‘Topper’ Headon: An Appreciation

❉ ‘Topper’ Headon was a drumming genius who propelled a good band to become the best around, writes Paul Matts.

ca. 1976-1986 — The Clash Performing — Image by © CORBIS

Some names on any list of significant figures in punk rock, post punk and new wave come from a high-profile source. And you cannot get more high profile than The Clash. We all know about the contributions of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. However, a line from Scott Kenemore in Popmatters explains why the role of the band’s drummer is not always given the credit it deserves;

“His drumming remains an undiscovered treasure for too many.”

It is time to put this right.

My Mum bought me a copy of London Calling when I was twelve. A week or so later she poked her head around my bedroom door when I had it on my turntable. “These arent bad,” she said, before continuing, “the drums are good.”

A few days later my mate Simon came round. A heavy rock fan. I put on my favourite track, which was the fourth one on side three, The Card Cheat.

“They’re good. Theyve got the drum beat.”

You get the picture.

Nicholas Bowen Headon was a good drummer before he was asked to join The Clash. He was christened ‘Topper’ by Paul Simonon due to a physical likeness to a character (Mickey the Monkey) from the Topper comic. He played with a progressive rock outfit, Mirkwood, supporting Supertramp in the process. He also played in a band who supported The Temptations. He had a full repertoire of styles, from jazz to rock, funk to rock n roll, soul and blues. And much more. His technique was learnt from watching drummers. Buddy Rich, Keith Moon. A broad spectrum of players, all technically proficient. His hero was Billy Cobham.

To me, ‘Topper’ has always sounded a natural drummer. With great feel. At home hitting the skins, instantly comfortable in any style. The fact he was entirely self-taught underlines this. A drumming phenomenon.

He also had no real link to the growing punk rock scene in the mid-seventies.

But his arrival in The Clash in 1977 makes him a very significant figure in its evolution. His drumming was pivotal in sending The Clash into the stratosphere, making them the best band on the planet for a period.

‘Topper’ did not play on the UK release of the band’s debut album. The Clash is stuffed with top tunes, over-flowing with snarling attitude. Terry Chimes did the job behind the drum kit. ‘Topper’, a decent drummer, had been told his playing was on the quiet side. Appropriate for jazz styles maybe, but to play with one of the UKs most exciting and raw acts, he would have to make changes. He needed to toughen up a bit.

“I thought, I’m going to have to knock the shit out of those drums. As a result, I had to re-learn my style.” ‘Topper’ Headon, from Passion is a Fashion, The Real Story of the Clash by Pat Gilbert.

In doing so, he made the transition from good to great.

He kept his range of styles but had to add power to his playing. Real power. He wanted the job with The Clash initially as a launching pad for his own career. Obviously under-estimating the band’s potential somewhat. And his part in it.

“It’s no secret that when I joined The Clash I though I’ll stick with them for a year and make my name.” ‘Topper’, from Passion is a Fashion once more.

However the drummer’s impact was instant, none-the-less. In 1978 Give ‘Em Enough Rope became the band’s second release. The thunderous intro to Safe European Home formally announced ‘Topper’s arrival. As did the machine gun snare on Tommy Gun. Things had moved on, quickly. Significantly.

Complete Control, (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, 1977 and Clash City Rockers, were added to the 1979 US release of The Clash. All but 1977 were released as singles prior to Give ‘Em Enough Rope’s release, warming the masses up for the arrival of the new kid. Another track added to the US release of the band’s debut was also included as part of the legendary Cost of Living EP. The recording and release of I Fought the Law really showcased what ‘Topper’ was all about. Pounding tribal rolls, rock-solid mechanical beat, thrilling fills, energetic hi-hat. All played with so much power. It was simply breathtaking and remains so to this day. Frankly, never has a drummer added so much to a track. Astonishing.

It wasn’t just ‘Topper’s playing that needed to be up to scratch. In Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, the band had three individuals at the front of the stage, all fulfilling the frontman role simultaneously. All quite distinct, but all very comfortable in what they were doing. ‘Topper’ was not content to merely sit behind the drums and be a session player. He wanted to be very much part of the gang. This meant developing his on-stage personality. Not just powerful rhythms. Flashy fills, all carried out to complete accuracy and appropriated correctly were part of his live show. Without missing a beat, obviously. He developed a visual angle to his playing. He became exciting to watch.

‘Topper’ has always credited Paul Simonon with helping him here. Paul’s bass playing held down the rhythm enabling ‘Topper’ to show what he could do. To show off a bit. Night after night, Paul kept it steady and the same. All bands need an effective rhythm section. ‘Topper’ was now an integral gang member. And that gang did their business live on stage.

This is further shown in the photographs of ‘Topper’ in The Clash. They looked every inch a gang. Every inch a band. And has any band ever photographed so well? It was always going to be tough to look comfortable alongside the street-wise cool of Joe, Mick and Paul. ‘Topper’ did exactly that. Following a swift punk make-over, though. He belonged. They belonged to him, too.

