Culling The Herd: Big Audio Dynamite

Big Audio Dynamite, This Is Big Audio Dynamite - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I was a couple of years late to punk music.  In high school I mostly listened to classic rock, or whatever was on WLAV at the time.  I remember hearing Kevin Arnold, my doubles partner on the tennis team, telling a girl that I liked that he liked "new wave music," and thinking that he was a dink because of it.  I was right - he was a massive dink - but not because of that.  I soon found my way over to new wave, though, and eventually punk.

I think my first punk record was The Clash's London Calling, a few years after its release, and I remember thinking that it was the greatest record I'd ever heard.  I was right about that, too...but discussion of that one is a few weeks off.  In any case, I immediately bought Combat Rock, right around the time The Clash were breaking up.

A while later, I was at a party with John and a bunch of people that I didn't know at all.  One of them had gone to school with a guy that was the center of the group that my MSU buddies ended up in, although I didn't know it at the time.  Everyone called him "Toad," although it might have been "Frog" (I always got it exactly backwards, and wrong), and he was completely scary and insane (kinda like his State friend), but he had GREAT taste in music.  It was late, and I was (go figure) drunk off my ass.  But This is Big Audio Dynamite came on the stereo and it completely blew me away.  I recognized Mick Jones' voice, but that was it - the rest was found sounds, spaghetti western references, drum machines, electronics.  Kinda like if you'd taken "Red Angel Dragnet" or "Overpowered By Funk" from Combat Rock and made an entire album out of it.  Loaded with hooks, it was the most original thing I'd ever heard, and I loved every minute of it.  Totally wore it out.

Now, 25 years later, it still holds up...mostly.  "Medicine Show" starts it off great and still grabs me as new and exciting after all these years, but "Sony" seems dated, if only because when it was written it seemed like Japanese culture was about a month away from taking over the entire world.  That and "A Party" are the only non-gems on the record, though.  It's still a keeper.

Big Audio Dynamite, No. 10 Upping St. - 4 stars.  Dig it.

...in which Mick Jones reunites with Joe Strummer before they realize that they still hate each others' guts.  It's a weird thing - I always thought that Joe was the one that wrote the strident, punk-ey yell-ey stuff and Mick did the hooks, but the best hooks on this one are the songs that featured Mick / Joe collaboration.  So, it turns out, I have no idea what the hell I'm thinking about.  But you know that.

In any case, it's just not as good a record as This Is Big Audio Dynamite.  It's good - and the high points ("Beyond The Pale," "Limbo The Law," and "Dial A Hitman," despite its too-long movie dialogue clip) are as good as the high points on the first record - but the low points are fairly low.  If Big Audio Dynamite wasn't one of my "pantheon acts" I'd probably cut a few of the songs.  "Ticket" almost always gets skipped, as does "Sambadrome."  But they stay, too.

Big Audio Dynamite, Tighten Up Vol. 88 - 4 stars.  Dig It.

It starts out really slowly - it seems like Mick is trying out some new stuff, for one thing.  The found sounds seem more pronounced, for one thing, but it also seems like he's working on stripping down the backing tracks.  "Rock Non Stop (All Night Long)" is a bad song - the lyrics are nothing more than a series of "let's party" cliches over a repetitive guitar line.  Things pick up, if slowly.  "Other 99" and "Funny Names" suffer from some of "Rock Non Stop"'s repetitiveness, but "Applecart" is terrific, a mid-tempo burn, and "Esquerita" bursts things into full flame.  "Esquerita" shows off a nice layering of found sounds as chorus counterpoint and cuts itself off before it gets tedious.  "Champagne" takes that momentum, pulls back the pace a bit, but extends to a more sustainable sound.  It was the close to side one, and as I listen to it, I remember thinking that I couldn't wait to flip to side two.  Ah, records.  I miss them so.

Side two (ha, ha) changes pace.  "Mr. Walker Said," "The Battle of All Saints Road," and "Hip Neck and Thigh" all take some of the lessons learned in side one and catalyze them into this delicious stew of too many movie audio clips, reggae-inflected vocals, and electronica that somehow comes together.  It's a delight, and a complete pleasure to relearn, after all these years.

Big Audio Dynamite, Megatop Phoenix - 4 stars.  Dig it.

...in which Mick Jones takes the gains made in side two of Tighten Up Vol 88 and overdoes them.  It's a weird record - too many (really obscure) clips, for one thing.  For another, the construction of the record sometimes feel like a lot of little ideas that aren't fully fleshed out rather than a few good ones that are fully developed.  "Mink Coat And No Manners," "Mick's A Hippie Burning," "Is Yours Working Yet" - all are short little bites of songs that a good editor would have dumped entirely but function as interstitials.  Unnecessary interstitials.  The high points are killer, though, songs as good as any that B.A.D. has commited to vinyl - "Contact," "Union, Jack," "James Brown," and "London Bridge" are fantastic.

Big Audio Dynamite, The Globe - 4 stars.  Dig it.

The Globe stands apart from B.A.D.'s other records for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it's an almost entirely new lineup.  Don Letts and Leo Williams - the DJ and bass player (and major vocal players) from the original lineup - are gone, replaced by younger players who generally don't take the mike and leave vocals to Mick.

The results are mixed - the new lineup changes the approach, from shorter undeveloped riffs into longer extended pieces that sometimes go too long and over-linger.  "The Globe" is a good example.  The "WOO!" clip beats on and on until it becomes a separate percussion instrument and anchors the song throughout no matter how afield it goes.  But the song is over six minutes long and has at least two too many choruses.  It's a five-star song that still needs a good editor, like so much of B.A.D.'s output.

Mick Jones is a genius.  When he was 21 he and Joe Strummer made some of the most vibrant and tuneful punk music ever recorded.  That would have been enough, but then he added reggae, hip hop, electronica, and found sounds to that punk base and made something new and special.  He's 56 now, and, in all likelihood, past the most creative output of his career.  That's sad.  But the work he did - including most of his Big Audio Dynamite work - is something that I'll always love.