Topper Headon

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Topper Headon
Headon in 2018
Background information
Birth nameNicholas Bowen Headon
Also known asTopper
Born (1955-05-30) 30 May 1955 (age 65)
Bromley, Kent, England
Origin Kent, England
Genres Jazz, soul, R&B, rock, punk rock, reggae, rock and roll
Occupation(s)Drummer, percussionist, songwriter
Instruments Drums, percussion, vocals, piano, bass guitar
Years active1973–present
Labels CBS, Mercury
Associated acts The Clash, Mirkwood, Bobby Tench, Jimmy Helms, Mick Gallagher

Nicholas Bowen "Topper" Headon (born 30 May 1955) is an English drummer, best known as the drummer of punk rock band the Clash.


He joined the Clash in 1977 and became famed for his drumming skills. He was dismissed in 1982 because of his drug use. He received his nickname owing to his resemblance to Mickey the Monkey from the Topper comic.

Early life

Headon spent his early childhood in Crockenhill, northwest Kent, before attending Dover Grammar School for Boys. [1] He started playing drums at an early age and was a jazz fan, citing Billy Cobham as a strong influence. In 1973, he joined the cult progressive rock outfit Mirkwood. He appeared with them for a year and a half, and they supported major acts such as Supertramp. He later played with a band which opened for American R&B legends the Temptations [2] and admits to falsely claiming that he played with the Temptations. [3]

The Clash

I knew Mick [Jones] a year and half ago. For a week I played with the London SS. I really wanted to join the Clash. I want to give them even more energy than they've got – if that's possible.

—Topper Headon [4]

Originally Headon joined the Clash in 1977 with the intention of establishing a reputation as a drummer before moving on to other projects, [2] but he soon realised their full potential and remained with them for four-and-a-half years. Headon appeared on the albums Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), The Clash (1979 US version), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982), as well as several landmark singles the Clash recorded during their early period. Also of note are his lead vocal on "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" from Sandinista and his work on the hit single "Rock the Casbah" from Combat Rock, on which Headon composed most of the music and played drums, piano and bass guitar. He also appeared on Super Black Market Clash (1993), which included B-sides from the band's single releases.

Clash singer/guitarist Joe Strummer is quoted as saying Headon's drumming skills were a vital part of the band. [3] Tensions rose between Headon and his fellow band members due to his addiction, and he left the band on 10 May 1982, at the beginning of the Combat Rock tour. The band covered up the real reason for Headon's departure, the apparent growing use of heroin, claiming Headon's exit was due to exhaustion. [2]

In a later interview for the rockumentary The Clash: Westway to the World , he apologized for his addiction and speculated that, had he not been asked to leave the Clash, the band might have lasted longer and might possibly still be together. [3] He also lamented the fact that the best known Clash line-up had been considering a reunion at the time of Strummer's death, after the positive reunion during the Westway to the World rockumentary. [3]

After the Clash

After leaving the Clash, he was considered as drummer in Mick Jones's post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite [2] and played in a short-lived group called Samurai, with bassist Pete Farndon, guitarist Henry Padovani, organist Mick Gallagher, and vocalist Steve Allen (formerly of Deaf School). [5] Headon subsequently focused on recording a solo album, Waking Up (1986), [6] which featured Mick Gallagher, Bobby Tench and Jimmy Helms. [7] He also released a cover version of the Gene Krupa instrumental "Drumming Man" as a single, which featured Headon's "DuKane Road" on the B-side. His own composition "Hope for Donna" was included on the Mercury Records sampler Beat Runs Wild , in the same year. [8] During the 1980s Headon produced albums for New York band Bush Tetras. In 1989 he contributed drums to the punk rock band Chelsea's Underwraps (1989).

