I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like doing phone interviews. But often times, it's the choice between talking long distance and not talking at all, and when the subject of that choice is Mick Jones, you don't say no.
In late 2004, I was asked to write profiles on Joe Strummer and Pete Townshend for a Q/Mojo special on Icons. To distinguish these pieces from the dozens of other similar features already out there, I was asked to interview musicians who were either similarly minded to, or clearly influenced by, my subjects. Naturally, it was suggested I talk to Mick Jones for the Strummer piece, and though I made the necessary enquiries, I didn't for a moment think I would get him. Surely, I surmised, he must feel he's said enough about his deceased partner over the years.
But then the very day after I handed in the piece, in October 2004, I got a phone call from someone at his studio in London. Mick was back from a brief tour with his new group, Carbon/Silicon (which also features Tony James) and, though he was nursing a heavy cold, would be happy to talk to me. He duly gave me a call a couple of days later.
To be honest, the interview was not my greatest thirty minutes. By the sound of his voice and the frequent sniffles, Mick was clearly under the weather. He's also a famously reticient interviewee. But what I failed to understand and here's where the phone process let me down is that his initially hesitant and very slowly spoken answers were actually just precursors, and that he was formulating longer answers in his head during his pregnant pauses. Unable to establish eye contact or sense a pattern by physical gestures, I initially took these silences over the Transatlantic phone line as his desire to move on, and frequently rushed into my next question, only for Mick to suddenly start talking again! None of this was helped by the initial understanding that I only had fifteen minutes to try and extract some verbal gold about one of the greatest partnerships in rock music.
You'll see from our conversation that Mick was indeed reticent when it came to discussing Joe; it was hard to get anything new out of him, and I found myself frequently asking leading questions that led only to an affirmative or negative. But once we started talking about Mick's departure from The Clash, and that group's subsequent disbandment, he opened up. There was a definite sadness in his voice when he confessed that "It took us a long time to get over the group, I must say
Even if we ever have." I hadn't expected to hear those words from Mick, whose prolific and inspirational work with Big Audio Dynamite through the 1980s and 1990s suggested that he had no regrets about The Clash falling apart.
I took the opportunity to ask a couple of quick questions for my Complete Guide To The Clash book. And then we were gone. To my amazement, having set up, conducted and transcribed this interview after I'd already had my piece accepted (i.e. I wasn't getting paid extra for this), Q/Mojo used all of one quote. But that's why I have iJamming!. Here's the full, unedited interview. It took place on Friday October 29, 2004.
Tony: Just to give you some background: I'm a South London boy myself. I went to Tenison's, where Don Letts went.
Mick: Archbishop Tenison's?
Up at The Oval, yeah. Never met Don, who was a few years older than me. But I was a classic 13-year old Clash fan, when punk happened, got all the records, came to see you a few times.
Our school used to play your school at football. The Strand school.
-I never got on the football team, but did you?
No, not the proper one. I might have done, but my interests lay elsewhere!
-So, what made Joe unique?
Well, Joe was to me a very enigmatic guy at all times, dedicated to something. And that worked well with the rest of us. We were dedicated to an idea, or an ideal perhaps; we were pretty much enigmatic but idealistic.
-The attributes, were they all there when you met him? Or did you see them develop as The Clash became well known?
I think it did develop but I think it pretty much was there. There was a slight difference; Joe had been out there playing in the 101ers and the rest of us had seen him play and so to us he was already doing it. He was already showing the signs of something that developed much greater with us later. But I guess it was there all the time; it just needed to find itself.
-Speaking as a fan
as a front man, obviously he had this incredible charisma..
That's right, that's true, he had a mesmerizing presence.
-And thinking of other people you've seen, how would you rate that against the other greats?
On the charisma-ometer? (Laughs.) I would say it would be pretty high.
-One of the anecdotes going into this story
I don't know if it comes straight back to you, but if it does, I'd like to know if that was typical. It was 1977, the Out of Control tour, filmed for So It Goes in Manchester
At the end of 'What's My Name' Joe falls back on the mike stand and cracks his head on drum riser. The rest of you just give him a quick glance, and go straight into 'Garageland'. Joe looks like he's in agony but gets on his knees and gets first line of the song.
