It seems only a handful of cool people remember Big Audio Dynamite, the band that Mick Jones started in 1984 after he was ousted from The Clash by Joe Strummer. Combining, rock, hip-hop and Jamaican bass lines, B.A.D. pioneered the sampling of dialogue from movies such as Performance and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a practice that’s now illegal and/or cost-prohibitive.
Big Audio Dynamite created a buzz among the hipster crowd with a series of albums beginning with 1985’s This Is Big Audio Dynamite, but never gained much mainstream traction. Sony’s Legacy archival arm reissued the album in 2010 as a two-disc set with some pointless extras, and B.A.D. reunited the following year. I was fortunate to interview Mick at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, hours before their show (the above picture comes from the encounter). Mick and I had met a few other times, and he was one of the few rockers to say that he recognized me.
A few months earlier Jones’ main collaborator in B.A.D., punk historian, filmmaker and general scenester Don Letts, got on the phone to talk about the record, and the enlightening transcript follows. (By the way, click here for a Clash/B.A.D.-centric interview I did with Don in 2008.)
I ALWAYS THOUGHT B.A.D. GOT THE ROUGH END OF THE STICK, AND IT’S KIND OF A TRAGEDY THAT EVERYONE’S NOT SPEAKING ABOUT YOU IN HALLOWED TONES
That’s a heavy start! I’m really proud of what we’ve done. The real pioneers never get to get the prize. It’s the people that come along after the fact and water the shit down. They’re the ones that collect. There’s a great tradition of people that have been trying to do something else that didn’t really get their dues, and I’m glad to be part of it, to be honest. There’s a lot of people that don’t even get that.
YOU’RE AN INSPIRATION FOR US NON-MUSICIANS IN THAT YOU SEGUED PRETTY SEAMLESSLY INTO BECOMING A ROCK STAR
It’s very flattering, although I was trying. I ain’t gonna lie, yeah. Thing is, I never really saw that big a gap between the audio and visual medium. To me they’re all part of the same thing and obviously enhance each other beautifully. A lot of the great films that I’ve admired and the filmmakers that I’ve admired have always worked between those two worlds. I continue today. I’ve got a radio show on BBC6 Music. I still DJ out and about. I still make films. I’ve got a couple doing the rounds at the moment.
HAVE YOU IMPROVED YOUR KEYBOARD SKILLS?
When Mick first asked me to join the band I had to point out, “Hey, I can’t play anything.” He said, “Well look. Remember how Paul (Simonon, the Clash bassist) started. We had to put stickers on the fret of his bass.” And that’s exactly what I did. I put stickers on my keyboard to show me what to do. The difference between me and Paul is, I never took my stickers off. I was about to tell a bit of a lie and say I never had any interest in being able to play. I guess if I could play I tell you I’d be a big-headed motherfucker, I tell you that. Because I’m not bad at a few things already, but if I had that under my belt, I’d be unbearable. I did make what would have been a problem an asset because I think because I had no musical training I therefore had no rules. So when I said to Mick why can’t we put 60 seconds of dialogue from that really cool film in that gap? The only reason I came up with something like that is because I had no musical training. If I could’ve played the guitar, it would have been, “Try this guitar lick, Mick.” We had that covered already. What would have been a problem I turned into an asset which is something I really learned from punk rock. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that.
I WAS GOING TO SAY THAT YOU WERE THE SID VICIOUS OF THE BAND. BUT MAYBE PAUL SIMONON IS A BETTER ANALOGY
Now you’re insulting me! Listen man, I justified my space. Along with the samples and dialogue I did end up actually co-writing nearly all the songs with Mick. A lot’s been made of the samples and dialogue but the truth be told that was only ever salt and pepper on the main meal. It was never supposed to be at the heart and soul of those songs, if you take all that stuff away and you played any of those songs on a guitar or a piano, they’ll stand up. You might not like ’em, but they’ll stand up as songs. The sample/dialogue thing was fulfilling for a little while, but I really needed to justify my space, and that’s where my film training came in to play because I started to have a go at writing lyrics — with Mick’s guidance. Initially (I) started to write little movie treatments, little synopses, and then Mick would kinda knock ’em around a bit, and out of that stuff would come songs like “E=MC2” and “Medicine Show” which were probably two of the first lyrics I wrote with Mick. We had the bones of other songs, but as far as me putting pen to paper and coming up with a sizable portion of lyrics those 2 definitely jump out. “Medicine Show” was almost like a statement of intent.
