By Jono Coote
September 11, 2013
It’s Friday the 6th of September, the weather is starting to make the transition from a surprisingly good summer to a more usual soggy British weather, but that hasn’t had much effect on the queue of people standing outside the BBC’s Maida Vale studio. This is due to an event which has apparently sparked the most interest out of anything since the inception of Radio 6 – an audience with Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon, the surviving members of The Clash. Unarguably one of the greatest bands to come from these shores and with an influence that has stretched much further than many of their contemporaries, this was an event not to be missed and the intimate audience of around forty people clearly knew they were in for something special.
After settling into what Cerys Matthews called the ‘Bing Crosby room’ (it being the last place that said crooner committed something to record), Matthews begins setting the scene and spinning some of the band’s music choices interspersed with choice cuts from their own back catalogue. Audience members are randomly picked out and questioned on their reasons for being here – something that would usually be a daunting prospect, but in this case gets most waxing lyrical with ease. For The Clash are a band who have clearly had a personal influence on a wide cross section of people, as epitomised by Tony Walsh’s (aka Longfella) reading of his of his poem ‘Last Gang in Town’ – a paean to the band which he opens by wondering who in ‘Cowell’s Britain’ is going to take up their mantle? While this may wilfully ignore the hundreds of bands not in the charts who still make music with a clear social conscience, it sums up nicely the effect the band had then and still do now. The diverse and brilliant mix of tunes on the Cerys’ show continues and the audience hears everything from Captain Beefheart to The Skatalites, surf instrumentals to Grandmaster Flash, leading a couple of us to speculate how awesome it would be to hear this range of outright eclecticism on a night out in town. Some further pondering reminded me that I do have a local night that gets close in Leeds, but for the most part clubs need to step their game up!
The first interviewee to take a chair is former tour manager Johnny Green who turns out to be an interviewer’s dream; a loquacious speaker who is happy to share anecdotes about the band’s close relationship with their fans, their studio dynamic and various other subjects in his rasping southern accent. One thing which comes across strongly is the voracious appetite for music that the group shared, shining through in both their own music and their picks for the radio show. When the three of them enter the room, joining Green for the rest of the interview, the combination of tailored suits and lived-in faces has the four of them bringing to mind a group of old London gangsters meeting up to reminisce on old ‘jobs’. The discussions which follow are fluid and easy, and offer some insights into the funnier sides of the recording process; from the sound of flushing urinals audible at the end of ‘I Fought the Law’ to sheep noises on Sandinista! It isn’t long before discussions move to Joe Strummer, who passed away ten years ago last December. Despite the recriminations and falling out which led to the band’s dispersion, towards the end bridges were rebuilt. Many will wonder what could have been after hearing Mick’s story of recording some song outlines with Joe after a Mescaleros recording session; upon seeing each other a few months later Mick enquired what had happened to the recordings, to which Joe replied ‘Oh, that’s going to be the new Clash record.’ A picture is painted of a man whom, despite his flaws, was incredibly gifted with both a social conscience and the talent to put this into song – in the words of Mick, ‘the truth in Joe’s words has brought us all here’, although Green is quick to point out as an addendum that the band’s legacy is undoubtedly a group effort, with everyone playing an essential role in building up the mythology which surrounds them.
It is clear from the small group lucky enough to be in the room that this has not been lost on fans, especially as the group are by turns interesting, amusing and self-deprecating. The final question from an audience member concerns his son starting a band, and what advice about the music industry they could offer. Paul Simonon’s advice for an aspiring bass player works pretty well for life in general, and was a fitting end to an interview with a group so steeped in musical knowledge; ‘Listen to The Ramones and reggae music’. Whether or not that’s your style, an audience with The Clash is guaranteed to set you off on a music hunting binge, passion for discovering new sounds fully reignited.
The Clash in conversation with Cerys Matthews will be broadcast on Cerys Matthews’ show on 6 Music on Sunday 6 October at 10am. The Clash’s new box set, Sound System is out now.