It was fairly typical. Joe went on the floor quite a bit. But he always seemed to make it back in time for the verse. We knew he would make it back, that's why we just went straight on. (Chuckles at the memory.) We knew
Another time we all got electric shocks and were all sent flying across, that was in rehearsals, something wasn't earthed, we all got electric shocks, I complained so bitterly that we didn't continue the number at the time.
Mick and Joe at the infamous Glasgow Apollo show, July 4, 1978. Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon were arrested after the show, which was filmed for the movie Rude Boy. Photo by Bob Gruen from his book The Clash
-When I was looking at this footage, I thought that any other time but punk rock, the show would have stopped. It's partly the era, but it's also partly Joe. The show goes on
-Talking about his character, and whether it was fully formed: was the politicization there when we met?
It was there, immediately. He was part of the squatting thing. And that ran alongside all the kind of music we were into, and when we grew up, it was a radical time.
-And I remember that. So you're saying it was there, And it was looking for an outlet?
Yeah. And as we developed, that developed too. The power of music. And also, his stage craft. He always had it, he was always a great rock'n'roll guy, he reminded me of Eddie Cochran when he was younger. And then he found out about the stage and what he could achieve, and so on.
-He seemed to have a remarkable ability, both as performer and lyricist, to go further than most people, but still make it look like anybody could do this. The political lyrics never went over peoples' heads and never seemed to patronize
That's because nowadays politics is synonymous with corruption and lies. But we never was like a political thing in that sense, we just wrote about what affected us, really. And so we reached people on a more emotional level, I think.
-But people weren't really coming out with that stuff at the time.
Not so much. And then it took in a lot of stuff, all Joe's influences as well. He was like a folk singer guy as well as a rock'n'roller, he had that in him from his earlier days. A 'play to the people' type of thing, play for the people.
-He seemed to have that gypsy spirit in him, he wanted to learn, travel around. Would that be correct?
Pretty much like that, yeah.
-I got this sense from Joe, from his interviews and so on, that you could always educate yourself. It seemed like he was on this eternal quest for self-education. I'm wondering if I got that correct.
In a way, as a conscious artist, you continue to develop and continue to learn. I would say that would be right, also.
-Is it correct, and I'm going here by things you've said on Don's documentaries, that generally speaking Joe was responsible for more of the lyrics and you for more of the music?
-Was there any one lyric that completely floored you above all others? Was there any one that made you think, I could never top this, I'm glad to be in a band with this guy?
Oh, I was always glad to be in a band with him.
-I realize that, I didn't mean to understate that.
At our height we were very quick but also very immediate. Joe would sit at a typewriter and just knock out some lyrics, and I'd sit at the other end of the table. He'd pull it out of the typewriter and hand it over the table, and I'd just knock out a tune for it like that. But I couldn't say any one particular one, they all touched me in certain ways.
-Specifically, I read that 'Complete Control,' which is in my Desert Island Discs, was completely your lyrics
That's probably right (chuckles slyly.)
-Stated very subtly, in as few words as possible! But it was primarily your lyric?
Yeah. But it meant a lot to all of us. Whatever the other guys put into it, each time, and this is the same for all the songs, we all put our bit into it, and that's what made it. I don't like to break it down to any more than that, really.
-There's always this sense with the two of you that more than a Lennon-McCartney relationship, where anyone can hear who's written which song by who sings it, it's more like the Jagger-Richards thing
Where you don't really know. So that's cool.
-One thing I loved about Joe was a certain fallibility. It wasn't about being the perfect rock star. His thing was more like: 'I'm not the greatest singer, I'm not the greatest guitarist
' I think he was a fantastic lyricist, but it seemed to be about how you don't have to be perfect to be doing this. And to me there was a fallibility that came across that made him what the magazine may be calling an Icon, but I see as a human
Being! Laughs! Its great that, isn't it, the way you end up human after all these years. He was totally a guy that people took to in that way, because he cared. He cared about everything and was interested in everything.
-And that's the simplicity you would bring it down to?
As I say, people recognized that. They could tell the difference.
-The difference between him and the rock stars that didn't care?
I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that he was for real.
-Would Joe have realized his potential if you and he haven't teamed up?
Sometimes these things happen for the good. It was just fortunate for both of us, or all of us, cos it wasn't just Joe and I, but Paul and Tops, as well. It was right time, bit of talent, bit of luck, all those things coinciding.
Continue to Part 2