Complicated Clash: The Mick Jones Interview
Mick Jones was the lead guitarist and arranger for the Clash, a band that released seven-plus hours of music between 1977 and 1982. That block of sound was a jolting explosion of rock form, the lyrics a window into what people around the world now call "the street." The idea set in motion by the Clash was that streets and music could and should shape each other. (No wonder HBO's left-wing urbanist drama The Wire quotes the band's "Stay Free.")
Since the death of Clash singer Joe Strummer four years ago, Jones has appeared to recede. He sounds a little like a ghost amused to still be around. "When you get to the museum level, you're usually dead, aren't you?" he quipped to Billboard.com recently, on the opening of a Clash exhibit at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (it runs through April 15, 2007). Jones has nearly died twice--falling unconscious for weeks in 1988, and riding the ceiling of a car in a 1992 accident. But his profile began disappearing into the Clash's long before, his identity on guitar so liquid--from the backward solo on "London Calling" to the skyscraping bomber lead of "Straight to Hell"--that you remember songs rather than heroics. His post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite, a narcotic pastiche of beatbox reggae and samples, has been ill-served by best-of collections, maybe because some of the band's worst songs were hits ("The Globe") and some of its best were not. Several new lineups and an unreleased album later, Jones posted a final B.A.D. song, "The Sound of the Joe," on the group's website in memory of Strummer, and let the site disappear shortly thereafter.
These days, Jones lives in West London with his partner and two young daughters. Last month he released his second free online album in 2006, Western Front, by Carbon/Silicon, a rock band with guitarist and laptop musician Tony James (Generation X, Sigue Sigue Sputnik), with whom Jones once played in the punk group London SS. Now "The Gangs of England" tells an mp3-burning, DVD-making fan base, "You are my photo session/You are my interview/You are my A&R man who hasn't got a clue."
"We're looking at different ways of presenting music in the future," says Jones, speaking over the phone during a recent interview promoting, ironically, the latest Epic/Legacy repackaging of Clash product--a largely redundant box set of the band's complete singles due to be released on November 14. Jones would be the first to admit that royalties allow him the unorthodox strategy of not charging money for Carbon/Silicon's music, enabling fans to assemble unique albums out of tracks and graphics pulled off the group's website, www.carbonsiliconinc.com. (The singer's reed of a voice is as affecting as ever on the plaintive "Why Do Men Fight", "Really the Blues", and "The Magic Suitcase", so start there.)
Yet the band, which has played more than 50 gigs, remains invisible in the media, local color next to Kate Moss's drug intake during the recording of the Babyshambles album, which Jones produced. "I thought it was going to be the last record I ever made," he says, laughing. "I don't completely think that anymore."
(Mick Jones, center, with his Mott the Hoople-inspired band the Delinquents in 1974)
How did you first meet Tony James?
I was practicing with this band. We were in this place down in South London practicing. I didn't know it at the time, but I was just about to be taken out for a drink, which means get fired. And I didn't know it at the time. The lead singer was a guy I'd actually been in school with. And he brought this guy in this time, I think it was to soften the blow. He sort of introduced me to this guy that the singer knew. So it wasn't soon after that I got fired from the band, and then by that time I'd become Tony's friend. And that was early '75, I think. So we started putting a band together the two of us, and we tried out a lot of people and eventually went our own separate ways then. And then like 25 years later, or nearly 30 years later, we got back together again.
What did you like about him when you met him?
Well, I always like him, anyway. He was a really smart guy, I guess I liked that mostly. And he knew all the same records and same music and stuff. You know when you can just hit it off with a guy.
What was the band you were kicked out of?
Maybe they were called Schoolgirl. They changed its name to Violent Luck. Actually, it was Guy Stevens, I think, who came up with that name, 'cause he was slighly involved at the end of my time with them. And then it had the picture of James Dean in Giant, you know, where he'd been all splashed with oil, just after he'd discovered oil. That was the picture of Violent Luck.
It could have been a whole 'nother direction there if they'd kept you.
Luckily we avoided it, but, you know, things happen the way they happen, I guess.
This is kind of trivial, but since you brought up Guy Stevens, I was kind of curious about what that lyric in "Midnight to Stevens" where he's waving the bail for Chuck Berry. What's that about?
That was because when, well, Chuck Berry, who doesn't admit he was in jail, but apparently was in jail, and Guy was the one who bailed him out. I don't think he admitted to his jail time, but if you read a biography, it's in there.
