Big Audio Dynamite

TrackAlbum 
The Bottom LineThis Is Big Audio Dynamite
Medicine ShowThis Is Big Audio Dynamite
C'mon Every BeatboxNo.10, Upping St.
Beyond The PaleNo.10, Upping St.
Other 99Tighten Up Vol.88
The Battle Of All Saints RoadTighten Up Vol.88
ContactMegatop Phoenix
RewindMegatop Phoenix
RushThe Globe
I Turned Out A PunkF-Punk

Big Audio Dynamite photo 1

BAD 1986 (l-r): Don Letts, Dan Donovan, Mick Jones,
Greg Roberts, Leo Williams

 

 

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BAD playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

For those of us who came of musical age in the 70s and 80s and for whom the Clash were literally a life-altering band, the 1983 split of co-leaders Joe Strummer and Mick Jones felt personally devastating. While the prior year’s Combat Rock may have rolled back some of the sheer musical perfection of London Calling and the creative experimentation of the sprawling Sandinista!, it was also a huge commercial success and the work of a band that was still artistically vital, suggesting plenty of great work to come. But growing tensions within the band, over everything from artistic direction to work ethic to filling the gap left by their departing heroin-addicted drummer, not to mention Jones’ increasing prima-donna tendencies (which he later admitted), grew insurmountable, and by the end of the year Jones was pushed out.

At the time, the general consensus seemed to be that it would be Strummer who would come out on top. To be sure, the pair felt like equals. Jones had developed into a distinctive guitarist, and his pop-oriented inclinations had produced some of the band’s most radio-friendly tunes in Train In Vain and Should I Stay Or Should I Go. But it was Strummer who transformed Jones’ original bar band into punk legends, and his force-of-nature howls and charismatic visual presence lent the band a ferocity and integrity that endured even as the band embraced more traditional rock styles.

But the near-simultaneous release of competing albums in late 1985 laid waste to such assumptions. Strummer (with Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Svengali manager Bernie Rhodes) soldiered on with a final Clash album, Cut The Crap, an undeniable train-wreck full of chintzy drum beats and faux shout-along anthems that fell flat, salvaged only by the terrific standout This Is England.

In contrast, the debut from Mick Jones’ new five-piece outfit, Big Audio Dynamite, felt fresh and thoroughly of the moment, an innovative, mixed-race melting pot of rock, hip-hop, and dance music, aided immensely by former Clash videographer Don Letts, who was largely responsible for the band’s sample-heavy sound (while proving an all-around utility player with his vocals and raps). This Is Big Audio Dynamite served as a fantastic introduction, and while Jones and Letts grab the spotlight, they feel like a cohesive unit, purveying lively electronics- and guitar-oriented dance-pop music that made no attempt to simply free-ride off the Clash legacy.

Lead-off track Medicine Show is a delight, clever story-telling lyrics augmented by well-used dialog samples from old Clint Eastwood westerns at a time when sampling was still in its infancy. The Bottom Line confirms Jones’ pop chops, a killer hook and infectious sing-along chorus elevated by fresh-sounding electronic beats and strategically-deployed chiming guitars. But the rest of the album is no slouch, the insistent dance beat of E=MC2 and percussive club-friendly Sony helping make the album an instant classic that is firmly rooted in the 80s but holds up surprisingly well.

The divergent public reception of Crap and This Is BAD apparently wasn’t lost on Strummer, who climbed aboard for BAD’s follow-up, contributing a few songwriting and production credits (though staying off-mic). Strummer’s brief reunion with Jones (alas, limited to this one album) didn’t change the band’s sonic blueprint, with 1986’s No.10, Upping St. sounding like the obvious follow-up to the debut, again reliant on electronic beats and samples to bolster Jones’ melodic pop-rock while studiously avoiding a return to the Clash’s classic sound that one might have expected from a Strummer/Jones collaboration.