During the late 1980s Headon drove mini-cabs to finance his heroin addiction, and later busked on the London Underground with bongo drums. [9]

After a live show in 2002, he was informed of the death of Clash frontman Joe Strummer. An emotional Headon stated:

It's taken Joe's death to make me realise just how big the Clash were. We were a political band and Joe was the one who wrote the lyrics. Joe was one of the truest guys you could ever meet. If he said 'I am behind you', then you knew he meant it 100 percent. [10]

Headon was extensively interviewed for the Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten documentary film about the late Clash frontman, which was released in 2007. In this documentary Headon related his experiences during this period, how he became addicted to heroin and how there were problems before his dismissal. Headon also stated that seeing the video of "Rock the Casbah" with "someone else (Terry Chimes) in my place playing my song" caused him to fall in even greater depression and heavier drug addiction.[ citation needed ]

On 11 January 2008 he performed with Carbon/Silicon at the Carbon Casino Club in Portobello London, being included with the line-up of Mick Jones, Tony James, Leo Williams and Dominic Greensmith. Headon joined the band on stage during the Clash's "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)". An encore followed with Headon playing drums on "Should I Stay or Should I Go". This performance marked the first time since 1982 that Headon and Jones had performed together on stage. [11] [12] [13]

In a February 2008 newspaper article Headon revealed that in 2003 he started to experience serious back pain, a frequent complaint of ageing rock drummers. Diagnosed with hyperkyphosis, a forward curvature of the back, he underwent intense posture adjustment treatment and continues to exercise daily. He notes that, on his recent appearance with Jones, he exhibited his new upright stance.

At some point in the 1980s, Headon contracted Hepatitis C, which, along with his alcohol intake, led to severe liver problems. Headon successfully underwent interferon treatment for his hepatitis in 2007 and became a spokesman for the Hepatitis C Trust. [9]

The BBC featured Headon in a February 2009 feature on drumming as therapy. He shares some of his story in a brief video interview. [14] In 2012 Headon was interviewed by fellow drummer Spike Webb, sharing stories from his years drumming for The Clash and his experience writing 'Rock The Casbah'. [15]

In 2016, actor Alex Gold portrayed Headon in the 2016 film London Town , which tells the story of a Clash-obsessed teenager who crosses paths with Joe Strummer by happenstance in 1979 and finds his life changing as a result. [16] The film was met with mostly negative reviews.

Drumming style

As a drummer, Headon often employed a distinctive style which emphasised a simple bass-snare up-down beat, accentuated with closed hi-hat flourishes. Such a method can be found in the songs "Clampdown", "Train in Vain", and "Lost in the Supermarket". His drumming on "Train in Vain" has been characterised as one of the most important and distinctive beats in rock music. [17] Scott Kenemore of PopMatters writes, "his contribution to the music was tremendous, and his drumming remains an undiscovered treasure for too many." [17]


With the Clash

Solo discography

Topper Headon has released one studio album, one EP, and three singles as a solo artist and featured on several other artists' albums.

Studio albums

YearTitleRecord labelNotes
1986 Waking Up Mercury 826 779-1with guitarist Bobby Tench [18]
1986 Beat Runs Wild Mercury Mercury Records sampler. Topper Headon features on track B5. "Hope for Donna"


1985Leave It To Luck / East Versus West / Got To Get Out of This Heat S.O.S / Casablanca Mercury with guitarist Bobby Tench


YearTitleAlbum AUS [19] Record label
1985"Drumming Man"97 Mercury
1986"Leave It To Luck Waking Up -
1986"I'll Give You Everything" Waking Up - Mercury


