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45 at 33: Big Audio Dynamite’s E = MC²

“Dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind” 

“Insanity Bohemian style”

I never knew what to make of This Is Big Audio Dynamite. Was this the crazy new revolution? Had I missed the email saying that multimedia, sleepy melodies and drum machines were now the bomb? It turned out that it took many hardcore safety pinned types years to let go of their golden punk dreams for the second chapter of The Clash, and a few years more to appreciate the music of B.A.D. for what it is and what it’s not.

While their debut album was often baffling, I did enjoy the immediacy of second and third singles E = MC² and Medicine Show. These being the more pop pairing after The Bottom Line, a 1985 flop 45 that Michelle Fowler from EastEnders savaged in Smash Hits, calling it “horrible.”

Honestly, who did she think she was, the Lone Ranger?

I have to concede that Mick Jones was never much of a singer; he’d put you to sleep over an entire album. And probably did. So to get around his shortcomings his new B.A.D. baby throw constant movie dialogue into the mix as a sort of stimulant, the kind of thing Sigue Sigue Sputnik were also doing for future shock effect.

Still, a lot of this flew right over Radio 1 listeners’ heads at the time. I mean, punk music and film history seemed like a really strange marriage at the time (it sorta still does). Despite Jones’s rapidly receding hairline, the band was visually impressive; which owed a lot to the influence of clothier/cinematographer Don Letts, but probably more to keyboardist Dan Donovan being more than a bit of male totty (a fact that didn’t escape Patsy Kensit: she ended up marrying him).

In fact, you could argue that Big Audio Dynamite was one of the first bands to understand that music was now a largely visual medium. E = MC²’ was the most visual track they ever committed to tape, a dazzling tribute to the work of the acclaimed director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, best known for directing Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), among others.

In the song’s lyrics, “Took a trip to Powis Square” refers to Performance, while it doesn’t take Brain of Britain to deduce that “Space guy fell from the sky” references the opening scene from the Bowie film.

Following the course Mick Jones had hoped B.A.D. would take, the group had established a cult reputation by the end of 1985; by the end of the winter, with E = MC² rising to Number 11 the second week of March 1986 (the top ten looked like an oldies convention, hogged by Diana Ross, Bowie, Frank Sinatra, and the roller-skating closet Cliff Richard), the audience had expanded considerably; and by the time the band undertook a UK tour during April and May, they were widely considered the most innovative of all contemporary British groups.

For those who believed in some sense of divine justice, the success of B.A.D. was heartening news, combating the ill judgement that had led to Jones being unceremoniously dumped from The Clash in August ‘83 on a charge of being “ideologically unsound” — which essentially meant that he was no longer in line with manager Bernie Rhodes’ ideals.

There was often an intense sense of unexpected drama and poetry, a romantic, mystical quality worthy of a novel. In Trident Studios, on 26 June 1986, Mick Jones’ 31st birthday (and my 17th), this proved to be no exception. Joe Strummer turned up as Jones was recording the new album. “We need some rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.

Strummer looked an integrated, whole human being as opposed to the man torn apart by internal crises that he had been a year previously. He even was big enough to admit that “Mick was right about Bernie.”

In subsequent months the friendship strengthened and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, currently busy as the painter he trained to be at Byam Shaw Art College, also returned to the fold. In the video for Medicine Show, both made cameo appearances as Southern cops, Strummer simulating down to the last grunt the part of Rod Steiger in In The Heat Of The Night. And it was Jones who added guitar to and helped re-structure Love Kills, Strummer’s recent single, from the Sid And Nancy movie.

He did like a bit of a cavort.

Steve Pafford

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