Here's an anecdote straight out of suburban youth culture. Nathaniel--who at 13 believes he resembles nobody so much as a barely pubescent Kurt Cobain--is being shuttled by one of his parents to a Wednesday afternoon guitar lesson. This week, he's decided to take something of a break; he'll grapple with no items from the Jimi Hendrix Songbook. Instead, he plans to exchange the 11 bucks crammed in the right pocket of his baggy, beige shorts for instructions on covering the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." At the moment, though, he's staring out the car window, listening to a cassette: Big Audio Dynamite's F-Punk (Radioactive).
Older ears--the kind that pay for historical consciousness with stray hairs that sprout around their edges--might be able to contextualize this music. The Farfisa organ and pounding bass drums that kick off the album: they recall the headlong attack of Elvis Costello's Attractions. The guitar: no way to mistake it. As lead guitarist for the Clash, Mick Jones forged an immediately recognizable sound; it's sinewy, raw and direct. And the vocals: Jones can't bellow like Bob Dylan or Joe Strummer; he never snarls like John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten). Instead, he intones. Like early crossover phenoms, Deborah Harry (Blondie's "Rapture") and Tina Weymouth (Tom Tom Club's "Wordy Rappinghood"), Jones has followed trails blazed by hip hop. More rigorously than any other punk rocker (or new waver), he embraced and developed music-making strategies--the sample-driven dance tracks--trumpeted by Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock (1983). And miracle of miracles, he did so without being fey, arch or ironic. For 10 years now, B.A.D. has successfully yoked rock's conventional band format to rap's collage aesthetic. "E=MC²"--a 1986 hit--formulated the potential of this fusion: Energy derives by expanding the MC's role by the power of two. Or as P-Funk guru George Clinton put it, "Who says a rock band can't play funk music?"
But the kid on the way to his guitar lesson has young ears. He hears little history clinging to the music that fills his family's car. "You know," Nathaniel declares, and it's already clear that he intends to congratulate himself as much as issue a judgement, "this is pretty cool. But there are people at my school--these guys who think they're punks--they wouldn't listen to it. It's got keyboards." By which, Nathaniel and his classmates literally mean sounds associated with traditional keyboard instruments. They don't realize that samples--the aural citations, electro beats, riffs and motifs that pattern B.A.D.'s crazy-quilt songs--are triggered if not generated by keyboards. And they're doubly unaware that, at this point in time, listeners can no more divine where keyboards stop and other instruments start than they can separate dancer and dance.
One week later, at a hotel in mid-town Manhattan, when Mick Jones hears about Nathaniel's classmates, he laughs. Not a guffaw or chortle. It's more polite--the sort of bemused, half-stifled chuckle that makes voice-box tighten and eyes sparkle. "They're that orthodox!" Jones marvels, and it's uncertain whether the punk patriarch--who founded Big Audio Dynamite soon after leaving the Clash in 1983--is expressing incredulity or admiration. He pauses and, then, volunteers, "I used to be like that about people who wore flares.
"They'll probably put a fatwa on us," he jokes, instantly conjuring an imaginary video whose mise-en-scene blends one-part Rock the Casbah (armadillos and oil derricks) to two-parts Lawrence of Arabia (sand dunes and horses, horses, horses). Jones introduces the cast: B.A.D. is Nick Hawkins ("bass player and social secretary"), Gary Stonadge ("guitarist and sort of our `ride shotgun'"), Chris Kavanagh ("drummer and video department"), Mickey "Zonka" Custance ("DJ and remix department") and Andre Shapps ("keyboard player and co-producer"). You can visualize the scenario. Amongst the rubble of a burned-out, crashed-up train, the band stands resolute. Something is afoot. They can sense it, and so can their leader. With a knowing glance and a hand gesture, Mick Jones (guitarist, vocalist and "Minister of Miseries") says, "Buck up, mates!" He turns, winks at camera and whispers, "They're a well-oiled crack combat team."
The camera pans quickly, and the audience anticipates what's coming. Over the brink of a massive dune, hordes of zit-faced 13-year-old white kids, wearing black robes, appear and, then, rapidly descend upon the musicians' camp. They're riding stallions, and they're waving Stratocasters instead of scimitars. Leading the boys is a bookish-looking brown-skinned man; naturally, his billowing robe is bleached white. It's Salman Rushdie (in yet another cameo role), and he delivers a message: "Give us your keyboard player, and we'll let the rest of you go!"