WHEN I LOOK AT “E=MC2,” CAN I TELL WHAT BITS WERE YOU AND WHAT BITS WERE MICK?
That’s a little cold to break it down like that. Quite often the guys would be downstairs working on rhythms, and Mick’d be messing around on the keyboards or on his guitar coming up with a tune, and I’d be sat in the corner. It gets your juices flowing when you hear this stuff going around in your head, scribbling notes on paper, sometimes complete verses, sometimes couplets, sometimes nonsense. Mick’d go: “Right, put that there, do a little cut and paste” and knock ’em into shape. I have to say, on reflection, it’s a great hindsight to have got to be able to do that with Mick, because Mick is pretty good at that. If you look at the hit tunes from the Clash, particularly in America, they’re all Mick, except for “Rock the Casbah.” “Train in Vain,” all that. Joe used to call ’em “Radio 2 tendencies,” which was a slight dig. But hey we all dig a cool melody.
EVERY BAND NEEDS THEIR PAUL MCCARTNEY
Absolutely. Early Paul. Late Paul, nyagh!
THE STACCATO RHYTHM OF “E=MC2,” THAT’S THE STRUCTURE YOU BROUGHT TO THE SONG? “MET A DWARF THAT WAS NO GOOD, DRESSED LIKE LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD.”
Yeah, it has to be said. Now when you say it out loud like that, it sounds kinda heavy-handed. You’re cold! The whole thing was actually sparked after I saw Insignificance, which I thought was genius, the whole idea of it. Nic Roeg, his films were one of the things that made me think of becoming a filmmaker, I think. Walkabout, The Harder They Come and maybe El Topo and Mean Streets. Those 4 films probably made me think: You know what? That’s how I’d like to express myself. So I’ve got a lot of time for Nic Roeg, even though he’s been off-track for a little while.
DID YOU GET REACTION FROM THE UNWITTING GUEST STARS ON THE RECORD LIKE MICK JAGGER AND CLINT EASTWOOD?
Nah, probably a good thing. Funny enough when we did all that sampling, that was all so early in the history of music that no one knew what to do. We didn’t ask anybody’s permission. The record companies didn’t ask us to clear the samples. They weren’t even called samples then, because we really were the first band to have hits with those kind of things. It was all so new that no one really knew what hit ’em. You could never do that now. For the whole of Big Audio Dynamite’s career, I think the only thing we ever cleared was a bit of West Side Story in a song called “James Brown.” After that, people cottoned onto it. I have to say a lot of bands got really heavy-handed. We didn’t nick rhythms or melodies and things, and obviously a lot of bands later on fell foul of that. If you nicked the rhythm or the melody of a guy’s song, then fair dues. That’s plagiarism. But all we did was take bits of dialogue, and it was our way of almost paying homage to these things. They were cultural pointers as well. We only took samples from films that we really dug. If we heard a cool sample that was from a really shitty film we wouldn’t use it.
I THINK YOU GIVE THESE FILMS A VISIBILITY THEY WOULDN’T HAVE GOTTEN OTHERWISE
Absolutely. We were cultural gatekeepers, almost.
DID YOU GET A FEELING OF HUGE ELATION AFTER YOU WROTE YOUR FIRST SONG? — MY GOD, I REALLY AM A SONGWRITER
You know what? To this day, I’ve never said that. It’s funny you should say that. No one’s ever asked me that. I have a great respect for songwriting. It’s an art. I had a really long ways to go back then and I think I’ve still got a ways to go before I can stand, look someone in the eye, and go I’m a songwriter. Well, I dunno. I did do the second band, Screaming Target, and I am really proud of all that stuff. I dunno. I’m not good with titles.
