Big Audio Dynamite

  • Big Audio Dynamite
  • This Is Big Audio Dynamite (Columbia) 1985  (Legacy / Columbia) 2010 
  • No. 10, Upping St. (Columbia) 1986 
  • Tighten Up Vol. 88 (Columbia) 1988 
  • Megatop Phoenix (Columbia) 1989 
  • F-Punk (Columbia) 1995 
  • Planet BAD: Greatest Hits (Columbia) 1995 
  • Big Audio Dynamite II
  • Kool-Aid (UK CBS) 1990 
  • The Globe (Columbia) 1991 
  • On the Road '92 EP (Columbia) 1992 
  • Lost Treasures of Big Audio Dynamite I & II (Japan. Sony) 1993 
  • Big Audio
  • Higher Power (Columbia) 1994 
  • Looking for a Song (Columbia) 1994 

The rote replay of the ersatz Clash’s Cut the Crap only underscored the accomplishment of Mick Jones’ subsequent band, originally formed with filmmaker-musician Don Letts. Joe Strummer attempted to purify the Clash by purging Jones, but wound up liberating the guitarist’s muse and (for a while) misplacing his own. The original B.A.D. — which included ex-Basement 5 bassist Leo Williams in its uncommon lineup — took off from various things the Clash had tried on Sandinista! and Combat Rock, but went much further with audio vérité, sonic effects and beatbox funk, creating a hugely influential blueprint for a dubious slew of early-’90s guitar’n’sampler bands: EMF, Urban Dance Squad, Jesus Jones, etc. B.A.D.’s recordings are adventurous and ambitious crazy-quilts of half-baked songs with fascinating lyrics, slathered over with shards of film dialogue and news reports. Although flimsy and gimmicky on first exposure, the meandering dance grooves on This Is Big Audio Dynamite (especially “E=MC2” and “The Bottom Line”) prove far more alluring and resilient with repeated exposure. Jones’ monochromatic vocals can be a negative factor in spots, but they’re generally adequate to the task, and occasionally perfectly suited.

In a startling development, Strummer wound up co- producing (and co-writing half of) B.A.D.’s second album with his ex-bandmate/nemesis Jones. Appraising the nature of his contribution or understanding the pair’s ongoing synergy is impossible, but finding this uniquely conceived pan-cultural record fascinating is easy. Similar to the first album, but improved by greater studio mastery and better writing, No. 10, Upping St. (the title a twist on the Prime Minister’s residence) deconstructs modern culture and politics in a wild soup of sounds and lyrics. The shuffling “Beyond the Pale” and the attractively melodic “V. Thirteen” (reprised in an instrumental version as “The Big V.”) are the closest things to Clash songs since Combat Rock, while “C’mon Every Beatbox” quotes Jeff Beck and Eddie Cochran over a powerful groove with ricocheting drumbeats. (“Badrock City,” the B-side dub of the “Beatbox” single, became a surprise dance hit and was tacked onto later pressings of the album.) A unique, danceable hybrid of art and life.

The disappointing Tighten Up Vol. 88 reaches no such peaks and now sounds like a fairly brazen attempt to get hip commercial airplay. The fault is seldom with Jones’ songwriting but more with the slick sheen laid over the leaner, less aggressive beats. The LP yielded “Just Play Music” and “Other 99,” but a pall was thrown on the release as Jones fell deathly ill shortly after its appearance; having contracted pneumonia, he was hospitalized for months.

Less than a year after Tighten Up, however, Jones miraculously returned with Megatop Phoenix. Arguably B.A.D.’s best, this dense, quick-cut audio collage weaves its songs through enough studio wankery to summon flashbacks of Sandinista!; the claustrophobic sequencing makes the invention of CD remotes especially welcome. Not unlike his early ’80s funk fetish, Jones mixes acid house in to both surprisingly good (“Contact,” “House Arrest”) and embarrassingly bad (“James Brown”) effect. However, his flair for melody is as strong as ever and, although the fun samples (“Honky Tonk Women” and “I Can’t Explain,” among dozens) are often cluttered, the cinematic mixes collude to create evocative soundscapes for the London-centric cyberpunk / Colin MacInnes lyrics. Megatop Phoenix was, in many ways, the culmination of B.A.D.’s original concept, and the band split in early ’90. Letts, Williams and drummer Greg Roberts formed Screaming Target, releasing a single called “Who Killed King Tubby?” late that year; keyboardist Dan Donovan joined Tony James — Jones’ pre-Clash bandmate in the London SS — in Sisters of Mercy.

