(image taken from unofficial B.A.D. fan site)A little while back my learned colleague Loki posed the question (in an uncharacterically timid fashion) "is it okay to like Big Audio Dynamite again?". Funnily enough the same query had been circulating in my own mind for some time before that.
I never bought a B.A.D. record in my life. Back when I was in school, us impoverished kids of the analogue age 'file-shared' by borrowing each other's vinyl records and taping them. My mate Neil was the big B.A.D fan, so I just borrowed all the records off him and recorded onto good ol' C-90s. Mind you, I did buy a B.A.D baseball cap, so they got a little royalty there. Actually, that was my first ever baseball cap. Come to think of it, nobody in the UK was wearing those phat wide-brimmed baseball caps until B.A.D came along. Like much of their music, their image was partially borrowed from across the water - the burgeoning U.S. hip hop culture that was gradually seeping into the conscience of British youth in the mid-eighties. I used to get funny looks from people when wearing that baseball cap, seriously.
So B.A.D. borrowed their image and some beats and some sampling techniques from hip hop and married it with some proper song-craft. So what? Well, it was quite a big deal for a group from London to do that in 1985. So Malcolm McClaren got there first with 'Buffalo Gals', but that seemed like a bit of a one-off novelty experiment. B.A.D seemed to have a more serious, commited outlook to building a new kind of pop language. Previously, as a member of The Clash, Jones had helped to make reggae and dub elements acceptable within the framework of white punk-pop, and now, in collaboration with Don Letts, he was siphoning off some creative energy from this new type of black music, and it sounded pretty fucking fresh to my ears at the time.
The fist album was called "This Is Big Audio Dynamite". The opening song was called "Medicine Show". Jones' wordy but clever lyrics and occasional bursts of twangy guitar were augmented by big clunky drum machine beats and a dizzying array of sampled found-sounds and film dialogue that culminated in a spaghetti-western riot of strafing machine gun fire. It was jaw-droppingly original and laugh-out-load funny and a bit silly and technically ham-fisted and really, really exciting. If the rest of the album wasn't quite as good, it certainly wasn't too far off, especially "A Party" - with it's skanky digidub elements and introducing Don Letts' gonzo stream-of-conscience (tongue)twisted vocal style. As I recall, the critics loved the album, seemingly against their will. Joe Strummer's "Cut The Crap" (with the cut-price Clash line-up) had been mauled by the press, and I think they really wanted Jones' project to fail, too. But they couldn't help but love the record. It had a lot of guts, imagination and charm. It even had a hit single - the anthemic sing-along "E=MC2".
When the group reconvened for the second album, "No.10 Upping Street", Jones had made-up his differences with Strummer, who sat in the co-producer's chair. The results were maybe a bit more aggressive, a bit dirtier, a little bit more focused, and I reckon the best collection they ever put together. The rabble-rousing opener (and first single) "C'mon Every Beatbox" was another killer. Listening back now, the way they mixed that track was so clever, with the guitars pushed back in the mix and the drums and samples really blasting in the foreground; you get that airless hip-hop punch but with a subtle rock'n'roll undercurrent that simultaneously acknowledges their roots and their future, although what Eddie Cochran would've made of it all is another matter entirely. Then it's straight into "Beyond The Pale", a ragged pro-immigration protest song propelled by chunky 8-bit Fairlight beats. It's worth noting what a visionary drummer Greg Roberts was - hardly any tracks from this period sounded like natural live drums. I guess it was a mixture of programmed beats and Greg's live bangs, crashes and fills, triggering sampled percussion and fx, which definitely helped to create some unusually fluid riddims that would've been beyond the capabilities of most machines at that time. On 'Hollywood Boulevard' he concocts a tight latin-flavoured 808 House groove, which was remarkably prescient for 1986, when House had barely entered the British conscience. Best of all was final track "Sightsee M.C.!", with the gritty 8-bit kick-snare pattern emphasing the halfstep and flurries of double time percussive clatter rattling over the top. Dangerous riddim....
It took the group over a year to produce the difficult third album. In truth, their days as a potent force of change within mainstream music were already over. Acid House was on the agenda and a whole new era was about to begin, whilst B.A.D seemed to be erasing all the innovative sonic aspects of their sound and focusing on the more traditional songwriting aspect, combined with a more natural 'live band' sound. But still, I have a deep, enduring affection for "Tighten Up Vol.88". It's effortless, effervescent arrangements and joyous sing-along pop tunes never fail to bring a smile to my face. They sound like a band at full strength, overflowing with confidence and melodic and lyrical ideas. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another twelve-track album of that era that sounds so cohesive and consistent. All they did was drop most of the dance beats and sample-science. But without that futuroid aspect, it was inevitable that they would fall from critical grace. But I still maintain that "The Battle Of All Saints Road", with it's apocryphal storyline, subtle digi-dub undertow and 'dueling banjos' interlude is one of the best songs they ever produced. And of course the coda was Don Lett's finest hour as a vocalist.
Me and B.A.D finally parted company, on fairly amicable terms, after "Megatop Pheonix", which although bringing back a little of the technological imperative, seemed a bit too cluttered, forced and contrived for my tastes. Or maybe it was just that my head was in a different place by then. Whatever, it was the last B.A.D record I ever heard. But I did finally get to see them live around that time, at the now defunct Studio nightclub on Frogmore Street, Bristol. All I can really remember about that is how fucking knackered Mick Jones looked. His scrawny, pneumonia-ravaged frame seemingly sagging under the weight of his guitar. But still, it was a nice way to bring our relationship to a gentle close.
But back to the initial question: is it okay to like Big Audio Dynamite? I dunno. Go ask Reynolds or somebody. I think one of the problems with a group like that was their impurity. They were a crossbreed mish-mash of black and white, mainstream and alternative, tradition and futurism. They were never underground or hardcore, and they were often vaguely tongue-in-cheek. Maybe if they'd split early on, those first couple of albums would be regarded as seminal, but by allowing their career to peter out into inconsequentiality, they did irreparable damage to their legacy. That's the nature of the game, unfortunately. But for a couple of years in the bland mid-eighties they brought some exciting ideas to the pop landscape and paved the way for an awful lot cool stuff that came after. I'm glad they were there.
You should be able to find most of these records easily enough for pennies on the second hand market. Some of the 12" mixes are worth hearing, too. Alternatively, most of the back-catalogue can be located in rudimentary CD re-issue format. And there's a few bits on iTunes as well.