(Jones and Joe Strummer at the Clash's show at the Mont de Marsan Punk Festival in 1977, photographed by Denis Regan)
What is rock 'n' roll to you?
It kind of officially started in about '55, but I would say it means a lot more than just a type of music.
Is it a feeling?
More than a feeling. [Laughs]
I'm so sorry I made you say those words. Are you more rock 'n' roll these days?
I somehow doubt it, I've got to be honest. But I'm better at what I do now, in terms of my music and stuff. Life is a whole lot of life events and responsibilities and all stuff like that comes more into as you get older. That stops you, in a way. But I'm still developing what I'm doing, and I'm still learning.
Are you somewhat of a stay-home dad?
I'd like to be, to be honest, you know. People say, what do you want to do? And I sort of think, well, watch the telly. [pause] Can you hear me?
Yeah. Well, where do you live these days?
I live in London.
West London still?
Do you have neighbors who still recognize you from the '70s? Are there still punks living there?
Some punks who have moved on are a bit like Teddy Boys or something where there's that thing. But, you know, I get recognized occasionally. It's still going on a bit. Young people, surprisingly.
Is it still your old neighborhood, where you grew up when you were a teenager?
Yes, which is nice, to not go too far.
Is it okay if I ask you a couple questions about your nan. Did she see you perform?
What did she think of the Clash?
Whatever I did was okay with her, you know?
I read that you said that after Joe died, you thought that everything was finished. Why did you feel that way?
When anybody dies, they die and they take what they know with them, I guess. And that's a shame. Although Joe left us a lot.
What were some of the things he took with him?
He always knew what to do in a problem, in a situation. He knew what to do. It might not be the right thing to do, but something happened, you know. That was always a very help, too. Just on a personal level, you know, it's just his company and stuff like that. He was great to be with, you know.
I also read that you said you're sort of a humanizer and Tony was sort of the conceptualist in your group.
Yeah, that was one of my early proposterous--I try to keep most of my mad stuff to my writing.
What role did you play in the Clash, were you a humanizer then?
Not so much. I must admit, I've learned how to get in touch with that much better now. But I was a bit more kind of--I always knew what to do on the musical front. You know what I mean? So I just did that naturally. But basically, to tell you the truth, I'm even better now at it. That's just been one long development.
Is it a matter of getting things out of the way creatively?
It's a very nerve-wracking occupation, I've found, and even in the studio. Your guts are shredded basically until it's down, or right. Or I find that, anyway. TJ's got a lot of drive, Tony's got a lot of drive as well, but it doesn't come into my bit.
You wrote most of the music and Joe wrote most of the lyrics, except on "Complete Control," where you wrote both. What was the revelation when he sang your words?
He'd give us a little overwork, after we'd done whatever it was. He's always add some extra stuff to it. But it was his resonance that was actually the thing that helped carry the tune. He's like the captain of the ship, and so when he sings, it's like the captain of the ship is singing, and the music is the sea.
I would guess you didn't write "You're my guitar hero" in the lyrics.
He added something there.
What were some of your first experieces with hip hop when you were recording Sandinista! in New York in 1980?
Well the thing was, it was just all around us. [To his daughter] Thank you, darling. Joe went like this, 'Let's do a rap tune.' Even though I was the one who was most enthusiastic about the actual [stuff], what seemed to be coming, taping it off the radio at the time, excited about it. [Interviewer's note: Band mates called Jones "Wack Attack."] But it was actually Joe who went, 'Uh, let's do a rap tune.' It was just 'cause we were here. When we did 'The Magnificent Seven,' which was going to be called 'Magnificent Rappo Clappers,' I think we just got swept away. We took on what was going on around us. And by that time we'd been to a few places, so we didn't have such a narrow view of things, and it had an affect on us, and we changed. We were constantly changing.
Was African music part of what you were listening to, like King Sunny Ade?
Yeah, he was kind of around. I must admit I liked Fela Kuti as well very much, and that was like music with a message as well. I liked King Sunny Ade, the way they used steel type guitars. I found that really interesting. I wouldn't say it was one of the major ones, but I would say we took on all types of music that we liked. We all sort of did that. When we took on 'Police and Thieves,' it was the same as what the beat groups had done with those R&B groups. We kind of did that, too. We didn't think about it.
Did you get any reactions to that song from Rastas?
