Big Audio Dynamite: An encore to the reunion?
Big Audio Dynamite was in the midst of completing a brief U.S. tour in celebration of its recent reunion, yet it was Mick Jones' pre-Big Audio Dynamite band, British punk forebears the Clash, that was referenced in a current events joke on "The Daily Show." In an effort to make sense of this month's riots in England, comedian Jon Stewart superimposed an image of the chaos over an imagined Clash album cover and joked, "Please tell me the Clash reunited and they're shooting a new album cover."
Jones didn't see the clip, but he's well- ware that the music he wrote with the late Joe Strummer has a tendency to be tied to civil unrest in Britain. Early Clash staples in the late '70s included the two minutes of bravado that is "White Riot," as well as the snarling stomp of "London's Burning." Though often lighter in tone, Big Audio Dynamite wasn't immune to violent imagery itself. Check, for instance, the band's mid-'80s, synth-pop crawl "Sightsee M.C.," in which London is taken from the aristocrats by the rioting youth.
Jones performed the song in Los Angeles last week, and acknowledged its sudden topicality. The singer, however, let the song, which was also written with his former Clash co-hort Strummer, stand on its own. "I ain't going to say anything about it because I don't know anything about it," Jones said from the stage of the chaos that was sweeping London.
The topic at hand is the still-new reunion of Big Audio Dynamite, whose original lineup split around 1990. Well-received festival dates at Coachella, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands have left the door open for more Big Audio Dynamite collaborations. Dates are scheduled through the fall, and then there's talk, perhaps, of a new album and reissues.
Pre-concert, however, Jones is on the prowl backstage for the BBC, as he noted he's been trying to watch as much of the network as possible in order to get a handle on what's going on back home. It also inspired a line of questioning that Jones knows he can't avoid.
Of course, it's unfair to expect Jones to answer to every bottle thrown through a window in London, yet Jones still knows he'll be asked how today's violence makes the older Jones reflect on songs such as "London's Burning" or "Sightsee M.C.," if at all.
"People just seem really fed up, but I won’t have a better idea until I’m at home," Jones said. "The [budget] cuts have been very bad. They’re closing down libraries. That’s crazy. The way people are reading now is changing, true, but if you can’t afford a computer, where are you? So they’re almost destroying the community, but I am not going to go too far commenting on this."
Yet he's said enough to indicate that he's at least willing to revisit the concept of rock 'n' roll as social commentary. A new song from Big Audio Dynamite, the swift rocker "Rob Peter, Pay Paul," fits comfortably with the traditions of both of Jones' best known bands.
"We tried to simplify the economic meltdown," Jones said. "That song is the meltdown explained."
The Clash explored cultures and points of view via genre-hopping songs that touched on reggae, disco, jazz and even hip-hop, while Big Audio Dynamite more closely aligned itself with underground dance culture and the burgeoning sampling community. On the topic of new material, it's a little unfair to characterize "Rob Peter, Pay Paul" as entirely fresh, as Jones said he and his mates resurrected it from "the cupboard."
"A lot of songwriters lay songs down and then pick them up, but I was surprised we had never used this," Jones said. "I think it was waiting for its time, to be honest. It just seems right at the moment."
It could, in fact, serve as a bookend to the first-ever Big Audio Dynamite song, "The Bottom Line." The latter, in which Jones sings of a "dance to the tune of economic decline," was originally intended for what would have been the Clash's follow-up to 1982's "Combat Rock." Though written in 1983, the song's marriage of technology and guitars have stood the test of time, and no doubt its recessionary themes don't hurt.
"The people who came before had a really good time spending all the money," Jones said. "Now the people who don’t have much money have to pay for them as well. It all just doesn’t seem fair. The old material has stood up very well. We’ve managed to put it into a modern context, and I don’t think we really tried. It just fell into it. We’ve made no changes to the names, but the stories remain the same. We may be talking about Reagan and South Africa, but it’s the same crap today, just different names."
When it was targeted as a Clash song, "The Bottom Line" had been christened by Strummer as "Trans Cash Free Pay One." With Jones' scruffy stop-and-go riffs and a synthesized groove, "The Bottom Line" would have fit nicely in set lists along slide Clash songs such as "Rock the Casbah" and "The Magnificent Seven."
"That was a song I really wanted Joe to have," Jones said. "When he wrote 'Trans Cash Free Pay One' he was prophesying credit cards and cash machines before they were as prevalent. Ultimately, he didn’t like the music. He was like, ‘You can have it,’ so I took it with me and rewrote the lyrics.
"Somewhere there’s a tape of the music of 'The Bottom Line' with the lyrics of Joe Strummer, but I have no idea where it is," Jones said. "It would be quite interesting for me to hear it, though."
No doubt plenty of Clash and Big Audio Dynamite fans would echo that sentiment. For now, however, Big Audio Dynamite is the Jones outfit more ripe for the treasure trove treatment. There's more where "Rob Peter, Pay Paul" came from, and though the band's publicist and manager are all but promising an album of new material in 2012, Jones takes a more realistic view.
Having been fired from the Clash and then having steered Big Audio Dynamite through numerous lineup changes, Jones isn't ready to make any firm promises. He said it's likely "Rob Peter, Pay Paul" will be released, at least, but as Big Audio Dynamite original Dan Donovan has already been replaced by longtime friend/techie Andrew Davitt, Jones said he "doesn't want to make any great claims" as to what the future holds.
"This could happen again," Jones said. "It may not. There could be a record, but there might not. There isn’t anything that’s a given. I don’t take anything for granted anymore."
-- Todd Martens
Photos, from top: Mick Jones at Lollapalooza; Jon Stewart's mock Clash cover on "The Daily Show"; Jones at Coachella. Credits: Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune; Comedy Central; Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times