Andre Shapps screams, "No-no-no-no!" It's a kickoff--a variation on punk's conventionally brusque "one-two-three-four." B.A.D. launches into "Singapore," a rocker off the new album. Its guitar vamp recalls the Clash's "Somebody Got Murdered," except the sound is thicker--soaked in overtones, spiked with samples and keyboard-generated sonics. Rushdie and his band of fighting fundamentalists readily capitulate.
Or at least one would hope so. Jones--who's a model of civility--isn't exactly verbose. He clearly enjoys the give-and-take of conversation, not the burden of elaboration. He's apt to sketch an idea--in this case, a fatwa that escalates to a standoff--and allow his audience to color in details. Consequently, he feels little or no pressure to situate F-Punk, to delineate the generation and development of its songs. "I can't really explain anything," he apologizes. "I don't want to say more than what I've said on the record." And so F-Punk comes without a set of instructions, and that ultimately means you can take its endearing blend of rock forthrightness, pop catchiness and hip-hop sagacity in one of three ways.
For all its brittle beatbox rhythms and guitar crunch, F-Punk is a pop record. It has the texture of a made thing: self-consciously shaped--not spontaneously generated. Still, it's in no way precious--slick and overworked. B.A.D. doesn't disguise labor. It employs craftsmanship as a means of generating music that sounds casual, unstudied and, occasionally, downright ragged. And that's no mean feat. "The words were first this time," says Jones. "I had a tape machine. I worked on the rhythm of the words by reading them. Then, I put them down. I put the chords later. I've never done that before."
The technique works. F-Punk's songs subordinate lyric content to speech cadences. That explains their anthemic quality. They're catchy and chant-like because they're built on simple, repeatable phrases. Jones describes B.A.D.'s working methods, "We learn the song in the morning, and we record it in the afternoon. We record it very basically, with the band all playing together. Then, we take it to another place; we remix parts of it. That's how you come to hear the band really playing and, the next minute, it's completely different. It's not like funny time signatures or anything."
No, it's analogous to crosscutting in film, to ping-ponging from one image--one musical space or diegesis--to another. Or consider this: Reverb enables musicians to sonically imply the size of the room that, in a sense, holds the music. It fixes sounds in an imaginary space. Sampling enables musicians to imply sonic worlds where they can then send the music. It takes sounds to other places, other times.
Many vanguard artists outside the realm of rap are now exploring this freedom to transport music elsewhere. White Zombie is currently using sampling to animate metal, take it to Toon Town. Charlie Haden's Quartet West is reinjecting jazz with nostalgic loss and noir edginess. And Soul Coughing is introducing folk-based music to the sorts of dives that David Lynch frequents. Their lesson: remarkably diverse musics can arise from a shared methodology. Jones declares, "I like the idea of changing the situation--the actual scene--and, then, coming back to it in an abrupt fashion. I like taking the music somewhere else." But to where exactly? The audience has to say. Jones cannot or will not reveal the sources of his samples. "A lot of the time, we just switched the television on and put the microphone in front of it," he says. "You can actually hear us breathing over it. We'd hit the couch commander [American translation: "remote control"]. A lot of that stuff is just straight off the telly. I've no way of telling what it is."
Perhaps. Maybe. Well, no. Jones' explanation doesn't wash; it's disingenuous. Except for the montage of sound bites that announces "Get It All From My TV," which could have been easily caught while channel surfing, the majority of F-Punk's audio inserts are so well integrated into the basic fabric of its songs as to defy chance operations. Typically, these samples reinforce rhythms; frequently, they introduce secondary melodies. On "It's a Jungle Out There," Jones and Andre Shapps lift and dub-enhance barking dogs, Arabic singing, and a speeded-up reggae loop that sounds like munchkins with soul. "Psycho Wing," which recycles the guitar riff from "Clash City Rockers," finds an intro in a film soundtrack--Last Year at Marienbad is a half-educated guess--while Buddy Guy opens "Push Those Blues Away" with a monologue about the curative powers of "D-natural." It, too, grafts snippets of Arabic singing onto an infectious melody. But what's the line that wraps up "Singapore"?
