Big Audio Dynamite's Notes From The Frontline

Mick Jones came out of The Clash all guns blazing with Big Audio Dynamite. Here are their notes from when they moved rock 'n' roll into an entirely new place...
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Don Letts

Big Audio Dynamite was born from the ashes of The Clash, something Mick was never allowed to forget (hell, why should he!) and I was always aware of the shadow The Clash cast over the band. It was against this backdrop that Big Audio Dynamite would try to make its mark. Mission impossible some would say . . . It was September 1983 when Mick got fired from The Clash and put a final nail in the coffin after Topper Headon’s departure months earlier. Mick returned to the trenches to rethink his strategy. He emerged months later with a band called TRAC, with my friend Leo Williams (ex-Basement 5) on bass and Topper on drums. But Tops wasn’t around for long. Not long after I remember hanging out with Mick and Leo at a club one night. Mick looked to his left and there was Leo then he looked to his right and there was yours truly. He commented he thought we looked like a band and right there he asked me to join. I immediately protested, “But dude I can’t play anything!” and he simply replied, “Just remember Paul [Simonon] couldn’t play bass when he joined The Clash.”

For a drummer Mick went the traditional route auditioning in the NME. And that’s how we got Greg Roberts. Dan Donovan joined later, introduced to us by Tricia Ronane, when B.A.D. needed a cover shot for the album. Although we were managed by Gary Kurfirst R.I.P. (Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads) he was based in New York and it was Trish that managed us in his absence. She was easy on the eyes and had a South London girl’s attitude, a deadly combination. During the shoot for the album sleeve, Mick mentioned he was looking for a keyboard player. Dan mentioned he could play. A few days later when Dan presented the photo for the first B.A.D. single Mick pointed at the picture and said, “There’s a space for you there,” and he was in the band. We were initially called Real Westway, but Mick really wanted to use the acronym B.A.D. so we came up with the ‘backronym’ Big Audio Dynamite and the scene was set. Our sound was a blend of New York beats, Jamaican bass lines, English rock ‘n’ roll guitar and me taking care of the sampled dialogue and movie stuff.

We only stole from the best! ‘E=MC²’ was kind of a homage to one of our favourite film directors, Nicholas Roeg

The B.A.D. philosophy was to utilise all the elements of the media to create a fuller sound and write songs that were about something. With a foot in the future and a foot in the past we were dealing with the right now. During the recording of the album we’d have mini-film festivals in the ‘green room’ with the intent of using bits of dialogue. For ‘Medicine Show’ (a dig at media manipulation and our part in the process) we sampled dialogue from A Fistful of Dollars, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Fistful of Dynamite, and of course The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. We only stole from the best! ‘E=MC²’ was kind of a homage to one of our favourite film directors, Nicholas Roeg. Consequently we sampled dialogue from Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Eureka and Bad Timing. Although the use of sampled dialogue became a feature of the band, Mick always made sure the songs were able to stand on their own two feet. In other words if you took the sample away you’d still have a song.

During the writing of the album (and with Mick’s guidance) I had thrown myself into co-writing lyrics, which I approached in the same way as writing a script or treatment for a film. With Mick’s wide-screen vision for the band the songs soon took on a cinematic quality and I’m proud to have gotten the opportunity to write some great songs with him. Another important ingredient of the mix was studio engineer Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle, our very own ‘dread at the control.’ He had a serious dub mentality and had previously worked with the likes of Black Uhuru and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Now the studio was one thing but live was quite another. Could we take it to the stage? This Is Big Audio Dynamite was released in October 1985 on Columbia Records to critical acclaim. Our first single ‘The Bottom Line’ was a track that Mick had put together during his last days with The Clash, and was originally called ‘Trans Clash Free Pay One.’ Rick Rubin (Def Jam Records) had always wanted to work with Mick and expressed an interest in B.A.D.

In the following years we’d go on to play three sell-out nights at the Brixton Academy in London, eleven nights back to back at the Irving Plaza in New York City and seven nights in a row at the Roxy in LA

Pretty swiftly a remix of ‘The Bottom Line’ was released on Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label. Quite a coup back in the day. To promote the single and album we embarked on a short tour of the UK in November 1985 and at the start of 1986 we flew out to play some dates in the States. Touring was a steep learning curve for a non-musician like me but with shades, some fancy moves and coloured stickers on my keyboard to show me what to do I managed to justify my space. Big Audio Dynamite was a huge success live and the US college radio stations seemed particularly receptive to the new sound. However the record company didn’t quite know where to play us. This was around the time the ‘alternative’ charts emerged. Funny ‘cause we thought we were just playing a natural progression of rock ‘n’ roll. The gigs came thick and fast. In the following years we’d go on to play three sell-out nights at the Brixton Academy in London, eleven nights back to back at the Irving Plaza in New York City and seven nights in a row at the Roxy in LA. That was another B.A.D. thing – residencies. We’d hit town, get down and hang around in order to take in whatever that particular city or town had to offer, culturally or otherwise!

It wasn’t long before we were supporting U2 on the second leg of their European tour playing in front of 100,000 people. As the gigs got bigger so did our ambitions. Mick wanted every tour to be an event, so we’d end up having up to five bands supporting us on the road. On various tours we had people like LL Cool J, the London Posse, Paul Simonon’s Havana 3am and Schooly D. Schooly’s beat-box was so big that once we had to buy it a seat on a plane! B.A.D. carried on The Clash’s tradition of making the line-up culturally interesting. Add to the mix Raymond Jordan (security), Flea (Mick’s guitar tech), Delli (Greg’s drum roadie), Josh Cheuse (art department), Guy (merchandise) and on occasion my brother Desmond as road manager. Basically all the ingredients for a mobile disaster and the most amusing of times – financial suicide but one hell of a ride. Some have said that floating within the grooves of This Is Big Audio Dynamite is the album that The Clash should have followed Combat Rock with. Now I don’t know about that but it certainly stands as a document of the times and a musical sign-post for the way things were heading. The B.A.D. ingredients – a combination of rock, hip-hop, dub reggae and electro remain at the core of all that’s exciting in the 21st century. We managed to find a place where all these different elements seemed to meet and for a brief moment back in time, the people agreed.

Mick Jones

What do I remember? . . . Reagan was president, Thatcher was Prime Minister and we were Big Audio Dynamite . . . it was a buzz to record in Basing Street studios - Bob Marley recorded there . . . Lucky Gordon (of Christine Keeler fame) for foods and nourishment . . . Paul 'Groucho' Smykle at the controls with his heavy space-age dub mixes . . . bringing the New York vibe to West London . . . thanks Gerb, Kiley (R.I.P.) Futura 2000, Zephyr, Fab Five Freddy and Dondi (R.I.P.) all a part of the process . . . on the West Coast Rudie Fernandez and the Tumbleweed connection. Back at home with Daisy, Lauren, T.J. and Yana Yaya for Big Audio Dynamite . . . sitting with Gary Kurfirst (R.I.P.) on the tour bus and him telling me "it's gonna take a few years before they get it" . . . the transition from Heath Robinson to actually doing it . . . in the cupboard in Boston . . . Joshie's photographs . . . encounters with E.T. . . . and it was cool to be on Def Jam for one 12-inch . . . "E=MC²" at the long gone Serpentine Restaurant in Hyde Park . . . and "The Bottom Line" in Trafalgar Square . . . getting together with Paul and Joe (R.I.P.) in Heaven . . . it wasn't as bad as all that . . . we rocked and we skanked! . . .

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