Jones dissolved the original lineup after Megatop Phoenix and reconvened the group as Big Audio Dynamite II, with bassist Gary Stonadge, guitarist Nick Hawkins and drummer Chris Kavanagh, late of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. He unveiled the new lineup on Kool-Aid. With a relatively loose feel and concept, Kool-Aid is Jones’ most diverse outing ever, a limited-edition eight-song stopgap offering two acoustic ballads, acid-dance, techno-rock, Kraftwerk samples and even Laurie Anderson-styled poltergeist vocals, as well as a remixed (and retitled) version of “Free,” the band’s contribution to the Flashback soundtrack.

B.A.D. II made its proper debut on The Globe, the first four tracks of which bode well for the new outfit. The minor MTV hit “Rush” (with its witty “Baba O’Riley” sample) is an inspired blend of art and commerce. A not-so- distant cousin of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Can’t Wait” is a bit of hi-tech uptempo soul punctuated by the group’s trademark sampling of upper-class Englishmen reciting pompous doggerel; “I Don’t Know” introduces a refreshing note of foreboding. Finishing up the quartet, the title track is a bone-simple party stomper. After that, The Globe falls off axis precipitously, bottoming out with the maudlin ballad “Innocent Child” and an ill-advised medley, “The Tea Party.” The following year’s tour yielded On the Road, an EP containing live versions of the album’s “Kool-Aid,” “Can’t Wait,” “Innocent Child” and “Rush,” plus Megatop‘s “Contact.”

While Jones dropped the Dynamite for Higher Power, the band itself swelled to a sextet, adding turntablist Mickey “Lord Zonka” Custance and producer Andre Shapps on keyboards. Nonetheless, Higher Power finds Jones and company operating at a decidedly lower level. The hip dance-music sounds are there, but the tunes most certainly aren’t. (For all the resourceful soundbiting and up-to-the-minute dance beats, Jones is ultimately a pop musician — and, as such, his band lives or dies by the strength of its songwriting.) “It ain’t as easy as it looks / Coming up with all those hooks,” Jones sings on the unintentionally ironic “Looking for a Song.” A couple of fair tracks — “Some People” and “Over the Rise” — are not nearly enough to save the show. Props are due, however, for sampling Leadbelly on the Kinksy closer, “Hope.”

The limited-edition Looking for a Song valiantly attempts to prop up a weak number (presented in three mixes) with dispensable ’94 live takes on “Medicine Show” and “Rush” and a fifteen-track bonus disc, Greatest Hits — The Radio Edits, which includes such past triumphs as “E=MC2,” “C’mon Every Beatbox,” “Contact,” “Just Play Music” and “The Globe.”

By the time of 1995’s F-Punk (a witty play on “P- Funk”), Jones must surely have taken notice of the Clash comparisons being accorded California’s new generation of platinum upstarts. “I Turned Out a Punk,” the lead-off track, is a smug, blatant attempt to exploit his own résumé (as is the album cover’s shameless reference to London Calling). The entire album is an attempt to cash in on a formidable legacy by largely abandoning dance sounds for unexceptional, straight-ahead rock — it’s emblematic of the band’s stylistic change that “Push Those Blues Away” drops a promising jungle beat for plain-jane rock. Still, modern techno steps excitingly to the fore on “It’s a Jungle Out There,” while “Psycho Wing” is the album’s only credible rocker.

As the producer of the Planet BAD retrospective, Jones turns a blind eye to some of his own strengths (giving No. 10, Upping Street and the underrated Megatop Phoenix short shrift) and weaknesses (too much ’90s-era material). Yet Planet BAD hits some high points and accurately documents the band’s story in that its quality diminishes as the disc wears on.

[Ira Robbins / Jem Aswad / Michael Azerrad]

See also: Basement 5, Clash, Jah Wobble