Some bands make their presence felt by selling millions of albums, having #1 hit singles or selling out large stadiums; other bands do it in more subversive ways. Big Audio Dynamite belongs more to the latter group. They never became a household name or had big hits in America but they did make an influential and lasting contribution to the world of music.
The West London-based audio terrorists began in 1984 after Clash guitarist and occasional singer Mick Jones got the boot for his alleged “rock star” attitude, as well as being at odds, musically and ideologically, with singer and songwriting partner Joe Strummer, and manipulative manager Bernie Rhodes.
After he got finished tending to his wounded pride, Jones started a new group with previously-ousted Clash drummer Topper Headon and future B.A.D. bassist Leo “E-Zee Kill” Williams (ex-Basement 5) called T.R.A.C. (Top Risk Action Company), which then quickly mutated into Big Audio Dynamite after Jones and Headon, once again, went their separate ways. Jones then recruited Clash filmmaker and punk rock associate (and admitted non-musician) Don Letts to do samples (listed as “F/X’ in the album credits), Greg Roberts on drums, and, later, Dan Donovan on keyboards. Also, a mysterious character named Flex provided the so-called “dynamite.”
It was quite a visual sight to see the white, diminutive Jones flanked on stage by the bigger, dreadlocked Jamaican pair of Letts and Williams (one of the reasons he wanted both in the band). Being an interracially mixed outfit, they drew upon many musical influences in their sound – rock, funk, electro, reggae, pop, dub, hip hop – and mashed it all together into a heady and original audio stew. Also, with Letts throwing in many diverse samples (everything from Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns to news reporters), the sound was dense and imaginative, not to mention, groundbreaking – this was four years before albums such as Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising mastered this aesthetic.
They also presaged, in a way, the whole rock-rap explosion of the ‘90s but they did it with more panache, subtlety and imagination. The only other band during the late ‘80s who was doing anything remotely similar to B.A.D. was obscure noise merchants Pop Will Eat Itself.
The best and most concise album B.A.D. put out was their first, 1985’s This Is Big Audio Dynamite, which showed that they came fully-formed. Every subsequent album they released basically drew on the template of this album, and merely refined certain ideas and sounds. They may have written better and more pop-structured songs on later albums, but this is, clearly, the definitive BAD album.
Jones, who clearly had a knack for writing classic pop-based melodies on Clash hits like “Train in Vain” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” decided to draw more on the experimental aspects of albums like Sandinista! (a definite precursor to B.A.D., especially on 1989’s Megatop Phoenix) and Combat Rock’s second side. He took those early dabblings in rap and funk, not to mention the crazy-quilt structure of Sandinista! and made it B.A.D.’s main aesthetic. His pop instincts would come back into play, more prominently, on later B.A.D. albums. Here he decided to go for more rhythmic soundscapes, which is not to say that these songs aren’t memorable or catchy in their own way.
This album has a great flow to it, and every song is a winner. The catchy tribute to filmmaker Nicholas Roeg,“E = MC2,” is one of the highlights, as are the electro-funk workouts “Sudden Impact” and “Sony,” which is about consumerism and cultural homogenization. “Stone Thames” deals with the onslaught of AIDS throughout the 1980s. Opening song “Medicine Show” works in many spaghetti western samples (including the dialogue and theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to good effect. Letts uses many of the film samples as motifs throughout the songs.
Another strong point with this band is the lyrics, which are just as dense as the music – both give their songs a very cinematic, post-modern quality. Jones and Letts work in many references to London, pop culture, and anything else they can throw at the wall. The lyrics are made up of slogans and non-sequiturs, and usually don’t make much sense literally, but work on many other levels. Again, it presages the kitchen-sink approach to lyrics that many rappers used later on, such as The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Whether they were paying attention to B.A.D. or not, clearly the band was slightly ahead of the curve.
This album is both dated sounding (definitely an artifact of the mid-‘80s) and still futuristic (its effects are still being felt today). Because B.A.D. worked the electro and hip hop influences into their music so seamlessly, they never sounded forced or contrived. In lesser hands, it surely could have fallen into that trap. Being that this album was just re-released in a deluxe 25th anniversary edition, complete with 12” mixes, B-sides and outtakes, it is ripe for rediscovery. This is definitely one of the more underrated and influential albums of that crazy decade they called the 1980s. Let the dynamite explode.