January 21, 2011
Back in the dark days of early 1984, there was a time when Orwell's predictions of an overbearing police state seemed worringly prescient.
Thatcherism was at its peak, the miners were striking and punk was on its arse. Even scene figureheads the Clash were floundering. The tight-knit "classic" lineup was no more, their forthcoming tour was a busk around Britain and they were having to piece together songs for what would be their contractually obliging and limp swansong album, Cut the Crap , disowned for many years by its creator Joe Strummer.
The problem was Strummer had lost his songwriting foil, the temperamental and talented Mick Jones; the rock yin to Strummer's punk yang. So while Strummer was "fucking off to the mountains of Spain to sit sobbing under a palm tree" Jones was already up and running with a new band, Big Audio Dynamite, fuelled by the type of determination that only comes when there are ex-band members/friends to spite with your own success.
Big Audio Dynamite (later known as Big Audio Dynamite II, Big Audio or just BAD) never quite gained the critical or commercial success of the Clash, but they did enjoy a longer career, and judging by the just-reformed band's billing at this year's Coachella festival there's still a lot of love for them.
For all the lengthy magazine retrospectives and weighty biographies that rightly claim the Clash were musical pioneers, there's also a strong argument to be made that BAD were more forward-thinking – or perhaps more of their time, more now – than Jones's previous band. Less confined by the constraints of rock'n'roll and determined to shake off the Clash's formidable legacy, Jones – the member who brought hip-hop into the Clash and wrote their sole No 1 single – set out to create a sound that utilised the emerging technologies used by dance and rap music and took a more multimedia approach to their presentation.
Keyboards, loops and samples of everything from news reports to scores of Sergio Leone Westerns featured heavily, as did the briefly state-of-the-art Bond Electraglide guitar , and over the years Jones enlisted an array of collaborators including film-maker/DJ Don Letts, MC Ranking Roger, clothing designer Shawn Stussy and video-making London ace face James Lebon .
This modernist approach to recycling or reintroducing samples was completely new in the rock/pop format of the mid-80s, and pre-dated key sampling releases from De La Soul, 2 Live Crew, Beastie Boys and MARRS' Pump Up the Volume , the first sample-based 1987 hit single to top the chart. In fact, BAD's 1985 debut album, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, and the Nicholas Roeg-sampling homage and hit single E=MC2, are now widely acknowledged as pioneering works in the emerging format. Which is doubly impressive given how utterly averse to the idea of sampling the rock world was (and much of the mainstream music industry, come to think of it).
BAD only actually had two top 40 singles in the UK and no doubt alienated many of the more conservative-minded punks, but they did enjoy international success as a big live draw. Some of their work sounds dated now, but then doesn't most pop and rock from the 80s? In their wake came everyone from rock-dance crossover bands such as the Shamen, Jesus Jones and Pop Will Eat Itself and on to Klaxons, Gorillaz and beyond. Perhaps their 2011 re-formation may now remind us just how ahead of their time Big Audio Dynamite were.