 London Marathon

It wasn’t Strummer’s first marathon; he ran the 1981 London marathon and – sponsored by English tabloid The Sun – did so again in 1983. In the 1982 Paris marathon Salter finished last and, if we extrapolate from a 1999 interview Strummer gave to US magazine Steppin’ Out, her boyfriend could not have been too far ahead:

Q: Didn’t you once run in the Paris Marathon?
Joe: Yep. I ran three of them.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong but is it also true that you never trained for any of them?
Joe: You shouldn’t really ask me about my training regime, you know.
Q: Why?
Joe: Because it’s not good and I wouldn’t want people to copy it.
Q: Don’t make me beat it out of you.
Joe: Okay, you want it, here it is. Drink 10 pints of beer the night before the race. Ya got that? And don’t run a single step at least four weeks before the race.
Q: No running at all?
Joe: No, none at all. And don’t forget the 10 pints of beer the night before. But make sure you put a warning in this article, “Do not try this at home.” I mean, it works for me and Hunter Thompson but it might not work for others. I can only tell you what I do.

Strummer claimed that he ran the 1983 London marathon in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Now, your blogger (tall, svelte and athletic) has been training to run this year’s Paris marathon in 3:20 too. So, we’d like to see some documentary proof that the Strummer routine can produce those results, please. Either our Joe was secretly doing regular laps of the Casbah before rocking it every night, or else this is just one more legend in the Clash mythology.

‘Combat Rock’ was released in Strummer’s absence on 14 May 1982. It was a critical success and chart-scaling hit in both the UK and US. However, with their singer missing The Clash’s short UK tour had to be cancelled and their scheduled US summer tour was now in danger of collapsing and bankrupting the band. A 20 May warm-up appearance at the Lochem festival in the Netherlands was selling poorly as punters justifiably feared a no-show. The Clash teetered on the brink of a break-up.

Fortunately, on 17 May a Dutch journalist spotted Strummer in a Paris bar and contacted the Lochem promoter, who in turn got on to the Clash’s people in London. One of them, ‘creative director’ Kosmo Vinyl, went to Paris and, finding Strummer in another bar, talked him round. On 18 May Strummer returned to London and The Clash.

Two days later The Clash played the Lochem festival during a violent storm and even more violent scuffles between security and fans, all of which provoked Strummer into inviting up to 500 fans onto the dangerously sagging stage. On their return to London the band sacked drummer Topper Headon as a consequence of his heroin use, re-recruiting original drummer Terry Chimes and heading to the States for their 29 May tour-opener in New Jersey.

So, Joe Strummer survived the Paris marathon – and more importantly for rock fans, so did The Clash.

From ‘Combat Rock’, here’s one of The Clash’s finest moments – the utterly brilliant ‘Rock The Casbah’:

This article was originally published on 9 April 2007 in French Letter, a blog on the Irish alternative music website CLUAS (www.cluas.com)

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