Movie Songs

How a classic movie inspired ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ by The Clash

April 9, 20243 Mins Read

Joe Strummer and The Clash took inspiration from seemingly all aspects of life. The band seemed to stroll through the streets of London like sponges, soaking up anything in their path and repurposing those moments as incredible songs. Take their eponymous debut, for instance, which captures themes of prostitution, drug addiction and unemployment alongside works about grassroots music scenes and even a cover of a classic ska gem. So, when it came to their 36-track epic Sandinista!, the band took inspiration from a vast range of places.

The album as a whole is pretty hit-or-miss in Clash fan circles. While there are some fantastic songs on there, and it is inarguably superior to the dross that was Cut the Crap, there are also a fair few misses on the album – as is to be expected for a triple album release. One piece that does not attract criticism, however, is ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’, the undisputed stand-out track from the album. Embracing the dub reggae roots which fans had come to love, the song also takes on a distinctly soulful, mellow stance, giving it a unique quality within The Clash’s repertoire.

As film buffs might already be aware, the title of the track comes from a classic line in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. The dialogue comes during one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, during which the eccentric surf-obsessed Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) is talking to US troops about the waves in Vietnam. ‘Charlie’ was a nickname given to the Viet Cong by American troops, derived from the NATO alphabet for ‘VC’, ‘Victor Charlie’.

The influence of Apocalypse Now extends past the chorus, enmeshing the themes explored throughout the entire track. For instance, the keys and synthesiser drone at the beginning of the song could represent gunshots and helicopters, reminiscent of the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene from the film.

The narrative of the song sees Strummer and the gang take on the role of the Viet Cong themselves, espousing the need to “keep the strangers out” and criticising the horrific actions of the US Army throughout the conflict in Vietnam, including mentions of napalm.

Much like Apocalypse Now itself, the track criticised the detrimental actions of US imperialism and consumerism throughout the wider world. Strummer himself readily admitted that he was “obsessed” with Coppola’s film, telling Sounds Magazine in 1980, “It doesn’t leave you, it’s like a dream.” So perhaps the writing of this song was his way of working the dream-like experience of Apocalypse Now out of his mind.

The iconic line immortalised in both film and music history inadvertently inspired another piece, in Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’. Strummer seemed convinced that Roland Orzabal lifted the line for his hit track from the lyrics of ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’. In fact, The Clash frontman told Musician in 1988 that he had once encountered Orzabal in a restaurant, during which he told the Tears For Fears singer, “You owe me a fiver,” for the lyrics.

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