Coachella 2011: Remembering the Clash while celebrating Big Audio Dynamite
The crowd for a reformed Big Audio Dynamite set Saturday night wasn't the largest to gather around the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival's second outdoor stage. Yet the audience provided one of the larger cheers of the day. When B.A.D. leader Mick Jones said mid-set that the next song would be one he "wrote with the late, great Joe," the anticipation level was high.
Joe is Joe Strummer, who passed away in 2002 and who with Jones co-anchored the beloved and influential British punk band the Clash. The latter had always resisted a reunion -- "We were close a few times," Jones said in an interview a few days before the Coachella performance -- but Jones isn't using his post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite, which never achieved either the critical successes or lasting mythology of the Clash, to cash in on past glories.
"If I were you," Jones said when asked whether B.A.D. would ever tackle maybe one or two Clash songs, "I would not expect that to happen, no." At Coachella, Jones paused to let the crowd shout at the mention of Joe's name, and then lifted his guitar only to strike it down for the opening notes of "V. Thirteen," one of a handful of mid-'80s B.A.D. tunes to feature a Jones and Strummer collaboration.
It's a sleek number -- a letter to the disenfranchised, complete with references to biblical cities and a human struggle to keep the faith. "I've been eating food that ain't been checked," Jones sings, an act of rebellion for the good-hearted and guilt-ridden. Essentially, it's a song that does what the Clash did best, which is tackle big themes from the perspective of the common man.
With a heavy rhythm and a bass jammed up front, this is rock for the dance crowd. In "Rush," Jones celebrated getting older and acting one's age: "Somehow I stayed thin," Jones sings, "while the other guys got fat," a reference either to one's waistline or one's wallet size, but shouted along by everyone watching nevertheless.
Jones hasn't exactly been a shut-in of late, but an appearance from the Clash legend is still something of a rarity. The original B.A.D. lineup disbanded in 1990, and Jones has had a range of projects since, including multiple incarnations of B.A.D. In 2010, he toured with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz, as he and Clash bassist Paul Simonon were part of Albarn's backing crew. A headlining slot at last year's Coachella, Jones said, inspired him to get a move on a B.A.D. reunion.
Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett, Jones said, provided the necessary nudge. "He said, 'Mick, tell me when you want to come back and play. We will always have you.' "
There's a looseness to B.A.D. songs, and some, such as "Medicine Show," are overcrowded with movie quotes. But B.A.D. was taking shape in the early days of sampling, so I've always forgiven the band playing with a sampler like a kid who received one on his birthday. Besides, such heavy lifting from spaghetti westerns would be cost prohibitive today, so in some ways it feels rather charming.
B.A.D. could be looked at as carrying on the Clash's thrill for experimentation. If the Clash touched on disco, Big Audio Dynamite dived full-on into DJ culture and hip-hop. B.A.D. could be a little silly, but it did politics with sarcasm, as Jones dedicated "A Party" -- a play on the word "apartheid" -- to Moammar Kadafi. It was also one of B.A.D.'s more successful genre experiments, with the synths and samples used to slice between Greg Roberts' rather forceful tribal rhythms, and completely blurring the line between reggae and rock.
The band was perhaps a bit overlooked in it days, but the world seems to have caught up to the cut-and-paste jumble of rock and dance cultures that was the Big Audio Dynamite mission. One could argue that the Big Audio Dynamite sound is a microcosm of all that happens at Coachella, from the chilled beats and synths of "Beyond the Pale" to the rap of theme song "BAD." Introducing "The Battle of All Saints Road," Jones said, "This is a country trip-hop rock 'n' roll ballad." And that's a genre that's yet to score its own Coachella tent.
Music critics are fans too, and the chance to see Big Audio Dynamite had me putting away my notebook and grinning for much of the set. And, full disclosure: If the set had gone on any longer, I would have lost my voice. Though B.A.D. isn't credited with shaping the future of music in the way the Clash is, one can hear B.A.D.'s genre-carelessness in Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem and even Sunday night headliner Kanye West, among dozens of other Coachella acts.
The Clash formed before I was born, and I discovered the band via B.A.D., obsessing over the tune "Rush" in junior high. It was my older brother who foisted "London Calling" upon me, and I didn't bother to listen until the girl I wanted to take to the dance laughed in my face. I went home and I wanted loud.
What I heard was something that sounded important. No doubt, many heard the Clash and opted to pick up a guitar. I heard the Clash and thought, "This needs to be documented." Such is a rare feeling -- one that happened once on Friday, and one that West is capable of inspiring, but one that I've been chasing ever since. After a day spent in 100-degree temps, it was nice to be reminded of the first time I fell in love.
-- Todd Martens
Photos, from top: Mick Jones; Jones with bassist Leo Williams. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times