"Like Disneyland with the death penalty," says Jones.
But wait, didn't cyberpunk novelist William Gibson recently write something very much like that in Wired?
"That is, actually, from William Gibson--more or less," deadpans Jones. And then he bursts into laughter.
Another audio clip, part of the same song, goes, "If the future looks like anything, it looks like Singapore." In context, it's a chilling assertion. "I think it's true," says Jones. "They're the ultimate in behaving-yourself culture, indicative of the way things are going." The lyric--written the day Michael Fay was caned for vandalizing a car--reads, "Sovereignty always goes too far and causes too much pain." It's ultimately about the high cost of law and order--and fascism's rhetoric: because we care, we make you tow the line.
Clearly, Jones hasn't abandoned the leftist political stance that made the Clash notorious, but he harbors doubts about pop songs as effective vehicles for spreading complex ideas. He's not so sure about pop as a vector of social change; he is, however, certain that it affects individuals. "It helped shape and change me," he says. But then he pauses and qualifies, "I don't even know if you think about lyrics straight away. I'm not sure about their impact. I've got a feeling they might come later on. They certainly do for me. When I hear something, it may be months before I realize what it means."
As a vocalist and lyricist, Jones' gift is breathing personal intensity into the most banal sentiments. "Gonna Try" makes a good test case. When Jones sings, "I love you for who you really are," he's absolutely believable. Certainly, great rhythm guitar and a strong backbeat contribute to the song's effect, but Jones has a knack for charging pedestrian sentiment with vitality. An excellent pop vocalist (which isn't the same thing as a "fine singer"), he's articulate at articulating inarticulateness. (Does that make sense?) Jones is no street poet; he's not immanently quotable. Rather, he regularly repeats what are, in fact, cliches (that say nothing new but powerfully suggest what can't be said) in a voice that is homey--lived in. He brings listeners into the music, fairly inviting us to sing along. "It's not a great voice by any means," Jones concludes, "but it has a bit of character."
For example, "Got to Set Her Free" is a soul song that evidences affection for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. "It's got that `People Get Ready' start," Jones allows, "but it's also got a feel like Bob Dylan." Specifically, like "Day of the Locusts," off New Morning. "That's my favorite Dylan album!" says Jones. "It made a great impression on me, especially the song `Sign on the Window,' which has got the secret of life in it." (You'll locate that secret in the lines that recommend moving to Utah, making babies and catching rainbow trout.) Only, it's a stretch to imagine Jones identifying with Dylan's pastoral-bohemian idyll, much less settling for the role of country squire. Even at age 40, he maintains the aura of urban commando. And it's not just the black leather jacket. Jones is lean to the point of frailty. He seems hungry--literally as well as metaphorically. "Somehow I stayed thin while the others got fat," he once sang. Which makes F-Punk's single, slow ballad an anomaly. It's so--well, there's no other way to put this--pretty. Line one goes: "Got to set her free, so she'll fly back to me." Beat that for manipulative sentimentality! Rod Stewart should cover it post haste. "I would be only too pleased to have that happen," says Jones, in effect explaining why Joe Strummer regarded him as a double agent, a wannabe pop star, a mole in the Clash's ranks. "I used to follow Rod Stewart around. He's a great singer. It was the Antique Period that I wasn't sure about."
But Jones has always been sure about pop. Sure about the power and, ultimately, the politics of style. "I still think it's better to look good and play terrible than to play good and look terrible," he says. And while it's impossible to determine whether he's being provocative or honest, Jones' populist sentiments are a refreshing antidote to the prevailing reign of rockist seriousness. "People really don't like pop music here anymore," he observes, referring to the USA. "They kind of look down on it. They like rock music. I actually like pop art, I like pop music, and I like pop culture. There wouldn't be any of the other stuff without it. We shouldn't look down on it. Pop's more about ideas. That's where it's interesting. The important thing is not who's doing what, but the overall impression, where ideas jump out. Rock would seem a bit more labored."
As Jones continues to contrast pop and rock audiences, he suggests a second way to hear F-Punk. It offers a mythic solution to the pop/rock dichotomy. "There are two crowds," Jones explains. "One's a dance crowd. They need to be shown that guitars can be cool. Then, there's the rock crowd. They need to know not to be afraid of the dance scene." B.A.D. brings together--it peacefully reconciles--both of these musical worlds. Big bang theory! "We like to go and play at dance places, and we like to bring some of that to our gigs. It's important to take stuff that's going on around you and add it to your arsenal."