DO YOU STILL GET ROYALTY CHECKS FROM B.A.D.?
They dribble. It’s a busy and messy world full of stuff, man. There’s not a lot of looking back especially when you’ve got a youth culture that thinks history is 5 minutes ago.
SPEAKING OF HISTORY, CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PREVAILING MUSIC SCENE WHEN B.A.D. PUT OUT THE FIRST RECORD, AND HOW YOU AIMED TO DISTINGUISH YOURSELF FROM THE CROWD?
Oh man, now that’s a good question. Well, there was a lot of blind emulation of American production and the beats were all creeping in, and we were taken by that as well. I think, basically what we did was combine the things that turned us on as a group or individually. So we’re using the bass lines from Jamaican reggae. That’s where that whole thing was coming from. The beats were kinda hip-hop, New York-influenced undoubtedly. But then on top of that we put Mick’s not only rock ‘n’ roll guitar, but his very English voice as well. The idea is finding a blend between those things. When you think about it now it’s like, Oh my God! doesn’t work on paper. But I think we did make it work, and when you look at all the exciting elements that are happening in today’s music, they were all the things that we were messing with back in the day. It’s almost like we sign-posted the multicultural way that music was going. And I’m kinda proud of that. People think the ’80s was all Duran Duran and Culture Club and Human League and all that stuff, and to a certain extent there was all that going on. But also there was BAD, that when you look at the role that multiculturalism’s played in music, that’s where our relevance lies.
HOW IMPORTANT WAS IMAGE FOR B.A.D.. THE PHOTO OF YOU WALKING DOWN THE STREET ON THE INLAY CARD IS VERY POWERFUL
In England, certainly, fashion and music are integral. You can’t separate the two. Having said that, we never really thought of image. It’s just the way we were. Don’t laugh, but we walked around looking like that. It’s not like we got on stage, or got in the video and dressed up to be in the video. That’s how we rocked it, man! I’m older and wiser now. Yeah, there was a certain amount of coordination, but it was an unspoken thing, If somebody turned up and we all thought it was stupid, we’d be very vocal about it. But for the most part we were all on the same page. There were no stylists back then. You just wore what you thought was cool. But we did have a photographer within the ranks, Dan Donovan, and he took the band’s pictures. There was me on board doing the films, and were very much self-contained, and again, predates what you have to be these days, which I think has gone back to that.
YOUR OWN VOCAL STYLINGS COME TO PLAY WITH SONGS LIKE “A PARTY” AND “BAD” WHERE YOU’RE HELPING OUT MICK?
Helped out Mick? No, he was always helping me out. I wish. I don’t know what to say. You’re asking me interesting questions. My vocal style. I didn’t have one. I was making it up as I went. But there were certain people in my mind that have obviously made an impression, whether it be James Brown. I was going to go with Smokey Robinson. Haha, I wished! But there were certain vocal styles that were at my disposal that I felt a kinship with. There you go, there’s an answer. Obviously, I’m talking about the kind of Jamaican MC/DJ style, which was something that I was very familiar with, I liked, and I was comfortable doing something similar. But on B.A.D., for instance, that ain’t nothing but Army call-and-response, man.
ON THE SECOND ALBUM, “A TICKET” IS PRETTY MUCH YOU SOLO RIGHT?
Oh god, don’t tell me. Is that on that? It’s another Ringo song. Mick always got me to do the Ringo song. There’s a Ringo on this new re-release, “Electric Vandal.” I can’t stand “Ticket.” Oh, god.
I LOVE THE LYRICS, “W.G. GRACE/DISGRACED”
I wrote all those lyrics! Oh, it’s a great song! I just hate the way I sound on it, but then again I would.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CHEMISTRY IN THE BAND? I GUESS MICK WAS MOURNING THE LOSS OF HIS PREVIOUS BAND?
