Big Audio Dynamite reunion will unearth unreleased Mick Jones/Joe Strummer compositions
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The Clash’s place in the rock history books has now been inked and lettered. The British band helped define the course of punk with its self-titled 1977 debut, and then, over an ambitiously prolific five years, continually rewrote it by fearlessly tackling reggae, disco, hip-hop, jazz and seemingly everything inbetween. Yet now, with Big Audio Dynamite, Clash principal Mick Jones has gone somewhere his era-defining band never did -- to the reunion circuit.
‘We never did it, and that was the fate of it, to be honest,’ Jones said last Thursday before a reunited Big Audio Dynamite took the stage at the Roxy in L.A. ‘We were never all ready at the right time. It never happened. But then again, everyone remembers the Clash so fondly because it never happened. We didn’t get the chance to besmirch it.
‘Whereas now,’ Jones continued, ‘I have the chance to do that. I’ve never done a reunion before, and I’m trying my very best to make a mockery of the memory.’
Jones ended that sentence not with period but a laugh, clearly enjoying his time with his B.A.D. compatriots enough to hint that new music may be on the horizon. B.A.D went through numerous incarnations, but the original lineup stuck together for four albums between 1984 and 1990 -- works that took an open-eyed, exploratory approach to mid-’80s synth and sampling culture. Informed by a love for the cinema, a lust for experimentation and a fascination with DJs and remixes, B.A.D. melded rock with electronics and took the occasional dip into digitally enhanced American roots music, as filtered through Hollywood westerns.
Having never received the notoriety of the Clash, Big Audio Dynamite can safely reunite and be welcomed with open arms. No doubt a Clash reunion would have been a hot ticket, but if things had gone south, the band’s own ‘turning rebellion into money’ slamming of their punk peers on 1978’s ‘(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais’ would have forever been used against them.
So, before discussing the overlooked path of B.A.D., Jones’ careful phrasing of the reunion question above is ripe for a follow-up. Specifically, the words ‘we were never all ready at the right time’ seem coated with bittersweetness, especially to those who longed for a Clash reconciliation or never got to see the band perform. The sudden passing of Clash co-leader Joe Strummer in 2002 at age 50 forever closed the book on the band, yet just weeks before Strummer died from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, Jones joined Strummer’s band onstage in London for an encore of Clash tunes.
So, just how close did the band come to reforming? Was the unexpected appearance with Strummer a tentative first step?
Jones answers the question with a reference to a Martin Scorsese film, albeit a cinematic moment that implies a Clash reunion would have been an inevitability, although not necessarily one with a ride-into-the-sunset ending.
‘We were pretty close a few times over the years,’ Jones said. ‘You know that bit in ‘Goodfellas’ where Jimmy says they’re gonna bump Morrie, and then they decide not to? He goes, ‘Don’t bother about that thing.’ It would be like that with us. Joe would lean over and say, ‘Let’s not do that thing.’ And we didn’t. Although, obviously, in ‘Goodfellas’ they end up bumping Morrie.’
At this point, there will be no bumping of the Clash’s legacy. B.A.D., however, has the opportunity now to cement one of its own. Relatively overlooked in its time -- B.A.D.’s albums admittedly had a looseness and songs were sometimes too crowded with movie quotes and effects -- the band avoided ‘80s new wave and instead wholeheartedly embraced the underground dance scene. Listening today, songs such as 1989’s ‘Contact’ foreshadowed the melding of rock and dance that would occur throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s.
‘We were very ramshackle when we started out,’ Jones said. ‘We went to New York to buy these original samplers. This was before Midi. It was the thing called Instant Replay, and we took them back to London. It was all done by electronic voltage. You’d put an electronic cable between that and your Casio keyboard thing, and you were allowed one sample per number. You’d hit it with a drumstick, and you’d get one hit per number. We grew from that.’
Collaborating heavily with reggae DJ/documentarian/friend of the Clash Don Letts (he directed the 2000 film ‘The Clash: Westway to the World’), B.A.D. had a rock ‘n’ roll foundation and took a less politically aggressive approach to social commentary than that of the Clash. The original lineup’s final album together, 1989’s ‘Megatop Phoenix,’ was perhaps its most cohesive work, creating an electro-rock landscape that could be seen as a precursor to the likes of Gorillaz and LCD Soundsystem.
The Gorillaz, in fact, drafted Jones and Clash bassist Paul Simonon for a 2010 tour. The group closed last year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and B.A.D. just played the Indio fest last weekend. Jones credited Gorillaz -- and the Coachella performance in particular -- with partly inspiring him to reform B.A.D. Is the reunion, then, a chance for B.A.D to assert its place in rock history?
Jones slightly sidestepped the question.’Maybe, but I have to give the credit to playing with the Gorillaz and being in a band last year,’ he said. ‘That was such an incredible experience. I follow the music, and this just felt right after the Gorillaz tour. The Gorillaz liked what we did in B.A.D. very much, and they were really influenced by it, so there’s a continuity there. And a part of me longs for a family.’ Though B.A.D. was aggressive in its approach to sampling, acts today generally use the technique more seamlessly. There’s no doubt when a B.A.D. song quotes ‘The Harder They Come,’ and Jones doesn’t see B.A.D. trying to adapt to current trends should new material come to fruition.
‘What we’ve done is try to carry on with the original spirit with which we did it,’ Jones said. ‘I like things to jump out. The way they sample these days, it’s all the same things put through a process. It’s pushed down. That’s what you hear on the radio now. Samples don’t jump out and challenge you and hit you over the head. So we’re trying to carry on from what we did then, as if that whole period hadn’t happened.’
Up first, however, is to continue reissuing the original B.A.D. albums. Last year, the act’s debut, ‘This Is Big Audio Dynamite,’ was reissued with a bonus disc of outtakes and remixes. If all goes as planned, up next will be ‘No. 10, Upping St.,’ which was co-produced with Strummer, who also helped write some of the songs. Jones said that there are unreleased cuts he and Strummer wrote from the period, and that he would like them to see the light of day.
‘We have a lot of stuff that we didn’t release,’ Jones said. ‘There’s stuff that Joe and I wrote together, and there’s stuff that matured well. It’s all like new material, really. We did a lot of new stuff in the old stuff. We sampled some new stuff. No one should be upset by that. I think people will only be more encouraged.’ B.A.D will be back in the U.S. this August -- a date at S.F.’s festival Outside Lands has already been set -- and Jones expects another Los Angeles show to be added around that time. The final question was one Jones will likely hear again and again, and that’s whether or not B.A.D. may toss in one of his Clash songs in its sets. Strummer, after all, would dip into the Clash catalog for his solo shows, and Jones played a pair of Clash numbers in 2008 with Clash drummer Topper Headon in London.
Jones’ answer is simple and to the point: ‘If I were you, I would not expect that to happen, no.’
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-- Todd Martens