Ultimately, then, Nathaniel's fundamentalist classmates--the kids who will brook no keyboards--are mistaken. They sincerely believe that they're orthodox punks, when in fact they're mundane rockists. America's version of teddy boys, they're mired, not in the past, but in some mythic bog that smells a lot like Singapore-style fascism. They live in a cozily simplistic, binary universe whose structure is determined by pitting rock values against pop values. In chart form, it looks like this:
|right brain||left brain|
Both rock and pop hardliners not only accept these oppositions as "natural"--an accurate picture of the way things really are--they dislike, actually fear, music that signifies values they oppose. To a 13-year-old rockist, whose identity has all the stability of jello on a hot day, keyboards are suspect; they represent everything he secretly fears he might become. Mick Jones is a sellout, and B.A.D. is bad (in the literal sense of the word) because it admits precisely what rockists repress: the Other.
So be it. For almost 20 years, Jones has been bridging the gulf separating guitar rock and keyboard pop. The crisp, tight powerpop of the Clash's "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go," the audacious audio-verite experiments of Sandinista!, and the dance remixes of Pepe Unidos (an alias for Jones, Paul Simonon, and Clash manager Bernard Rhodes): all were signposts announcing, in advance, the liberating rock/pop hybrids of B.A.D.
"Without being too Sergio Mendes about it," Jones' phrase for waxing analytical, the history of B.A.D. divides neatly into two phases. There was an '80s band ("We just got fed up with each other"). Now, there's a '90s band ("They came up out of the ranks, out of the audience"). F-Punk is (something like) album number eight. Consolidating past advances, it represents the band's most unified effort. The first record, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, remains Jones' favorite--"a yardstick." And it does boast several great singles (most notably "E=MC²"). Nevertheless, No. 10, Upping St., which enlisted Joe Strummer as co-producer, is arguably stronger. Or at least it rocks more vibrantly. The next album, Tighten Up Vol. 88, features a naif album sleeve painted by Clash bassist Paul Simonon; it tips the scales towards dance. Then, at this point in the B.A.D. story, Jones contracts pneumonia and almost dies. Megatop Phoenix signals his return to music-making but marks the swan song of the '80s band. It's a trick bag, loaded with great material.
The '90s band--sometimes designated B.A.D.II--debuts with Kool-Aid, a UK-only release, but it's The Globe, issued in 1991, that establishes the new band's credibility. It combines catchy tunes (its first half) with more experimental selections. Unfortunately, the next album, Higher Power, is more interesting than compelling. B.A.D. leaves Columbia Records, and the company issues a limited-edition, greatest-hits compilation. It's a sweet deal, well worth tracking down. And that brings us to the present--and to F-Punk. Simple.
And simpler still, the aims of both versions of B.A.D. are basically identical: rethink rock verities through hip-hop logic. In a sense, then, B.A.D. employs hip-hop like punk employed reggae. "Reggae was punk's other chosen music," Jones states. "There weren't enough good punk records, and so DJs used to supplement them with what was happening on the reggae scene. One of the main DJs was Don Letts, who was in the first Big Audio Dynamite. He used to turn everybody on to new records from Jamaica. Also, where we grew up [in Brixton], there was a big West Indian population. There was bluebeat and ska--before reggae. We grew up around that music as well.
"In the way that the Stones used to cover the latest r&b hits, when they started, the Clash did `Police and Thieves.' It was the latest hit of that summer. That's how we ended up doing it. We weren't trying to do reggae. We were trying to do our approximation--where we were coming from. It turned out differently. It wasn't like the Police doing a `wet' reggae thing."
Tension is the word. B.A.D.'s central insight has been to follow rock/pop's basic operating procedure: make music about your personal life, your own neighborhood, by borrowing production methods and technologies pioneered by others. That's why, when Jones sings over hip-hop rhythms, he never masks his British accent. "Vitamin C," for example, is pronounced "vit-a-men," not "vi-da-men." "Honest," he laughs, "we are singing in English, really!" His accent is a reminder of--it's a means of living out--the truism: "All politics are local." Jones reflects, "We always used to say, `We're not about party politics. We're about social politics.' What we were saying really is that we write about what affects us and how we perceive things. It was never an agenda to change the world."