‘Topper’ had made his presence felt in more than one way. The band were already going into new areas musically. There was development. There was evolution. However at this stage, this was merely a step or two into new territories.

The band’s third album, however, the epic London Calling, found them now sprinting off into all the musical territories they could. Evolution? Try musical revolution. No longer were they merely stepping. They were running. Fast. With boundless energy. It is absolutely inconceivable this could have been achieved without ‘Topper’ Headon on drums.

His playing gave the band the foundation. To move into new genres. In my view, there are almost signs on the album of the drumming being so good, the songs themselves were having to keep up quality-wise. Usually it is the song leading the drumming and percussion. London Calling was almost, at times, vice-versa. The band even alluded to the fact they couldnt fail to write good songs with drumming that good!

The pounding drive of London Calling. The lovely laid-back jazz pattern of Jimmy Jazz. The fluid ska of Wrong em Boyo. The rockabilly tumble of Hateful. The huge Phil Spector-style ferocity of The Card Cheat. Albeit with over-dubs. That was the one my friend Simon picked up on. The rock-steady beat on Revolution Rock. The loop-style smack of Train in Vain, copied on a thousand subsequent drum machine tracks. Listen to Stupid Girl by Garbage for a start.

Think how those tracks would have sounded without ‘Topper’. With average drumming and percussion. There is no way the album would have sounded as it did. The album that tops many polls. Rolling Stone’s album of the 1980s – despite being recorded and released in 1979. Eighth in its top 500 albums of all-time.

Having seen London Calling sprint off into musical territories, Sandinista (1980) saw them settling into these territories and colonizing them. Exploring off the beaten track, searching round the backstreets. Making sure no stone was left unturned. Again, inconceivable without ‘Topper’. Speed jazz? Try Look Here. Hip-hop? Lightning strikes (not once but twice). Northern Soul? Hitsville UK. Funk? The Magnificent Seven. The brisk snap of Midnight Log. Dub beats on One More Dub. He even did a lead vocal on Ivan Meets GI Joe.

This continued into Combat Rock (1982). His final album with the band. The intricate patterns on Straight to Hell. Ghetto Defendant too. The power rock of Should I Stay or Should I Go. Played with REAL power. Yet it sounds funky, even laid back, slightly.

“A human drum machine”. Sandy Pearlman, producer of Give em Enough Rope, talking about ‘Topper’.

And then there is Rock the Casbah. The song he wrote, and played not just the drums but other instruments too. Written whilst killing time waiting for his band-mates to turn up for a session. It went on to become the band’s biggest hit at the time. Natural musical talent? You bet.

‘Topper’ Headon was a drumming genius who propelled a good band to become the best around. It was inevitable, maybe, that such talent would come at a price. ‘Topper’ had developed a heroin habit which soon escalated. It became a huge problem for the band, particularly when the press got hold of it and started to ask questions. Ultimately, it lead to ‘Topper’ having to leave the band in 1982. Possibly such a light was never going to burn so strongly and continually for too long.

They were never anywhere near to being the same again. Terry Chimes, an excellent drummer himself, returned to the fold, enabling the band to continue to operate. Despite some high-profile US shows, the bands best days were basically numbered. Creativity all but disappeared. That backbone, the ability to do whatever they wanted musically, had gone. Limitations well and truly returned, accentuated of course by the subsequent departure of Mick Jones.

It is this that underlines what a significant figure ‘Topper’ Headon was, and remains, in punk rock and new wave music. When he was no longer in The Clash, the excitement and endless musical possibilities were gone. They were the best band in the world. The band opened new doors to a musical world for the likes of me, living in English suburbia. But they only did that when ‘Topper’ Headon was their drummer.

Obviously, this is in no way under-playing the role of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. They wrote the lyrics, the tunes, and were the core of the band really. All hugely significant figures, it goes without saying.

But their achievements would not have been possible without ‘Topper’ Headon. They influenced, and continue to influence, millions.

‘Topper’ went on to produce a solo album in 1986. Waking Up contained the singles Drumming Man, Leave it to Luck and I’ll Give You Everything. It was well received. He also played with Chelsea on Under Wraps and appeared on-stage with Mick Jones’s Carbon Silicon in 1989. He also played with Mick on a 2009 charity single; a new version of Jail Guitar Doors.

It has been good to hear and read interviews with ‘Topper’ in recent times. It is appropriate he is alongside Joe, Mick and Paul on Westway to the World, The Future is Unwritten and London Calling 25th Anniversary. He was also the only punk rock musician to appear on the cover of International Musician and Recording World magazine (in February 1980).

His contribution to The Clash, punk rock and new wave is beyond significant. Thanks ‘Topper’.


❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and he is the author of the short stories ‘Revenge can be Sweet, ‘The Bench’ and ‘One More season’. His work has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine and Unlawful Acts. A further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ has recently been completed. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This will focus on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.

❉ Recommended reading: “Passion is a Fashion, The Real Story of the Clash” by Pat Gilbert.

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