The Clash

1970s punk may have been derided by some as “anti-music,” but it spawned its fair share of great players and writers. High on the pile is undoubtedly The Clash’s Mick Jones, who turns a veteran 57 years of age today, June 26.

Jones, in reality, was not too different for some of his “old guard” forbears – like The Who’s Pete Townshend and The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, he studied at art school; “I thought that’s how you get into bands and stuff,” he bluntly admits.

Jones was always clearly driven to “new” things. He played guitar in protopunk band London SS, who rehearsed for much of 1975 without ever playing a live show and recording only a single demo. He was then fired from another band, Little Queenie.

“I was a pretty limited guitar player when I got fired, and that made me go back to my bedroom and practice along to all my records for a year. When I came out again I was accomplished; at first I was terrible and it was almost righteous that I should get chucked out but the only thing was – and I didn’t really realize it at the time – but I was actually the main songwriter in the group, so it screwed up that whole situation because they chucked me out, you know?”

By the time he’d hooked up with Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon (who only took up bass under Jones’s encouragement) and Topper Headon, The Clash had their classic lineup.

Were The Clash really “punk?” Not like The Ramones were. They were all skilled musicians or writers, but perhaps none more so than Jones. Strummer took the limelight as frontman, main lyricist and lead singer – Jones’ reedy voice was no comparison – but much of The Clash’s music was down to Jones.

“Songwriting came to me at the same time I was learning so it all come together at that point. I was 16 when I started on guitar but before then I was always asking, ‘how do you do this?’ ‘How do you do that?’ on any instrument because I didn’t start on guitar, I started on drums. Then I went on to bass, and then I thought I could handle a couple more strings so then I took up the guitar. It was like blackjack you know; I’ll stick with this I don’t want to go crazy. Lead singer didn’t interest me – I thought it was cooler to be on the guitar.”

The Clash Hit the Heights

Between 1977 and 1982, The Clash were prolific. Seven hours of albums were released, including very non-punk works of great ambition: 1979’s double-album London Calling and 1980’s 3-LP, 36-song Sandinista! in particular. Punk-ish thrash, reggae, ska, rockabilly, traditional rock ’n’ roll were all part of the mix, and Jones’s guitar shone.

As a guitarist, Jones was never overly flash. But he knew how to play a guitar part. His fandom of the New York Dolls’ Johnny Thunders saw Jones make a Gibson Les Paul Junior his main guitar in The Clash’s early days. The single-coil guitar’s snap and twang fit The Clash’s edgy ethos, and Jones became that most un-punk thing: a guitar hero.

He later moved on to Les Paul Standards and Customs, his white model becoming totemic in The Clash. Marshall or Mesa-Boogie heads and Marshall 4x12 cabinets were his backline – classic rock tone.

Ever wondered when Green Day were “invented?” Try The Clash’s in “Tommy Gun.”

Jones’ lead playing has always been simple, with plenty of rock ’n’ roll influenced two-note licks and one-note bends, such as the siren-like bend in “Police on my Back” and the solo at the end of “Clash City Rockers.” “Tommy Gun”’s solo is essentially one note. But Jones could also surprise.

His playing on the song “London Calling” remains notable, mixing one-or-two note stabs plus a backwards recorded solo that put him head and shoulders ahead of other punk thrashers.

Jones told that this shouldn’t really be a surprise. “I grew up in a time of so many great guitarists. I loved all of them, but my favorite was [David Bowie sideman] Mick Ronson. And Jeff Beck. And Keith Richards. But you have to say Pete Townshend, and Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton [laughs]. Did I miss anybody? Did I say Jeff Beck? Did I say him twice? I hope so! He’s that good [laughs].” In his heart, Jones simply understood a good rock riff and guitar dynamics.

Jones’ role as lead player was not always a given: he had to learn. “I was always going to auditions. That was a big part of my life. I was going for auditions as a rhythm guitarist, but there weren’t that many jobs for that. You had to be able to do a little bit more than just play rhythm. I played in some smaller bands. I didn’t play live much, just a few gigs, but I knew I wanted to do it.”

The Clash were, in reality, no naïve punks. When they broke in the U.S. they were acclaimed as The Only Band That Matters. But when were asked which artist they wanted to open for them? Answer: Bo Diddley.

Big Audio Dynamite and Beyond

After The Clash somewhat inevitably parted, Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite. B.A.D. were never hugely successful, and as Jones was also singer/lyricist his guitar playing took a back seat. And B.A.D. were almost too ambitious for their own good. They were early pioneers of using samples in rock tunes, wrote weird songs about the films of cult movie director Nicolas Roeg (“E=MC2”) and cult-consumer fetishism (“Sony”)…

“The Bottom Line” was another cult hit. And Big Audio Dynamite’s 1991 single “Rush” was almost daft in its complexity. It sampled The Who’s “Baba O'Riley,” Deep Purple’s “Child in Time,” drums from Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea,” drums and guitars from Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes the Judge,” a line from The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and more within 3 minutes. It still hit #1 in Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts. Jones’ guitar was not to the forefront, but B.A.D. set an early template of how rock and samples could mix to impressive effect.

With rhythm at the fore of B.A.D., Jones could even explore his love of African guitarists.

He’s a fan of King Sunny Ade: “I liked Fela Kuti as well very much,” he told Blogcity, “and that was like music with a message as well. I liked King Sunny Ade, the way they used steel-type guitars. I found that really interesting… we took on all types of music that we liked. We all sort of did that. When we took on “Police and Thieves” [in The Clash] it was the same as what the beat groups had done with those R&B groups. We kind of did that, too. We didn’t think about it.”

Jones has since produced The Libertines, and Pete Doherty’s offshoot band Babyshambles (he also played guitar on the albums). Jones still plays guitar with Carbon Silicon along with ex-punk alumnus Tony James (London SS) and has toured, as guitarist, with the Gorillaz live band.

His most memorable guitar work is undoubtedly with The Clash. But like his art school forebear Pete Townshend, Mick Jones has always been a seeker. Who’d guess what he does next?

Although never a “scholar” of music, Jones remains smart about what makes the difference. He told “I like the first Clash album the best. It’s kind of pure. I played the [Les Paul] Junior through a big 4x12 cabinet, and when we recorded it, we didn’t care about nothing. We didn’t really care to even care about it. So it’s kind of raw. We were struggling with our instruments, and it made it more alive. With my playing and Joe’s playing, it was the sweet and the sour.

“See, Joe was a left-handed player but he played right-handedly, so his most dexterous hand was the opposite. That contributed considerably to his strumming style. That’s why it is so specific to him.

“But I think that is true of all people. You sound like yourself. Playing guitar is a further expression of your inner self. When you play, you sound like no-one else. You sound like you.” Amen.

Related features:

How Les Pauls Powered the Punk Movement

A Man Called Strummer