"I Turned Out a Punk," the first single off F-Punk, opens with this couplet: "Mummy was a hostess, Daddy was a drunk / Cos they didn't love me then I turned out a punk." The lines are a snapshot--a composite image, actually--not of Jones (who was reared by his grandmother), but of a King's Road stereotype. The song's only truly autobiographical moment is a phrase in the chorus about learning to play guitar: "the plink and the plunk' bit," Jones calls it.
"When I was about sixteen, I started chording," Jones recalls. "I started writing songs at the same time. I couldn't even tune up; I had to get a friend to do it for me. When I got my first guitar, I nearly took it back to the shop because it was out of tune. I thought there was something wrong with it."
Listen all the way through F-Punk, past the album's mystery track ("a tribute to Mick Ronson"), and you'll hear six tones. "You can tune up your guitar with it, and, then, it'll be in tune with the rest of the record," says Jones. He then laughs, "Sing along and play along with B.A.D. That's how I learned to play the guitar--playing along with other people's records."
Sure, it's a small gesture. Naysayers will dismiss it as a gimmick. Others will assign it folk origins. John Renbourn, John Fahey and Michelle Shocked have made tunings and tabulatures available as a matter of course. Still others will grant it punk status, identify it as a do-it-yourself (DIY) stratagem. They're not off target. "F-Punk," says Jones, "is future punk, today." And that's the third way to hear the album. Punk, it turns out, was never so much a type of music as it was the name of a practice: people making music that unsettles hierarchies. Punk is a verb, not a noun. Which doesn't mean you need a ouija board to find a good punk tune. "It's a Jungle Out There"--"a song laid over incredibly fast break-beats"--is pure punk for now people. Why? Because its "jungle-style" (all the rage in London) signals a commitment to unthink--to think a way out of--the rock/pop opposition.
"I Can't Go on Like This" is punk for different reasons. First, it doesn't despise small things. It's constructed on simple chords and a lyric written by Mick Jones' 10-year-old daughter, Lauren. "She was writing about how I was feeling," clarifies Dad. "I said, `We'll put some music to it.'" Second, the tune is punk or, better, f-punk because it judiciously uses keyboards. They--much more than electric guitars--promise to fulfill the DIY dream. Which is to say, who needs technique when you've got memory and know how to manipulate it? Who cares about chops when you can sequence, sample and synthesize--all with a few keystrokes? Punk ultimately means invention made easy; invention made available.
Or as Jones puts it, speaking of his years with the Clash and subsequent years with B.A.D., "We always tried to branch out in every direction possible for the sake of not being trapped, not painting ourselves into a corner, never making the same record twice. I always stay to that, try to progress and develop."
Stay current, "stay thin" but, most of all, keep thinking like a fan. Keith Richards inspired Jones to take up the guitar ("I didn't really ever want to do anything else"), and the first song he ever worked out was Cream's version of "Spoonful" ("It's just two notes on one string"). "But before that," Jones emphasizes, "I used to follow bands around the country: Mott the Hoople, Rod Stewart and the Faces, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Humble Pie, Slade even. All of these English bands, they were playing around at the time. We used to go and bunk the trains--not pay the fares--climb over fences and try and get in for nothing, sleep on the town-hall steps. It was really fan. That's how I got into it.
"I come from a fan's viewpoint," Jones continues. I don't think that I've ever changed in that respect. I still go out and get excited about people's records. I check out whatever's going on. I've always been concerned about value for money. I remember what it was like to be a fan. I remember what groups treated you nice and what groups treated you respectfully, what groups didn't; what groups took your money and left you as you were, and what groups inspired you--told you about their lives and how you might live your life."
As a role model, then, what is Big Audio Dynamite recommending? Nothing more (or less) profound than this: "Keep the faith, Percy Faith / I'm gonna try I swear." It's a line from F-Punk's "It's a Jungle Out There." In plain English--standard American translation--it means, "Kids, love guitars with a vengeance, but don't ever be afraid of keyboards."
Michael Jarrett lives down the road from Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant. When he drives by, he sings "Clampdown" by the Clash.