The first half of Upping St. is at least as strong as, if not stronger than, its predecessor. C’mon Every Beatbox comes galloping out of the gate, a call-and-response anthem which casually captures the kinetic energy Cut The Crap struggled so hard to cobble together. It’s a bracing burst of guitars, electronic beats, and those attention-grabbing samples. Beyond The Pale is a gut-grabbing proclamation of the Jones family’s immigrant roots, a melodic mid-tempo number invoking the sort of personal poignancy last seen on Mick’s ode to a childhood friend, Stay Free (way back on the Clash’s second LP). Limbo The Law reiterates Beatbox’s energetic electronic beats; Sambadrome is a simply delightful ballad pairing a simple piano hook with a distinctive electronic percussion loop; and V. Thirteen features the sort of more straightforward guitar-driven pop that would dominate the band’s next album.

Even if the album’s second side doesn’t quite maintain the momentum, it’s a remarkably strong album, one that deserves a lot more credit for inspiring (or at least predating) the sort of radio-friendly danceable electro-pop that would show up a few years later in bands like EMF and Jesus Jones.

Tighten Up Vol.88 didn’t represent a huge departure from the first two albums, but moved more in a traditional guitar-pop direction, Jones seemingly more intent on delivering melodic hooks than dance beats (though the band’s steady infusion of electronics and samples, while less pronounced, remains). Opener Dance Non-Stop, much like C’Mon Every Beatbox, suggests another round of rump-shakers; but the following track, Other 99, really sets the album’s tone, a straight-ahead pop tune paying tribute to the everyman, corny as hell but relentlessly catchy. Applecart is similarly infectious, again reaching beyond its arguably trite sentiment with its earworm pop. But a personal favorite is The Battle Of All Saints Road, an electronica updating of Dueling Banjos, a sort of mini-opera entailing Jones’s pursuit of rock & roll racial integration. It’s a little silly but terrifically fun. Other stand-outs include the perky Esquerita and Champagne.

 

Sadly, 1990’s Megatop Phoenix would be the last album from this incarnation of the band. But they went out on a high note, the underrated record returning to greater reliance on electronic grooves and samples while retaining Tighten Up’s pop hooks. Contact is a winning stand-out, pure pop candy overlaying the party beats, with an unexpected insertion of the Who’s I Can’t Explain and other found sounds popping up in the coda. The slower churn of Rewind is more of a Letts showcase, a patchwork sound collage with another catchy hook. But there’s also the poppy fun of Union Jack and the slinky, insinuating Dragon Town. It may have been the swan song for this version of the band, but, as with the Clash’s Combat Rock, the album didn’t sound like the work of a band about to split up.

After the original five-piece dissolved, BAD became more a Mick Jones project with a revolving supporting cast; none of the later albums approached the artistic consistency of the 1985-1990 era, though Jones continued to offer at least a few winning tunes per outing.

1991’s The Globe was credited to Big Audio Dynamite II, a four-piece with three new guys supporting Mick. The record opens convincingly enough with Rush, arguably the single finest track from the BAD stable, an absolutely killer two-chord hook built on sampled loops (including a return to Mick’s Who record collection, this time featuring Baba O’Reilly’s timeless keyboards). It’s insanely entertaining, even with its bizarre little mid-song diversion, which blasts off into a final verse. The album’s title track is nearly as great, Jones cleverly mining his own past to build the song around the sampled Should I Stay Or Should I Go riff; it reprises the smile-inducing fun of Rush, if growing a bit repetitive. Alas, the triumph of Rush (and to a lesser extent The Globe) makes the somewhat lackluster sound of the rest of the album all the more noticeable. It’s not terrible – the ballad Innocent Child is quite sweet (and makes a strong case that Oasis ripped off BAD at least as much as they ripped off the Beatles) – but lacks the energy and sense of fun of the band’s earlier work.

As a bit of a side-note, the other four original members of Big Audio Dynamite (I), renamed Screaming Youth, also released a 1991 album; alas, the few songs from Hometown Hi-Fi I’ve heard sound … well, like you’d imagine BAD without Jones would sound, fun multi-cultural beats but lacking the pop hooks.

