“Some have said that floating within the grooves of This Is Big Audio Dynamite is the album that the Clash should have followed Combat Rock with,” writes former Big Audio Dynamite member Don Letts in the liner notes to the 25th anniversary Legacy Edition of the band’s 1985 debut album. History may have handed over the bulk of the Clash’s legacy to Joe Strummer, but in the years that immediately followed the band’s dissolution, it looked as if Mick Jones might be the one to emerge most triumphant in its wake. As tempting, and accurate, as it may be to label Jones the McCartney-esque pop tunesmith to Strummer’s Lennon-style rebel genius, such blind deification of the latter (and concurrent underrating of the former) ignores the many years that Strummer spent in the wilderness of World-dabbling solo recordings and film scores, only truly regaining prominence with his fine work with the Mescaleros, with whom he made three albums from 1999 until his untimely death in 2002.
Consider that Jones, for his part, filled nearly the exact same years that his former band mate spent adrift leading the mostly-successful Big Audio Dynamite, later re-branded BAD II and, later still, Big Audio, in a couple of humbly democratic acknowledgements of various line-up changes. The outfit approached the emerging prominence of hip-hop and the mainstreaming of dance music in ways that the Clash had only begun to hint at late in their aborted run. Released the very same year that Strummer fumbled with the since disowned, in-name-only “final” Clash record Cut The Crap, This Is Big Audio Dynamite (its name cheekily evoking the earlier Clash single “This Is Radio Clash”) definitely offers the far more attractive version of what might have been.
With a multiracial line-up that was rounded out with Leo ‘E-Zee Kill’ Williams on bass, Greg Roberts on drums and Dan Donovan on keys, alongside Jones and Letts trading vocals (merging the former’s guitar work with the latter’s samples), Big Audio Dynamite ‘s sound was one that picked up on the dangling threads left hanging by the rap on “The Magnificent Seven”, the studio experiments running through much of Sandinista and Combat Rock and the pop breakthroughs of late-period singles “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (the latter sampled by Jones on BAD II’s single “The Globe”, not at all incidentally) and pushed them, if not towards their logical conclusion, at least towards one logical conclusion. If this particular one represented a direction that was bound to make punk purists even more uncomfortable than they already were in the wake of the still-contentious Combat Rock, This Is Big Audio Dynamite remains notable for maintaining a solid consistency with the Clash’s widespread embrace of black music forms, from as early as their cover of Junior Murvin and Lee Perry’s reggae classic “Police and Thieves” on the band’s original 1977 debut through the electro-funk sounds that charged so much of Combat Rock.
Where the Clash’s most celebrated works (The Clash, London Calling) so notably dug at various musical roots, Big Audio Dynamite looked towards the future with sounds that were heavy on the crafty samples and minimal beats that characterized early hip-hop. Much like a cinematic vision of the future populated with flying cars and hover boards, BAD’s output constantly ran the risk of being on the cusp of rendering itself dated. Yet time has a way of circling back on popular music in a way that, two-and-a-half decades later, has left This Is Big Audio Dynamite feeling startlingly contemporary nearly as often as it registers as a product of 1985. The synthesized Eastern musical flourishes that rattle throughout “Sony” feel vaguely stereotypical in service of the song’s cheeky take on corporate and cultural hegemony, but the various genre affectations that populate “Medicine Show”—wisps of Western harmonica, spry funk guitars and busy sample chatter (heavy on quotes from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with the fleeting appearance of Ennio Morricone’s iconic score)—all collide in the thrilling sound of a genre in the process of discovering itself.
“E=MC2”, though thematically linked through a variety of Nicolas Roeg film samples, is mostly content to glide along on its smooth melodic textures and Jones’ ping-ponging vocal delivery, while the surging, dramatic Joy Division-esque guitars layered overtop the sturdy drum-machine beats on “The Bottom Line” offer a dance/punk fusion that anticipates an entire genre of post-millennial indie rockers. “A Party”, with its underlying bass throb evocative of London Calling’s immortal “The Guns of Brixton”, picks up on the Clash’s vibrant reggae lineage and points it in the direction of the nascent dancehall movement. The rigid, ‘80s-style club beats on “Sudden Impact!” are very much of their moment, but there is more than a strand of DNA shared here with LCD Soundsystem’s genre-melding dance-rock. Only the final two songs here, the busy “Stone Thames” and the rubbery funk stomp of “BAD”, show their age with arrangements that border on garish rather than playful, though the former remains notable for an early recognition of AIDS in pop song lyrics (admittedly unnamed, but bravely addressed nevertheless) and the latter for its album-closing rap, finally bringing full circle the album’s survey of the influences that a new wave of fresh-from-the-underground music was having, and would continue to have, on pop music.
Accompanying the album in this reissue is a second disc of B-sides, remixes and outtakes, as well as liner notes featuring an extensive, informative remembrance of the band’s origins and debut from Letts (the other members also contribute much briefer pieces), further establishing that whatever future CDs may have in an increasingly digital age might reside largely with archival releases like this. Even the hardest core of fans will be interested to note that five of the 12 tracks on this bonus disc are previously unreleased, although the material here leans much more heavily on the remixes than on originals. That makes sense for an outfit so immersed in DJ and club culture, I guess, but listen to this whole package as a piece and you’ll likely find yourself growing quite antsy by the time the third incarnation of “BAD” rolls around. Still, the disc’s one true original extra song, the session outtake “Electric Vandal”, is something of a minor find, its melodic similarities to both “E=MC2” and “Sudden Impact!” suggesting an embryonic version of either or both. Most interesting from a 2010 perspective is the way in which the song’s lo-fi synths seem to pave one more unintentional path towards the future. Savvy (or perhaps just overly analytical) listeners might hear a presage of “chillwave” in the song’s unpolished hiss.
Despite being titled otherwise, “Albert Einstein Meets the Human Beatbox” is really just a clever way of disguising a remix of “E=MC2” (for which this was the B-side) which replaces Jones’ original vocal with a sputtering beatbox workout. Likewise, “This Is Big Audio Dynamite” (one example in an odd, mostly-‘80s trend of naming B-sides after albums on which the title tracks themselves never actually appear) is a chopped and screwed-style version of A-side “Medicine Show”, leaving little more than an itchy drum-machine throb and some wayward samples that play like a highlight reel of the album itself. A couple of “dub” versions of both “Sony” and “A Party” are both pretty rudimentary yet evoke fond memories of Clash’s dub experiments in the mind of this Sandinista die-hard. “Medicine Show”, “E=MC2”, “The Bottom Line”, “Sudden Impact!”, “Stone Thames” and “BAD” all reappear in 12” remix forms, of which only the more minimalist take on “The Bottom Line” is truly worth listening to more than twice. Its reduction of the album’s most conventionally instrumented song to a largely voice-and-drum-loop take is a testament to the song’s inexorable melodic strength. Plus, Jones’ rap in this version is easily as solid as Stummer’s in “The Magnificent Seven”. Rounding out the disc, finally, is a “vocoder” version of “BAD”, which is amusing/horrifying for how much more it resembles Neil Young’s Trans than any modern equivalent, although it is not as if 2010 needed any more robot voices.