By the time we started to get B.A.D. together he was over that because I’d gone around to his place and I think he’d taken his time out in the wilderness, which wasn’t as long as Joe’s time in the wilderness, it has to be said. So it’s not like he jumped from one thing to the other. There was a couple of years where he was trying to get it together. I went round with a friend of mine, Leo Williams, who was a bass player, and I was like, “Mick c’mon get on with it. What are you doing?” Once he had Leo and he found the drummer and then I got involved, the whole thing clicked very quickly — to the extent of Joe approaching him in our early days and saying he wanted to bring the Clash back together, and Mick saying, “No, but I’m busy with Big Audio Dynamite.”
THAT’S A GREAT RESPONSE TO GIVE TO JOE BECAUSE IT SHOWED HOW COMMITTED HE WAS TO THIS NEW PROJECT
We were always worried by that. I ain’t gonna lie to you. I always felt like Joe’s shadow was hovering over the band — in the early days. I helped get him involved producing the second album and all that. By the time he was producing our second album he knew that Big Audio Dynamite was here to stay.
I WAS WONDERING WHETHER THE CHEMISTRY WITHIN THE BAND MIGHT HAVE BEEN AFFECTED GOOD OR BAD BY HAVING JOE COME INTO THE FOLD?
Not at all. It was a beautiful thing to see those guys creatively fall in love, and who am I to stand in the way of creativity, man. It was a beautiful to be a part of and to watch happen, and see them bury the hatchet. They did fall out big time. That’s all about passion. If they didn’t fall out big time, there would have been nothing there in the first place, you know what I mean? No, (I) didn’t feel threatened at all. Hey, I got to sing some songs written by Strummer and Jones, and work with them in the studio. Are you crazy? That’s great.
THE SONG “SONY” TURNED OUT TO BE PRESCIENT SINCE THE COMPANY SOON BOUGHT CBS RECORDS?
That’s right. It had nothing to do with that. He saw it as an analogy for his phoenix-like rise from the ashes. We’re talking about Japan’s great comeback, obviously.
WAS THERE A SOCIO-POLITICAL ELEMENT TO B.A.D.?
Politics with a small “p.” Ultimately there has to be something intellectually satisfying at the end of the day. You can’t spend your life on a dance floor. Eventually you have to go out and face reality, Maybe we’d like to offer our five cents on how one could do that.
WHY DID MAINSTREAM SUCCESS ELUDE B.A.D.?
Because we didn’t fit in any boxes. When we came out, there was no alternative chart, and they used to file us in all the racks — funk and rap and reggae and rock’ n’ roll. I think they almost created an alternative chart just for Big Audio Dynamite. You’ve got to understand what this shit sounded like in the early ’80s. Especially in America. It was bizarre to them, which is funny now when you look at what’s going on musically in the world today. All those elements that we were messing with back then are still the main ingredient to what’s exciting today, or what turns me on anyway. Heavy bass line core beats, the whole sample/dialogue/rap thing, along with some rock ‘n’ roll guitar in there. They’re still the basic elements that rock my world. Back in ’85, it was quite bizarre. We didn’t think that. We were naive enough to think it was just a natural progression of rock ‘n’ roll. We didn’t want to be in an alternative chart. We just wanted to be in the rock ‘n’ roll chart.
I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU VIEWED THIS AS THE UNOFFICIAL FOLLOW-UP TO COMBAT ROCK?
People have said that. “Lost in the grooves of Big Audio Dynamite’s record is what could have been the next Clash record.” Hey, Mick Jones was a big part of the Clash, and if you listen to the way they were heading before Combat Rock. If you listen to Sandinista, if you listen to tracks like “Lightning Strikes” or “The Magnificent Dance” (the 12-inch remix of “The Magnificent Seven”) and all that stuff, you can hear that hip-hop stuff and the beats coming in there. Particularly from Mick’s side. It has to be said that he was totally taken by the whole development of American hip-hop, and he was always open to new ideas, much more so than everyone else, I think.
DO YOU EVER WONDER WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN?
Nah, nah. I’m a great believer, if you’re lucky in life you get a window of opportunity, you should use it to the best of your ability, and then bugger off and let somebody else have a go. We got a great window, and we used it really, really well, and I’m glad to remind people that it actually happened.