  1. Finlay, Simon (25 August 2013). "Topper Headon: why the Clash has reunited". Folkestone Herald. Archived from the original on 8 March 2014. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Prato, Greg. "Topper Headon > Biography". Retrieved 12 December 2007. a) Sandy Pearlman dubbed Headon "The Human Drum Machine," due to his impeccable timing and skills.
    b) Headon grew up a soul and jazz fan (an early influence was ace fusion drummer Billy Cobham), and he was once a member of a local group that opened a show for The Temptations.
    c) Headon's original plan was to stay with the Clash for only a year – which he figured would give enough time to get his name known so he could move on to another more "suitable" group. Headon quickly realised that the group was not just a one-dimensional punk band, as they branched out and touched upon a wide variety of styles – all the while never losing sight of their original punk ideals.
    d) a heroin addiction had drawn a wedge between Headon and the rest of his bandmates.
    e) After a planned reunion with Jones (who was expelled from the Clash himself a year after Headon's dismissal) in the group Big Audio Dynamite failed to work out, Headon focused on recording a solo album.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Letts, Don; Rick Elgood, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, Terry Chimes, The Clash (2001). The Clash: Westway to the World (Documentary). New York, NY: Sony Music Entertainment; Dorismo; Uptown Films. Event occurs at 37:00–39:00. ISBN   0-7389-0082-6. OCLC   49798077.
  4. Coon 1977.
  5. Padovani, Henry (2009). Secret Police Man. Pen Press. pp. 6–8. ISBN   978-1-907172-83-0.
  6. Robbins, Ira. The Trouser Press record guide. Collier Books. p. 135.
  7. Heibutzki, Ralph. "Topper Headon/Waking up". Retrieved 18 April 2009.
  8. Cooke, Brandon; Pete Shelley, Tom Verlaine, Topper Headon, Hipsway, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Wet Wet Wet, Love and Money, Swing Out Sister, Zerra One (1986). Beat Runs Wild (LP recording). London: Mercury. OCLC   51782857.
  9. 1 2 Lucas, Mark (28 June 2009). "'I forgive you': The Clash's drummer Topper Headon makes peace with the man who sacked him". The Independent. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  10. "Celebrity Tributes to Joe Strummer". Archived from the original on 18 December 2007. Retrieved 12 December 2007. It's taken Joe's death to make me realise just how big the Clash were. We were a political band and Joe was the one who wrote the lyrics. Joe was one of the truest guys you could ever meet. If he said 'I am behind you', then you knew he meant it 100 percent.
  11. Harper, Simon (12 January 2008). "The Carbon Casino – The Clash reunited! Pair jam after 25 years". Clash Music. Retrieved 15 January 2008. For the first night of their six-week residency in West London's Inn on the Green, Carbon/Silicon had promised surprises, but few had realised that meant the reunion of Mick Jones and the powerhouse drummer of The Clash, Topper Headon.
  12. "Clash members Topper Headon and Mick Jones reunite on stage". 13 January 2008. Retrieved 15 January 2008. For the first time in 25 years, former Clash members Mick Jones and Topper Headon have shared the stage together. The reunion took place at Carbon/Silicon's "Carbon Casino" residency, and comes five years after Mick joined Joe Strummer on stage at the Brixton Academy.
  13. "The Clash's Mick Jones and Topper Headon reunite after 25 years". NME. UK. 14 January 2008. Retrieved 15 January 2008. Clash drummer joins Carbon/Silicon at London show
  14. "Can our natural rhythm heal us?". BBC. 10 February 2000. Retrieved 7 June 2010.
  15. "Topper Headon (The Clash) talks about 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous'". YouTube. 5 May 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2012.
  16. "See Jonathan Rhys Meyers Play Joe Strummer in 'London Town' Trailer". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  17. 1 2 Kenemore, Scott (21 March 2007). "All Talk and No Stick". PopMatters. Archived from the original on 25 March 2007. Retrieved 12 December 2007. a) Rock fans everywhere recognise his opening beat to the Mick Jones song "Train in Vain". A typical example of Topper’s excellent work, the beat is both catchy and deceptively complicated.
    b) Despite his personal failings, his contribution to the music was tremendous, and his drumming remains an undiscovered treasure for too many.
  18. "Bob Tench at Allmusic". Retrieved 14 December 2008.
  19. Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 136. ISBN   0-646-11917-6.

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