Lee Perry, who produced 'Complete Control,' had been telling Bob Marley about it, and he was saying, well, I'm not sure about what these punks are about. And Marley was one of the guys who said, 'No, you should see, it's good.' He kind of responded by writing that song 'Punky Reggae Party.' He was asking questions and finding out if we were rebels, too. You know?
There's a great moment in Westway to the World where Joe was talking about hearing 'Magnificent Dance' on New York radio. Did you have moments like that in Big Audio Dynamite, where you sort of felt like you infiltrated rave culture or something?
Well, when they played that song on the radio, they played samples on it. It had like Clint Eastwood and Daffy Duck. Like, 'Do you feel lucky punk?' The impression that I got was they didn't know we were a punk group when they started playing the record. And it was playing already before they realized who we were and it was too late. WBLS and there was one other, and there was another kind of indie station. It was part of the signposting toward Big Audio Dynamite.
Did you ever have that happen with Big Audio Dynamite?
Not in the same way, but there was one instance where, on "Sambodrome," on the second record, where we used this guy who was like, it was off this film Pixote, it was this young kid in Brazilian slums. Anyway, we used a bit off that, and this policeman, and it's like a real policeman in the film, and he got hold of the record and he was in the paper ripping our record up in Brazil, the one time that we went there. That was quite strange.
And there was this football commentator on the same track, and he was one of those crazy Brazilian football commentators, and he was going, 'Gooaaaaaal!' And the actual guy came up onstage with us and did it live. It was crazy. He had a big bright jumper on. That was in Rio.
(Jones with the first Big Audio Dynamite)
Will you someday release The Ratt Patrol from Fort Bragg?
I somehow doubt it. It's not as good as the one that came out in the end. Even though it was painful at the time for me to admit that it was. But in the end it turned out fine, and no one remembers all the little finicky bits. It was a little bit more of a contemporary, what-was-going-on-at-the-time-type of thing, but the end record turned out to be a more lasting record, I think.
Do you have any fond memories of your time in Bangkok?
We had a good time because Paul got hospitalized, so we all stayed and hung out there for a bit, so we went a little mad. That was one of the best times, I think, where we were really together. Strange when you go that far away, you feel differently, and when you go back you're shouting from the top of the houses for a few days before you slump back down. We were really together, even though that was when we were on our way to the end.
Was that the last time you had fun together?
I wouldn't say that. But anyway, we had loads of fun after we split up. After a short while, we became close and strong friends again. Which I think is quite different from most groups that split up. We were always close, in a kind of, I always felt was a family. I read now I might have misread the signs, but that's how I saw it anyway.
I was curious about 'Beyond the Pale.' Is that autobiographical?
That's an element. There's some poetry, some lyrics.
Was that a collaboration with Joe on the lyrics?
Yeah, mostly on the lyrics. What Joe always did was he would give me words, and I would give it a polish. I can't really explain it too much, it sort of takes the mystery out of it.
Have you been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
My mom went. She lives in Michigan.
Did James Brown ever hear the song 'James Brown'?
You know, I don't know. But one thing we did, by this time in B.A.D. we started to get all the permissions for samples and stuff, and that thing that we had in it, 'I want to be in America,' that thing, that represents 50 percent of the writing credits. Can you believe that? That was stupid, wasn't it? Now I couldn't even be bothered with all that stuff.
Mick Jones Links
Video: Babyshambles and Friends, "Janie Jones" at Youtube
Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.) tribute
Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.) French page
Audio: Big Audio Dynamite interview on WBAI from 1989 (this is awesome)
Big Audio Dynamite Wikipedia entry
Black Market Clash (my favorite Clash treasure trove)
Article: Carbon/Silicon at BBC
Carbon/Silicon MySpace page
Carbon/Silicon MySpace tribute
The Clash.org.uk (Don J Whistance's "The Clash Site")
Video: The Clash (Interview: Beginnings) on Youtube
Video: The Clash on Fridays at Bedazzled
Complete Clash Links at Complicated Fun
Mikey Dread interview and links
Article: "It's Just the Beat of Time, the Beat that Must Go On: Guy Stevens, the Rulers, and the hidden history of London Calling"
Article: Mick Jones interview in Pulse
Article: Mick Jones on producing the Libertines
Mick Jones plays at 101ers reunion
Audio: Mick Jones/Topper Headon/Paul Simonon interview at BBC
The Mick Jones/Joe Strummer reunion
Mick Jones Wikipedia entry
The Sandinista Project blog
Article: "Who Is Mick Jones?"
(Many more links here.)