Mick Jones was a skinny kid living with his grandmother in a London apartment when rock ’n’ roll changed his life. Against the gray backdrop of working class London, he fell in love with the flash of Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, and T. Rex. But it was the New York Dolls who convinced him to pick up a guitar. Inspired by Johnny Thunders, Jones saved up for a Les Paul Junior, locked himself in his bedroom, and taught himself to play. A few years later, he would form the Clash and become one of the most iconic and influential rock ’n’ roll guitarists of all time.
Dubbed “the only band that matters,” the Clash made an impact that is still being felt. As one of the first true punk guitar heroes, Jones welded a dizzying collection of vintage Gibsons with a genius for arrangements that blended punk, reggae, rocksteady, rockabilly, and funk. The perfect musical partner for the much missed Joe Strummer, Jones would weave his guitar lines around Strummer’s driving rhythm guitar, the skittering, powerhouse drumming of the brilliant Topper Headon, and the thunderous bass of Paul Simonon. When the band broke up, several years later, they left behind a sprawling collection of some of the best rock ’n’ roll ever made, including the breathtaking double album London Calling. In New York to promote the release of the painstakingly put-together Sony-Legacy Clash singles box set—all of the band’s 19 original U.K. singles, plus bonus tracks, in their original sleeves—the soft-spoken and thoughtful Jones took time to talk to Gibson in this rare interview.
Did I Say Jeff Beck Twice?
I was lucky. I grew up in a time of so many great guitarists. I loved all of them, but my favorite was 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).
I spent like a year in the bedroom, playing along to all of those people, copying them. And then I set off on my own as a rhythm guitarist. That’s what happens with guitar players. You start off copying and playing like the people you admire, and then you start to carve out your own style.
My first proper guitar was a Les Paul Junior. I saved for months, till I had enough money. I had to have a Junior, because of Johnny Thunders. The New York Dolls came along and made a massive impact on all of us. They came to play really early on in London, so we got a chance to see them. I saw them on the Old Grey Whistle Test, but I saw them live too. They were supporting the Faces at Wembley Stadium. I went to that show. I must have been 13 or 14, that perfect influential age, when you’re really gonna be changed. And I was! I pretended to be Johnny Thunders for a bit.
That Was It For Me
My maternal grandmother mainly brought me up. At that time, I was living with my grandmother, her sister, and her sister-in-law. That was very strange, growing up with three old ladies. When I started dressing like Johnny Thunders, they were a bit worried, to be quite honest. But I assured them that everything was okay (laughs).
But even before the Dolls, I used to follow bands around. I followed Mott the Hoople up and down the country. I’d go to Liverpool or Newcastle or somewhere—sleep on the Town Hall steps, and bunk the fares on the trains, hide in the toilet when the ticket inspector came around. I’d jump off just before the train got to the station and climb over the fence. It was great times, and I always knew I wanted to be in a band and play guitar. That was it for me.
Let’s See If We Can Get Joe
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.
I saw Joe play with the 101ers many times. They were nearly at the point of being the best group in London. They were lumped in with the pub rock scene, but they were really a squat band, from the squatting communities. Joe was part of that scene, which was very big in the early ’70s. And we’d seen them many times.
Joe had already made it in our eyes, you know? It took a lot of courage to get him to join our group, since we hadn’t done anything. But luckily, Joe had seen the Sex Pistols. They had supported him in the 101ers at the Nashville Rooms a couple of times. Joe had seen the new thing coming in. He obviously wanted to be a part of it, and that was to our advantage because we were part of that, Paul and I.
We went to see him play with the 101ers, at the Golden Lion in Fullham. Afterwards, Bernhard, our manager, went round the back and talked to him and made him the offer. We were in the squat in Shepherd’s Bush, and he brought Joe around a couple days later.
He had seen us out a few times, either at his gigs or in the dole queue (laughs). We were in the dole queue looking across at him—glaring—and he thought we were gonna start a fight with him. But we were actually looking in awe because we’d seen him play the other night! So we’d seen each other before, but he had obviously noticed us as well. We just thought he was the best guy out there. We were looking for a singer and said, “Let’s see if we can get Joe.”
We Were Drifting Away From Those Love You Songs
We fell into it very quickly. We started work on the first day. One of the first ones we did was “I’m So Bored with the USA.” Joe and I just played a couple of each other’s numbers, and Joe made that famous addition. I played my song for him and he changed it from “I’m So Bored with You” to “I’m So Bored with the USA.” He took the “You” and put the “S” and the “A” in there, and that changed everything!
