Kronomyth 1.0: LETTS IT BE. I never knew what to make of This Is Big Audio Dynamite. Was this the new revolution? Had I missed the email saying that multimedia, sleepy melodies and drum machines were now the bomb? It turned out that it took me years to let go of my golden punk dreams for the second chapter of The Clash, and a few years more to appreciate the music of BAD for what it is and what it’s not. Today, I enjoy songs like “E=MC2,” “Medicine Show” and “Sony” on some level, the same way I enjoy “Lost In The Supermarket.” Mick Jones was never much of a singer; he’d put you to sleep over an entire album. And so BAD throws constant movie dialogue into the mix as a sort of stimulant. Still, a lot of this flew right over my head at the time. I mean, punk music and film history seemed like a really strange marriage at the time (it still does). The band was visually impressive, which owed a lot to the influence of clothier/cinematographer Letts. In fact, you could argue that BAD was one of the first bands to understand that music was now a largely visual medium. But I’d trade it all for another “Train In Vain,” honestly. The album does have some of its precedent in the dub experiments of The Clash (e.g., “A Party”), in case you’re lamenting the lost days of “The Magnificent Dance.” Unexpected? Totally. Underappreciated? Maybe. I can’t be right about everything all the time (tic).
What the hell is this?! That was my first reaction to BAD, via the video for “C’mon Every Beatbox,” which twisted the melody to “Summertime Blues” into some horrible, multimedia monster: beat box rhythms, audio lifted from films and Mick Jones’ taunting vocals on top of the whole thing. Was he brilliant or just plain bonkers? While BAD hasn’t turned out to be as revolutionary or influential as Mick Jones might have hoped, they were too intriguing to ignore. No. 10, Upping St. is probably the closest thing to a Clash reunion, as Jones and Joe Strummer produced the record and cowrote some of the best tracks: “Beyond The Pale,” “V. Thirteen,” “Sightsee M.C!” If these don’t grab your attention, nothing in the BAD catalog will. The rest of the record is highstrung and schizophrenic; bits of it’ll impress you, but you’d have to open your mind pretty wide to swallow the whole thing. The trouble with BAD is that an audience never really existed for this sort of music. Jones and company seemed intent on ramrodding the audience into accepting their vision of the future on faith, when most Clash fans were still clinging to the past. In the world of Big Audio Dynamite, music and media were indistinguishable, reggae rhythms and rock music coexisted peacefully, and everybody wore hats (apparently). In the real world, Big Audio Dynamite was given a small patch of the airwaves similar to PiL for services rendered and allowed to grow long in the tooth like some eccentric uncle when it turned out that their plan for the future was built on clouds. To its credit, this album is played with an intensity as if the future really did depend on BAD, so if you’re inclined to entertain an alternate reality (…They all lived happily ever after, with no one mentioning The Clash again), welcome to No. 10, Upping St. You can even keep your hat on.
“That’s all I ever wanted, was to not do a proper job. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.” – Mick Jones, in a 2011 interview with GQ Magazine.
Kronomyth 3.01: I SING THE SONG, YOU SELL ‘EM. The advance single from Tighten Up, Vol. ’88 featured a really cute video of the band on tour and at repose, which made it seem like Mick Jones was having the time of his life being B.A.D. And yet (wrote the gray, unhappy and envious little man), it always seemed to me that Jones and his badmates were living on the equity earned by The Clash. You could argue that B.A.D. was blazing trails, only you could arrive at the same destination by listening to Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” like, once. (That video had better hats, too.) “Just Play Music!” isn’t a bad song (“The Other 99” is better), and the nonalbum B side, “Much Worse,” is appreciably funny. Various singles included extended mixes of those tracks, which are just longer versions with more drumbeats, in case you didn’t figure that out already.
Kronomyth 3.0: UPPING TIGHTENED. The Strummerless third album turned out to be a surprisingly solid collection of songs that downplayed the multimedia elements of the last. As if taking the single “Just Play Music!” to heart, Jones and company place the emphasis on familiar, anthemic melodies and support them with supercharged rhythms and effects underneath. Tighten Up Vol. ’88 might be their strongest collection song for song; “Other 99,” “Rock Non Stop,” “Just Play Music!” and “Esquerita” would make my shortlist if I were compiling a Best of BAD. The knock on Mick Jones is he’s a junk collector. Who else would bother to recycle the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies (“The Battle of All Saints Road”) or write songs about discarded heroes like Esquerita? Maybe that’s always been the attraction between Jones and FX specialist Don Letts. And it’s always been an element of The Clash, from “The Right Profile” to “Ghetto Defendant.” BAD continues the great border crossing begun with The Clash, inverting the music/media equation slightly with Tighten Up and providing more songs per square inch of plastic than before. Oddly, their next album (Megatop Phoenix) re-inverted the equation, so I wouldn’t say that Tighten Up is a stab for commercial acceptance. It is one of their most even records, if not their most inspired (No. 10, Upping St. would get the nod there). Some may see it as a step down from the over-the-top Upping Street, but I would tell you that, tightened up to eight songs, the two would be hard to tell apart. (The old review of this included an inane reference to Lenin and toilet paper, and you can guess what I did with that one.)