The BAD II incarnation lasted for just the one album. When Jones returned with a new crew in 1994, they were simply called Big Audio. Higher Power is a bit of an improvement over The Globe, much more pop-oriented and reminiscent of Tighten Up, but rendered lackluster by the absence of Letts or any truly killer singles. Still, there are some enjoyable tunes here, like Looking For A Song, Harlow Road, and Modern Stoneage Blues; but none feels truly essential to the canon, and the over-long album drops off in the second half.

For the band’s final (official) studio release, Jones reclaimed the original Big Audio Dynamite moniker, though, confusingly enough, it’s the work of largely the same players from Higher Power. F-Punk (either a play on P-Funk or a shortening of Former Punk) is a fascinating mess. It sounds rough and unfinished, like Jones had worked up some new demos and didn’t feel like cleaning them up. But there are some solid tracks, with a harder-driving edge than Higher Power’s listless set, and with a bit more effort could’ve been a worthy record. Lead-off track I Turned Out A Punk is a sweet little Mick Jones memoir, his best tune since Rush, with a catchy hook that’s impaired only by its tentative, undynamic sound and distracting keyboards. There are a few other decent guitar pop songs, like Singapore, which leave you wondering what might’ve been had some polish been added. The record, and with it the official discography of the band, ends with a hidden cover of Bowie’s Suffragette City tacked on to the final track, perfectly fine but a little bewildering, a strange and muted conclusion to the BAD saga.

As if F-Punk weren’t already an underwhelming finish to Big Audio Dynamite, there was a final indignity, as Jones put together a new incarnation of the band but had the recordings rejected by his record company. The planned 1997 album, Entering A New Ride, did find its way online, and it’s not a bad collection of tunes. Indeed, the record is more consistent overall than anything since Megatop Phoenix, with Jones sounding newly energized; a number of standouts, like BAD In The Nighttime Ride, Sound Of The BAD, and Cozy 10 Minutes, deserve more than their diehards-only obscurity. It’s worth digging up on YouTube.

Fortunately, the whimper-not-a-bang final years of BAD were not the end for Mick Jones. In the early 2000s, he paired up with Generation X’s Tony James as Carbon/Silicon. Their brief discography, much of it confined to online-only releases, is beyond the scope of this overview, but sounds like a natural successor to Big Audio Dynamite. Indeed, 2007’s The Last Post, the outfit’s sole physical album release (compiled from various prior recordings) is pretty great, Jones’ most invigorated work since the early days of BAD. The News sounds like a great lost BAD track, while What The Fuck shows Jones willing to revisit the Clash’s sound in a way he’d deliberately eschewed throughout his BAD tenure.

While I highly recommend the first four BAD albums, there have been a few decent compilations over the years for anyone seeking a handy shortcut. The most complete is 1995’s Planet B.A.D., which cribs from all of the band incarnations (aside from the New Ride one-off) and manages to nab the majority of my Top 10; the downside of this collection is that, for the most part, it uses the condensed single versions rather than the longer album versions, which might be fine for lukewarm fans but eliminates some of the fun sample-rich jams.

 

 

Big Audio Dynamite photo 2

 

 

Big Audio Dynamite (Wikipedia)

B.A.D. unofficial fan site (archived)

Big Audio Dynamite (Discogs)

2011 Guardian article

2010 Don Letts interview

Don Letts website

Dan Donovan website

Big Audio Dynamite biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #978

1 Comment

  1. David Lewis
    Aug 16, 2021

    Wonderful Toppermost on a band who were much better than they had any right to be. The Clash of course are one of the top 20 or so bands of the rock era, and no. 1 or 2 of the Punk bands, so any follow up should have been disappointing.
    Yet that album, The Globe… You rightly say ‘Rush’ is one of their finest songs. I’m ashamed I’d almost forgotten it, so hearing it again gave me the rush I had when I first heard it in that banner year, 1991 – the year of Nevermind, Metallica’s Black Album, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains… A year as key as 1972, 1968, 1963 or 1955.
    My ‘wot! No?’ was going to be ‘The Globe’, but ‘Rush’ is too good …

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