We were drifting away from those “love you” songs to something that meant more. We started to write about what was going on and what was affecting us. It was very natural. It wasn’t contrived in any way. We just started to focus. We had a very peculiar kind of schooling in the Clash. It was a bit like being in the army or something. Our manager said, “You’re gonna have a hard time for the next few years.” He kept us lean and hungry, kept us on our toes. We had to find out what we were about.
Most groups don’t have that kind of background very often now. They just go in for fame or something. But we had this very almost Communist Army thing or something. It was very unusual, but I think it kept us in very good stead. Like before we could play a note, we had to paint the studio! Our rehearsal studio needed painting. Our manager said, “You can’t do any playing until you paint the bloody studio.” And that was how the paint-splattered period started! We were painting, and it dripped on our clothes, and we went onstage like that.
Lots of things just happened by good fortune. Even the way that the group clicked. We all brought something slightly different, but we made up a great whole. Topper was amazing, and Paul became such a great bass player. After the start! We became so frustrated with him trying to learn bass that we painted the notes on the neck. We’d just shout out the chords and he’d go to it. But he soon became a very good bass player in his own right.
We Didn’t Care About Nothing
I like the first Clash album the best. It’s kind of pure. I played the 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.
The songs on the first album are sort of mini-operas. I’ve always been lucky enough to put it together in a way that will make it hold together, but still changing within that togetherness. So it doesn’t really sound like bits. Now I hear arrangements more in my head, but then I did it all on the guitar. But it was very natural with the Clash. It was very instinctual. Even the stuff we did on the stage—we just seemed to have a telepathic understanding. We played off each other, and we always seemed to know what the other was doing.
Can We Have Bo Diddley?
In America, the record company said we could have anybody we wanted to support us. We said, “Can we have Bo Diddley?” They said, “Ooh, we don’t know about that.” He was fantastic! We had Lee Dorsey as well. And Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—he came out of a coffin every night. When Grandmaster Flash supported us at the Bond’s shows in New York, they were booed! Joe was quite upset. He went out onstage and yelled at the audience. He said, “Come on! You’re not being fair. You have to give them a chance!”
Jukeboxes were quite important in our story. Especially the jukebox in our rehearsal room and the jukebox in the studio in San Francisco, where we recorded the second album. We played all the music we liked, and we’d hear all the records first on jukeboxes. On the jukebox in our rehearsal room, we’d have a lot of those records we covered. Like “Revolution Rock” and “Wrong ’Em Boyo,” a lot of reggae records, and probably Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac.” And it was on the jukebox in San Francisco that we first heard “I Fought the Law.” And we would try to copy it, but bring something of our own to it.
The Bigger We Got, the Worse It Seemed to Get For Us
Even after we made London Calling, Joe was still squatting, and I was still living in the flat with my Gran. I kept leaving and then going back to my Gran’s. That’s why Joe wrote “Lost in the Supermarket.” He wrote it with me in mind, which is really a touching thing. Everybody thinks I wrote that one, because I sing it, but Joe wrote it for me. It’s not completely accurate, though. We didn’t have a hedge (laughs).
It was kind of weird, getting as popular as we were and still living back home with my grandmother. But somehow it helped, in a way. That was our big problem all the time, really. The bigger we got the worse it seemed to get for us (laughs). It is a very strange irony. You’d think we’d be getting on great, but it got scary.
We were always battling with contradictions, but when we got big, we were faced with big contradictions. It was almost at the point of compromise. And that was a big factor towards breaking up. That, and we never had any time off, and we lived on top of each other for like six or seven years. We got dog tired and fed up. When we were struggling, it definitely held us together. “Come on! Where are we going? We’re going to the top!” We had all that drive, and just like anybody we had good intentions.
But you get compromised. You can’t beat it. We did okay, considering the things we had to contend with. Compared to most groups, we did great. But trying to deal with those contradictions was the worst. On the one hand, there was what we were singing about, and then we were becoming more and more, and bigger and bigger. And it’s like, what’s there? There’s more. And then there’s more after that. And then it is like, well hold on a minute, don’t we have enough? So we were in crisis most of the time. The more we worked, the more screwed we were.
Suddenly It’ll All Fall Into Place
My favorites are still the Juniors. I had a great Les Paul Standard, a sunburst one. And then I had a black Custom, and a white Custom. And then the big white hollowbody for London Calling. But I still play the Juniors today.The thing about guitar playing is that you have to do it all the time. That’s how you get good at something—by doing it every day. I do music every day. There’s a work ethic to it, and also it is very mathematical. It is lovely when you realize that the same chord that you are playing down there is up there in a different configuration. It all clicks into place sometimes. You just keep going at it, and going at it, and then suddenly it’ll all fall into place and it’s wonderful. Like a puzzle you solve.