Megatop Phoenix takes the mixed media experiment to new heights. I know, I thought they were moving away from that with their last album, but as the opening “Rewind” concedes, they were working without a map and compass. In retrospect, some sort of manifesto would have helped in understanding what Big Audio Dynamite was after. No one really picked up on the mixed media angle, though a lot of this music could be seen as a harbinger of techno. But were tomorrow’s technobrats listening to this music? If you’re going to make a case for BAD as a revolutionary band, then Don Letts is clearly the Leon Trotsky of this outfit. The snippets that fill the spaces in Mick Jones’ sparse melodies are the musical equivalent of graffiti art. Even the rhythm section seems to take Letts’ cue to become ornamental elements. But at the end of the day, it’s the songs themselves that must take the hill, and they’re simply too sleepy to do it. (OK, no more metaphors, I promise.) If I were compiling a best-of BAD, I’d make space for “Around The Girl In 80 Ways,” “Contact” and “Union, Jack.” If I weren’t cheap about it, I’d throw in “Mick’s A Hippie Burning” and “Stalag 123” to boot. But nothing on here gets under my skin like “V. Thirteen” or “Other 99.” What Jones has come up with are punk lullabies, simple and soporific, and they’re a poor substitute for the punk anthems of The Clash. A lot of people seem to like Megatop Phoenix, and I won’t argue that it’s their most effective melange of media and music. I just wasn’t interested in seeing the two of them wedded in the first place. It kind of makes you wonder what Joe Strummer’s up to.
Kronomyth 7.01: C’MON EVERY BEATLEBOX. Honestly, I believe critics were happy to be rid of Big Audio Dynamite, since most didn’t know what to make of the band to begin with. The classic rock idaltrey, old film snippets, rap and punk rolled together equalled a bad trip for critics who thought the upper clashmen (Strummer, Jones) were going to eat the past and all alternative futures rather than ingest them like some Lovecraftian nightmare. So when Jones and the second batch of BAD (now going by the abbreviated Big Audio) released a formal followup to The Globe, there had to be some grumbling among the groundlings that Banquo’s Ghost had come back for a second helping. I, on the other hand, would tell you that “Looking For A Song” is one of the brightest moments in what can only be regarded as a spottily stellar career. As if to underscore that point, the five-track CD single was repackaged with a promotional compilation of fifteen hits called Greatest Hits – The Radio Edits. That’s right, the single includes a bonus greatest hits compilation. I’ve seen it done the other way around before (Jefferson Airplane, The Stranglers, Yes), but leave it to Big Audio to turn an idea on its head. Not that the song needed such a complicated thing to sell it. “Looking For A Song” is a charmer: BAD meets The Beatles with the usual gimmickry tossed in for good effect. The CD single includes a radical Zonka/Shapps remix (the radio remix featured on the compilation is less radical), a carnival ride of a collaboration with stage composer Lionel Bart (who was 64 years old when this was recorded!) and two live songs from Mick Ronson’s Memorial (suffice to say Ronson was the only one dying to hear them). And then there’s that “free” compilation, which does everything you would expect a proper Big Audio compilation to do except cost money. I was a little miffed that they chose a different version of “V. Thirteen” than the album version I know and love, but it’s hard to be angry with a free compilation.
Kronomyth 8.0: EASILY F ENDED. If you thought the media-and-potatoes rockers delivered by the first incarnation of B.A.D. were nothing more than three bored chords with the telly on, F-Punk will make you nostalgic for the television and that third chord. The first time I heard this disc, I thought it was garbage; F Mick Jones and his lazy two-chord revolution, I thought. But the second time I heard it, “I Turned Out a Punk” got under my skin like “Looking for a Song” had before it, and soon I was hearing that subtle hook and groove at work under Jones’ flat vocals and caveman guitar chords at every turn. Marc Bolan used to have a similar effect on me. I knew when I was listening to a song like “Main Man” that Bolan was yanking our universal chain by handing in hastily written homework as though it were art, but I gave it an “A” anyway because there are too many Bs in the world and not enough honey. Likewise, I know that “I Turned Out a Punk” is half-done homework, but Mick Jones does half-done better than most people do done. (Da doo ron ron.) If you’ve developed a taste for Jones’ monochromatic mush and the mushrooms that grow in its shadows (neat beats, exotic samples and hidden melodies), you’ll get your fill with “Singapore,” “Psycho Wing,” “Get It All From My TV” and the rest of these tracks. You’ll even find a few neat surprises, like an actual ballad (“Got To Set Her Free”) and a hidden track in which B.A.D. pays homage to David Bowie with a straight cover of “Suffragette City.” (Ha! My Marc Bolan analogy doesn’t look so crazy now, does it?) In my opinion, the second incarnation of B.A.D. (Higher Power, F-Punk) distilled what was best about B.A.D. (i.e., the hummable underdogs like “V. Thirteen” and “Other 99”). Unfortunately, the great clock in the music machine struck big audio midnight, and the band never released another album.