Apart from John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, no songwriting partnership in rock 'n' roll history has been greater than The Clash's Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. Over the course of five albums—released in a whirlwind between 1977 and 1982—Strummer and Jones evolved from stridently political pop-punk to a more freeform, inclusive sound that encompassed reggae, hip-hop, rockabilly, R&B, and disco. Jones was primarily responsible for the music, while Strummer provided lyrics that were increasingly literate, witty, and thematically complex. When the band broke up, Jones went on to front the successful dance-pop group Big Audio Dynamite, and to produce a handful of acts, including The Libertines, who famously flamed out after two marvelously Clash-like records. On the occasion of the new Clash box set The Singles, and the opening of a Clash exhibit at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And Museum (through April 2007), Jones spoke with The A.V. Club about his musical legacy.
The A.V. Club: What did you personally provide to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
Mick Jones: They collected some bits from all of us. For instance, my guitar, the one I played on the first record. And some of the big collectors of our stuff contributed quite a lot. A couple of Joe's guitars. Paul's smashed-up bass from the cover of London Calling. A bunch of set lists. Lyrics.
AVC: Would you describe yourself as a sentimental person, generally?
MJ: You mean in terms of looking back at all this stuff? I'm having a bit of a crisis, as regards to getting to the museum level at such a young age. Or even being alive, you know? It's definitely a weird one, and nothing one would've ever imagined when we started. Things weren't quite like they are now. There wasn't such an immediate recognition of popular culture like there is today.
AVC: How often do you listen to The Clash?
MJ: Not very often. [Laughs.] But I'm excited that other people are still listening. We've been surprised at the young people who carry on. But no, I don't listen that much.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Clash album?
MJ: I think the first one is sort of my favorite, because it's before we knew anything. That's why it doesn't sound like any other record.
AVC: Punk developed a little differently in the U.S. versus the UK. Here, the genre stayed relatively purist for a long time, while on your end, it jumped quickly to post-punk and new wave, while The Clash tried out hip-hop and reggae.
MJ: We were just playing the music we liked. We took on the music that was actually around us. We never wanted to do the same record twice. The groups I liked, you really looked forward to their albums and you rushed to get them the first day, because you knew it was going to be different than what they did before. The records told you what that group was into at that time. We were always reaching out, though I must say, now it sounds more conscious than it actually was. With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect you can sort of see what we took from where, but we didn't really see it while we were doing it.
AVC: You were doing it so fast, too. Those albums came out bang-bang-bang.
MJ: We didn't really have any breaks, from start to finish. Maybe one month. [Laughs.]
AVC: At the time, were you able to appreciate what the other musicians of your generation were doing?
MJ: Well we certainly appreciated the Sex Pistols, yeah. They were quite influential just on a personal level. I was a great music fan, and always wanted to be in a band. I followed music intensely, from a very young age, and Sex Pistols showed me that music was something anyone could do.
AVC: Were you disappointed that punk in the UK took such a fast turn toward the poppy and romantic, as opposed to something edgier?
MJ: Personally, I think there's room for all that stuff. If it's good, it's good. You don't have to always write about big stuff. Writing is about expressing yourself, you know? It can be about small stuff, too.
AVC: When The Clash was exploring out different styles and subjects, was there ever much conflict within the band about the directions you were going?
MJ: I remember one time, when we were doing "Straight To Hell," [Clash bassist] Paul Simonon came in and went, "That's a bit transcendental, isn't it?" And [pianist] Tymon Dogg, who was in the studio at the time, said, "Oh, that must be the rice." [Laughs.] And I remember I tried to get Paul to sing about pensions on "Career Opportunities," and he wasn't going to. I don't know why I was trying to get him to sing about that in the first place. But we didn't really argue about it particularly.
There was always a bit of tension on each record in regards to what we were all putting in. Jostling for a bit of position, or something.
AVC: With all the talk about your musical genre-hopping, do you feel like The Clash ever got the credit it deserved for its lyrics?
MJ: Joe was a really good writer, and his lyrics very often suggested a tune right there and then, before I'd put music to it. When you read them out, they almost had a tune already.