WAS MAKING NO. 10 UPPING STREET EASIER BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T HAVE THAT HUGE SUCCESS HANGING OVER YOU?
I guess if your first record’s all cred and no bread there isn’t that much pressure. It was critically really well received. On the live circuit, they loved us in America in the college charts and the college circuit, which was the really cool place to be back then. They loved us. It was almost a cooler place to be than being in the top of the charts. Not saying that we would have minded that as well, but when you’re trying to do something different that’s the way it is.
IF YOU HAD BEEN NO. 1 IN THE CHARTS-
-God forbid! I guess all the clichés would have followed us. Mind you, I wouldn’t have minded a chance to find out! I gotta tell you, man, when you look at the life I’ve had, it’s good. A lot of people have come and gone, and no one knew they even existed. That’s who I feel for.
WHEN DID B.A.D. START TO LOSE THE THREAD?
Certain internal things happened that made it difficult. When you’re with a bunch of guys for 6 or 7 or 8 years to grow as an individual you almost have to get out of that kind of gang mentality. There’s a bit of that. A lot of people say the group fell apart, broke up. That’s what most groups do. If you’re lucky, from when you start happening, you’ve got a 7 or 8 year run. Check it out, you’ll see. All the great groups that I like, about 7 years, and then they split up and do other things. That’s what groups do. There are a few exceptions. What about the Stones? What about U2? Well, a lot of people say their best work was in their first 7 years anyway. If you look at that 7-year rule, think about the Clash or the Beatles or the Smiths, it’s about as much as you can stand of each other’s company. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I didn’t see the break-up as a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, at the time there was a bit of acrimony and all the rest of it, and we had a bit of falling out and all the clichés. But in the drama of life, I’m actually quite pleased to have been involved in all of it, including the painful stuff, because it’s all part of the story of rock ‘n’ roll. Ain’t no all-good story in rock ‘n’ roll, man.
WHAT WAS THE PAINFUL STUFF THAT LED TO THE BREAK-UP?
We ended up at one point talking to each other through lawyers, and all this stuff. All those kind of clichés. But if you know anything about rock ‘n’ roll you’ll understand that’s almost part of the process. And the very fact that lawyers get involved means, “Hey, there must have been something good to fight about in the first place.” I got to write some great songs with Mick. I got to be in a lawsuit with Mick. Brilliant! We’re great mates now. The same thing happened when the Clash fell out. They fell out big time, because when there’s that much passion involved it’s the only way you can fall out. You have to let that stuff out before you can see the light again and become friends again.
AT THE TIME DID YOU MAKE MUCH MONEY?
No, because we spent it all. Big Audio Dynamite was famous for silly things like 3 or 4 support acts, things like that. It’s not like today where being in a band is like a career decision. Back then the fact that you were getting any money to make music, travel around the world and jump about on stage, it was like, what? Are you getting paid as well? Later on you start to think, “Hmm, you know.” But initially someone like me who couldn’t play music. I didn’t even need a roadie. I’ve got my envelope of colored stickers and I’m good to go.
DID YOU PARTAKE OF THE GROUPIE SCENE?
That’s interesting. Remember the cultural climate of the 80s. Hey! “Stone Thames.” I rest my case. It’s really talking about paranoia more than one particular disease. But in the early ’80s we had the advent of things that you couldn’t get rid of, and one had to reconsider one’s actions.
“BETTER TAKE A WIFE NOW THAT SEX IS DEATH”
Ahhh! You got it.
AT THE END OF THE GIG, YOU GUYS SAT AROUND READING BOOKS AND WATCHING THE TELLY?
No, but you were safe. Anyway that kinda meat-market thing wasn’t my style anyway. It’s not like we were 17-18. I’m already 30. You’ve done a lot of growing and got all that kid stuff out of our systems anyway. And besides it’s about quality not quantity, c’mon. Seriously, we were grown.
