When the punk group the Clash burst onto the British music scene in 1976, they were rock’s archetypal angry young men. Guitarists Mick Jones and Joe Strummer created a raw and furious sound that expressed itself in odes to nihilism like “White Riot,” “London’s Burning” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”
Now, six years after leaving the Clash, which disbanded in 1986, along comes Jones once more. He has another group (Big Audio Dynamite), a new album (Megatop Phoenix) and a new sound based on London’s burgeoning “acid house” scene. The music, propelled by rap rhythms, is a kind of disco-gone-psychedelic that couldn’t be farther from the fury of the Clash. You can even dance to it. In fact, Jones, 34, would insist on it. “This record has a dance groove all the way through it,” he says.
The transformation from snarling punk to smiling master of acid house revels is due in part to a near-death experience. In September 1988, Jones’s then 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, contracted chicken pox. She recovered quickly, but Jones, who had never had the disease as a child, was unconscious for two weeks, suffered severe infections in his mouth, throat and lungs, developed acute pneumonia and sustained nerve damage. Hooked to respirators and partially paralyzed, it was touch and go for eight hours. Recovery took nine months, and Jones required extensive therapy to repair his damaged throat and vocal chords.
The experience concentrated his mind wonderfully. “In the hospital I could see things clearly,” says Jones. “Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. [which he had started in 1984 as a techno-funk band] was going on to something new.”
That something was acid house music, spawned in London dance clubs in the summer of 1988. It quickly spread to the outskirts of the city, where teenagers would gather in abandoned warehouses, airplane hangars, even farmers’ fields and stage huge, all-night “raves.” The psychedelic dance music would often be accompanied by LSD, and the vibes harkened back to the feel-good era of hippie be-ins. “We’re talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing,” he says with a convert’s enthusiasm. “It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.”
It’s hard to imagine that this quasi-love child is the sneering, sullen punk of yore. But this is the same son of a London cab driver and a flighty mom who stowed away on an American ocean liner at 19. Jones was 8 when his parents divorced. His mom, now remarried and living in Michigan, left Jones with her mother, Stella Marcus, in a West London housing project. There, he and his old mate Joe Strummer wrote the songs for the new group, the Clash, that critics would later say changed rock forever. “At first,” Jones says of punk, “it was really cool. But the papers sensationalized it, and all these kids stuck safety pins through their faces and started spitting on people. It was commercialized till only a sliver was left of the original intent.”
The Clash sustained punk’s rebellious, anarchic spirit through six albums, including the 1980 double LP London Calling, which Rolling Stone recently named the decade’s best album. Jones recalls with sadness his “sacking” after a falling out with Strummer in 1983. Although they did have creative differences, personality seemed to be the real problem. Strummer complained that the more introverted Jones was too unenthusiastic and gloomy. “We had stopped communicating with each other,” admits Jones. “We were just about barely at grunting level. We’d turn our heads and look at the floor.” After the breakup, he says, “we didn’t speak for at least two years.”
Today, Jones shares a house with his girlfriend of many years, Daisy Lawrence, and their child, Lauren, in West London’s Ladbroke Grove, the same working-class neighborhood that many future punkers once called home. “There’s a creative core of people still doing stuff,” he says. There are also many who still fondly remember the Clash. “I get a few blokes on the street who look at me adoringly, like I’m a bird or something,” says Jones, who appreciates the sentiment but is slightly bemused by the attention. Though he is friendly again with Strummer and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, whose group, Havana 3 A.M., opened some B.A.D. shows, Jones nixes talk of a Clash reunion. He much prefers making B.A.D. music while London dances. “We’re unstoppable now,” Jones says of the group he formed “about four hours” after leaving the Clash. “We’ve never been so in step with what’s happening. It’s like we’ve reclaimed the music. For the first time in 10 or 12 years, we own it again.”
—Steve Dougherty, Lisa Russell in Boston