Interview with Mick Jones

Guitar World, December 1995

Written by Matthew Caws

"Music is very straight now -- people are more worried about selling records than creating something liberating. There ain't no damage going on now. MTV's gone and spoiled everything," Mick Jones is understandably disappointed that no one has picked up his old band's flag. Rising out of the same unemployment lines as the Sex Pistols, the Clash delivered much more than punk ever promised -- five albums worth of exquisitely written pop songs played with unparalleled fire and spit. The fact that the songs were about government, urban alienation and community solidarity wasn't nearly as important as the fact that they tried to up rock's ante, to make it count for something more than entertainment. In the process, their conviction made for blood-boiling rock and roll.

"I would sing my parts first. That's how I made sure they were melodic. I'd listen for a while, hum a tune and then have a go at it." Though he probably played slower than your average snot-nosed 13 year-old with a Floyd Rose, Mick Jones was, for his eight years as the architect of the Clash's firestorm, the Jimmy Page of post-classic rock. A master of tone and texture, his playing was consistently transcendent, from the tension-building arpeggios of "Complete Control" to the layered chaos of "London Calling" to the strangled one-second lead of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?"

F-Punk (Radioactive), Jones' eighth album with B.A.D., is his most cohesive since This Is Big Audio Dynamite (Epic, 1985), bridging the gap between rock and underground dance music -- this time acid house, ambient and the ultra-fast beats of jungle.

Guitar World: How is it that you've managed to sound at home in so many different genres -- punk, power pop, reggae, hard rock?

Mick Jones: Well, I've always liked Pop Art. A lot of the music that I was into was from the Sixties, and Pop Art was the visual side of that period. I think if you relate to music in a visual sense, it's easier to cross boundaries.

GW: The Clash always had a strong iconography.

Jones: The look was a really important part of it to me. The interesting groups that were around just before punk -- the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the MC5 -- each had a great-sounding guitarist who looked great and had a great looking guitar. I eventually got a Les Paul Junior, because that's what Johnny Thunders played.

I first saw the New York Dolls opening for Rod Stewart and the Faces, who were one of the groups I used to follow around the country when I was 12 and 13. Me and my friends would sneak onto the trains. We'd go to see Mott the Hoople, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Humble Pie -- I made my mind up around then that I was going to be in a group. The choices back then were football or pop music. I didn't fancy boxing. [laughs]

In comparison to what was out at the time, I thought the New York Dolls were this outrageous group. I emulated them -- I used to go to school with my hair looking like Johnny Thunders', totally sewn into my jeans and wearing women's shoes and a Sex T-shirt from Malcolm McLaren's shop. I'd turn up every day looking like this Martian. I used to get abused all the time, but I didn't give a shit in those days. I knew I was onto something.

GW: The way the Clash brought together so many musical elements helped make connections for a lot of people.

Jones: Yeah, that's what we wanted to do. It's the same thing as getting turned on to good books. I don't know if people are getting the same kind of thing now. On the surface, Oasis are really great, but I don't know if they've got the same amount of depth. I came into the punk scene because punk stayed with you, it has taught you something. A lot of the other music of the time left you as it found you.

GW: A lot of blues-based rock, for better or worse, is about bragging.

Jones: Yeah, and I didn't like that side of it at all. It's very similar to rap in that way. I like rap when it's about consciousness. I don't like it when it's down on women. Blues-based rock was just pub rock at the time.

GW: Punk seemed to be more enlightened.

Jones: That's right, but we weren't conscious of it at the time. A lot of it was just feeling instinctively what was right, and knowing that it was different from what had gone on before.

GW: How long had you been playing before you decided to form the Clash?

Jones: Once I'd decided to be a guitarist, I spent a couple of years in my bedroom playing along with records. Before the Clash, Tony James [later in Generation X] and I used to put adverts in the music papers about every week, looking for anybody into the Stooges or the Dolls. There was a cafe around the corner where we had all our records on the jukebox, and we used to meet the people who answered our ad there. We'd play them some records and sort of check them out, and if they weren't complete dorks, we'd take them to a little rehearsal studio that we had nearby. We never did much, but we managed to meet all the people who ended up in that first batch of bands that way.

GW: How did you and Joe [Strummer, singer/guitarist] write together?

Jones: He used to sit there with a typewriter, and I used to sit in front of him. Once he had something, he'd hand me the sheet of paper and I'd bang out a tune. By the time I was done, he had another one.

GW: I was surprised to hear that Joe wrote "Lost In The Supermarket;" I always identified the more sentimental lyrics with you.

Jones: Well, that's how it was mostly. That song was an exception.

GW: You wrote the love songs.

Jones: [laughs] We never did any!

GW: What do you call "Train In Vain?"

Jones: Oh yeah, apart from that one. [laughs]

GW: And "1-2 Crush On You"

Jones: Oh, and that one. Actually, "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A." was "I'm So Bored With You" until Joe added the "S" and the "A."

GW: Had you been to America before you toured there?

Jones: No, never. I'd hardly been anywhere before. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. America was amazing for us. We toured with Bo Diddley, travelling on the same bus. He was like our dad. We were protected 'cause he was a deputy or something, so we never got in any trouble. If we got pulled over, he'd just get his badge out. You gotta give the man respect, you know what I'm saying? Didn't Nixon make Elvis a deputy or something?

GW: Did you use a lot of different gear setups during the Clash's career?

Jones: No, it was pretty much the same. It's always been a Boogie with a 4x12 and a Roland Space Echo. Joe always had a Vox AC-30. I just played the Junior at first, but I eventually got more guitars. Towards the end of the Clash, Andrew Bond drove us around on one of our tours and we got quite friendly. So when he started making Bond guitars in the early eighties, right around the time of Combat Rock (Epic, 1982), he gave me a few. I've been playing them quite a lot ever since.

GW: It was brave of you to change your style so drastically when you first put Big Audio Dynamite together.

Jones: I didn't want to do the same thing, because I knew I wouldn't have a chance. How many people do anything after they come out of a big group? Very few, because everyone just wants to hear the same kind of thing. So I tried to do something as far away as possible from the Clash. I ended up sort of going too far after that first record. Over a period of time, I sort of forgot what I was good at -- guitar chords and melodies. It's like De La Soul -- their first album, Three Feet High and Rising was brilliant, but then they decided that they didn't want to be all flower-power anymore and went totally the other way and made De La Soul Is Dead. They'd killed off everything that was good about them. In a way, I killed off what I was good at, in order to do something different. Now I've remembered all that and come to terms with it.

GW: How true are rumors about a possible Clash reunion?

Jones: Have you ever seen the film Imagine? Lennon's walking along in Central Park, and a bloke runs up to him and says, "John Lennon! When are the Beatles getting back together?" [laughs] It's really just the newspapers making a big fuss. We're no closer than we've ever been.