AVC: Was that the way you worked together—he wrote the words, then you wrote the music?
MJ: For the majority, but not always. I can't really… The writing process, it's too mysterious to try and describe. [Laughs.]
AVC: In the documentary Westway To The World, Joe Strummer talks about how disappointed he is that such a special band broke up over what he feels were silly things. He sort of blames himself for not trying harder to keep the band together. Do you feel the same about your role in the break-up?
MJ: Yeah, I made it kind of easy for it to happen, because I became uncommunicative when it wasn't really going my way. I had a big part to play in the eventual end. But I think mostly, we'd just been with each other day-in, day-out for six or seven years without a break, and we just sort of got fed up with each other. There was a lot of other stuff that made it happen too, but that was the one thing that could've been different.
Yes, I would like to have done more. Even though we did a lot. I would like to have made another record. But that's the way it is, you know? That's the way it is.
AVC: During your time producing The Libertines, did you see something similar there: a great band falling apart over little things?
MJ: Well, it's all much quicker now, do you know what I mean? You see the whole life of a band in a couple of albums. You get thrust into a gust that goes a thousand miles an hour. And then it's over. That's really tough. They've got it much worse than we did. Now everyone knows about it, the whole pop-culture thing. The media are already labeling it before it's done, before a band has a chance to do more. So that was quite sad, yeah.
AVC: Could you have played a godfatherly role? Maybe stepped in and straightened these kids out, and explained to them what they could've been?
MJ: There's no use in saying anything like that. In fact, when I first started working with them, I sat around the first few weeks and didn't do anything. They went, "What kind of producer is he?" I just sat and gawked through the studio window. I was trying to figure out how to record them. In the end, I decided to just do it as-is. Try to go in there and build the band up and get them to the right moment, then make sure that the tapes were running. I'd run them hard all the time until we got it up to the right point. A lot of groups record separately, and the norm in the studio is to put the power in the hands of people who lean more toward the technical side. But it doesn't help the music. It should be all about the feeling.
AVC: Your last album with The Clash was Combat Rock, which was originally going to be as wild and experimental as Sandinista! Are there any plans to do something like what you did with London Calling, and re-release Combat Rock with a bonus disc of what's been called the "Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg" mix?
MJ: You never know. I think "Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg" was the more contemporized mix for the time, leaning toward more of a Big Audio Dynamite thing. But ultimately, I think the record we actually came out with was more definitive. No one really remembers those synthesizers and squiggle noises. A lot of times, I wasn't participating in what the record became, because I was in a bad mood about something. After so many years, all you can remember is how successful the record was, and how it helped everybody. I don't remember what I was so upset about at the time. Another reason why I think we could've done with a break.
AVC: After The Clash broke up, you went on to form Big Audio Dynamite, and in general, you had more success in the pop market than your Clash bandmates did. Why do you think that was?
MJ: It's hard when you've done something so big in your early life. A defining moment takes a long time to get over, if you ever do. But Big Audio Dynamite was supposed to be different, because I wanted to do something that I was into. The dance thing was coming up, and hip-hop, and I wanted to do something in reaction to that, where I could maybe get heard in those places where I was hanging out. Joe got into it too, a few years later. He thought it was fantastic, the rave scene.
AVC: Now you're in a band called Carbon/Silicon. What is that?
MJ: It's myself and Tony James, and we've been doing this for over four years now. We played together very early, just before punk, and then went our separate ways, but we've always been close friends, so we started writing together. We wrote this song called "M.P.Free" and got very excited about all the possibilities of presenting music through the Internet. We've just sort of pursued it ever since, recording ourselves and releasing it over the Internet. Proper studio tracks put out for free, at the moment. It's developed quite a following. We've played about 50 dates, though we're not operational at the moment. We'll get back together again soon.
AVC: Is there a plan someday to release an album to stores, or is it an important part of the band that it be available free?
MJ: One of the hopes is to have a proper release. I mean, if you're into a band, you'll get the downloads and all that, but you'll get the proper record too. Only now, with the Internet, you don't have to wait to hear the new record by a band you're really into. How exciting that is.