I GUESS EVERYONE’S ASKED ABOUT A POTENTIAL REUNION
Mick is involved in Gorillaz, and he’s got another band called Carbon Silicon. Being the non-musician, of course I’d do it again … I’m not a great fan of reunions, although I have come to appreciate that there are certain bands that were all cred and no bread. Somebody like the Dolls, for instance. Incredibly influential but at the time they didn’t make any money, so they’re out treading the boards again. I actually saw them and they were really cool. David Johansson rocks. Why shouldn’t they get some dues, you know what I mean? Money would be a bad motive, wouldn’t it?
YOU’D ALSO HAVE TO RECAPTURE AN ERA THAT’S 25 YEARS PAST
That wouldn’t be any good. I wouldn’t try and do that. That would be stupid. The elements that we were messing with are still the major elements that excite me today, so it wouldn’t be hard to drag it into the 21st century because it was always ahead of its time anyway. When I got involved in this project, I thought, “Man, do I really wanna go back there?” And I’m listening to this shit, and I’m like, “Whoa! This doesn’t sound like yesterday. It doesn’t even sound like today. It still sounds a bit like tomorrow.” And that was a big buzz, I’ve gotta say. I was really pleasantly surprised.
I’VE LISTENED TO THIS PRETTY MUCH EVERY WEEK SINCE 1985. DO YOU DO THAT?
Never. People who make music don’t do that. You don’t listen to your own stuff, my God! You’ve got to have some class in this business!
DO YOU GET PEOPLE WALKING UP TO YOU: DON LETTS! B.A.D.! HOLY SHIT!
All the time, and I’m very touched by it. And it’s cool because it seems like only a certain kind of people know. If you were supposed to know, you know. And if you don’t know, you were never supposed to. It’s like an energy connection. I like that, I like that.
ARE THERE COOL FILMS OUT THERE NOW THAT YOU’D LOVE TO SAMPLE IF NOT FOR THE EXTRAVAGANT COST?
You can’t do that now. People are bombarded with so much information know that I don’t know if it’s even possible to do that. There was an amount of naiveté then, and all that technology’s kinda blown all that out of the water, hasn’t it? You can readily access anything. I kinda resent that almost because it’s taken away the passion and the struggle, which is a very important part of the process. You can only appreciate stuff when you’ve gone through that. All this affordable technology. Putting the means of production in the hands of people, it’s fundamentally a good idea. But just because you can afford it, don’t really mean you can do it. I’ve come to realize in the 21st century — and I never thought I’d hear myself say this — but the downside of affordable technology is fuckin’ mediocrity.
I REMEMBER WHEN THE RECORD CAME OUT IT TOOK ME YEARS AND YEARS TO FIND OUT WHERE THE SAMPLES CAME FROM BECAUSE I DIDN’T HAVE AN INTERNET SEARCH ENGINE TO TYPE THE WORDS INTO. YOU MISS THAT EXPLORATION
Exactly. It’s literally the pain and the passion. All this downloading stuff where music’s been reduced to sentences. It’s all become very disposable. This whole culture to me feels like punk rock never happened. We got into music to be part of the anti-establishment not part of the establishment. It’s a big difference. But we mustn’t be too depressed. There’s always something out there going on. It’s like The Force in Star Wars. You can’t stop it. It’s like the birthright of all young people. If they’re brave enough and they’ve got a good idea, they can do something good too. There’s always something on, maybe not so much in the west.
YOU SEE WHAT MICK AND TONY JAMES ARE DOING WITH CARBON/SILICON? THAT’S PRETTY COOL
Yeah, that’s cool. I feel like Mick’s coasting, though. I do feel he’s coasting a bit. But fair play to him. I think he’s just out there enjoying himself. He doesn’t have to prove himself. He’s done that twice over. I see Carbon/Silicon play all the time. It’s really good to see Mick just enjoying himself.
WITH THIS REISSUE, DO YOU THINK YOU’LL GET A NEW GENERATION OF FANS?
I dunno. I’m just glad to readdress people’s idea of what they think the ’80s was. It wasn’t just Depeche Mode and Duran Duran and Culture Club. It was also Big Audio Dynamite and we did signpost the multicultural way that things were heading. Certainly where I come from.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my memoir Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING