April 28, 2010 / 9:39 PM / 8 years ago

Big Audio Dynamite reissue recaptures '80s spirit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Punk-rock rejects don’t fade away. They just start hip-hop groups.

<p>Mick Jones performs at the 2008 NME Awards USA at El Rey theatre in Los Angeles April 23, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>

That’s basically what Mick Jones did after he was kicked out of the Clash for supposed tardiness in 1983, an expulsion that hastened the demise of the iconic British punk band.

The singer/songwriter/guitarist behind such Clash hits as “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” and “Train in Vain” wasted little time corralling some musicians and friends into a second groundbreaking group.

Big Audio Dynamite was like nothing that anyone had heard before, combining reggae bass lines and New York-influenced hip-hop beats with Jones’ rock ‘n’ roll guitar and decidedly English vocal stylings.

B.A.D. also sampled movie dialogue in its songs, a process so innovative that no one thought to charge the band licensing fees or sue for copyright infringement. Songs such as “E=MC2” and “Medicine Show” contained snippets from cult films like “Performance” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Unfortunately, its albums did not exactly burn up the charts. While B.A.D. gained a loyal following among the cognoscenti and college kids, mainstream success was elusive. Record stores did not know what section to put the albums in, and radio stations were similarly vexed. The band has been largely forgotten.

“The real pioneers never get to get the prize,” keyboardist/lyricist Don Letts philosophically told Reuters in a recent interview. “It’s the people that come along after the fact and water the s--- down. They’re the ones that collect.”

After four albums, BAD split acrimoniously. Jones relaunched the band a few times with a revolving cast of musicians, finally pulling the plug in the late 1990s.

To everyone’s surprise -- given that it originally peaked at No. 103 on the U.S. pop chart -- Sony Music has reissued the band’s 1985 debut album “This is Big Audio Dynamite” with a second disc of rarities.

There was some talk of a reunion -- Letts says he and Jones are now “best mates” -- but Jones has his hands full with various projects. Letts, a London-based radio DJ and filmmaker, hopes the reissue will remind people about the band’s overlooked role as rock ‘n’ roll innovators.

“People think the ‘80s was all Duran Duran and Culture Club and Human League and all that stuff, and to a certain extent there was all that going on,” Letts said of the synth-driven pop that was prevalent at the time.

“But also there was Big Audio Dynamite ... When you look at the role that multiculturalism has played in music, that’s where our relevance lies.”

Jones and Letts were joined in the lineup by bassist Leo “E-Zee Kill” Williams, drummer Greg Roberts, and keyboardist Dan Donovan, who was primarily a professional photographer. As a non-musician, Letts put colored stickers on his keys so that he knew which ones to press.

With Jones’ help, Letts drew on his experience writing movie treatments to compose many of the band’s lyrics. “E=MC2” references the films of director Nicolas Roeg, including “Performance,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Walkabout.”

“Stone Thames” dealt with AIDS-related paranoia during the 1980s, and “Sony” was an analogy for Jones’ phoenix-rise from the ashes akin to Japan’s own post-war resurgence. (Coincidentally, the electronics giant bought B.A.D’s original Columbia Records label a few years later.)

Jones was so motivated by B.A.D. that when Clash frontman Joe Strummer approached him about rejoining the Clash, Jones turned him down.

“I ain’t gonna lie to you. I always felt like Joe’s shadow was hovering over the band -- in the early days,” Letts said.

But Letts helped orchestrate a Strummer-Jones reunion of sorts by having Strummer co-produce and co-write songs on B.A.D’s second album, 1986’s “No. 10 Upping Street.”

After two more albums, the original B.A.D. was essentially finished, its members speaking to each other through lawyers. Letts looks back on his entire B.A.D. stint with nostalgia.

“Ain’t no all-good story in rock‘n‘roll, man,” he said. “I got to write some great songs with Mick. I got to be in a lawsuit with Mick. Brilliant!”

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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