Value Judgements on Big Audio Dynamite

Mick Jones with Big Audio Dynamite in London, April 2011. Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

When Mick Jones announced in January he was reforming Big Audio Dynamite – the post-Clash band he led throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s – a critical revaluation was inevitable.

Sure enough, Guardian music writer Ben Myers fired off days later, asking whether BAD — which bookends Saturday’s Coachella appearance with shows in L.A. and New York — was “more pioneering than the Clash.”

It’s a fair question, but Myers seems to be forgetting Sandinista! – the 1980 triple album that saw the Clash brazenly shuck its remaining punk baggage and explore hip-hop, soul, dub and disco, all before reaching track five.

Over the next 32 songs, the band offsets every great idea with two terrible ones, predicting the anything-goes genre-mush pop of artists like M.I.A. and Gorillaz, with whom Jones recorded with and toured. On track 35 of Sandinista!, the Clash even gets a kids choir to sing “Career Opportunities,” cleverly subverting or crapping all over one of its early punk anthems, depending on your read.

BAD rarely tried anything so radical and that was their charm. “You don’t need to be profound/in fact don’t speak, just play that sound,” Jones sang on the frivolous, BAD-to-the-bone 1988 hit “Just Play Music,” distancing himself from the kinds of big ideas — both lyrical and musical — that defined his old band.

Danceable yet doofy, melodic yet muddled, enjoyed by everyone but loved by no one, BAD was a good fit for Jones. Even in 1979, at the height of his coolness, he was only the third-coolest guy in the Clash. He was the most essential — the man behind the music — but his guitar riffs and melodies were the rockets to which frontman and lyricist Joe Strummer affixed his personality and propelled himself into the Lennon-Marley-Dylan stratosphere. (For the record, Fender-smashing bassist Paul Simonon was the coolest of the bunch.)

Promoting multiculturalism, or at least merging light rock, rap and dance music, was BAD’s only real agenda. That in turn left Jones free to wear oversize b-boy caps and play with samples and drum machines, oblivious to how silly he sometimes looked.

It won’t be long before some contrarian critic goes one better than Myers and argues BAD wasn’t just forward-looking, but also secretly brilliant. While he or she will be hard-pressed to name a classic album or truly timeless single to support that claim, Jones’ second act does deserve a second listen.

How much of a listen? The Clash justified all 36 of those Sandinista! tracks, and assuming BAD was one-seventh as vital (an arbitrary fraction that seems about right), the group warrants five slots on the iPod of any well-informed music fan. What follows showcase one of BAD’s better qualities. Jones and his latter-day cohorts never inspired anyone to dye their hair or read Karl Marx or throw a brick through a window, but as Strummer might have said in 1977, there’s more to music than hero worship.

1. “Medicine Show” (1986): Jones was an early adopter of sampling, and here he uses snippets of Spaghetti Western dialogue to underscore the similarities between playing rock ‘n’ roll and peddling snake oil.

2. “Sightsee M.C.” (1987): In the Clash days, Jones’ fascination with hip-hop earned him the nickname “Whack Attack.” On this track — co-written by Strummer — he tours the slums of London, describing an atmosphere of boredom and rage not unlike the one that spawned punk.

3. “I Don’t Know” (1991): The Clash broke up before the advent of rave culture, so this foray into clubland is an example of BAD breaking new ground.

4. “Just Play Music” (1988): Jones is an unparalleled tunesmith, and this is among his sharpest, stickiest hooks.

5. “Other 99” (1988): Eternally optimistic, Jones offers both a sequel to the Clash’s “I’m Not Down” and a spot-on summation of the BAD discography: “Everything’s not always great/ sometimes it’s just fine.”

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