The classic lineup of the Clash folded after recording just five studio albums. But they worked at an insane pace during their seven-year run, leaving behind a mountain of unreleased material. Their 1991 box set Clash on Broadway was a scant three discs that barely scratched the surface; on September 13th they are dropping Sound System, a 12-disc box set shaped like an Eighties boombox.
The set has remastered versions of their five studio albums, along with video of their first recording session in 1976, unreleased demos from later that year, B-sides, remixes, outtakes, live cuts and all of their music videos. We spoke with Clash bassist Paul Simonon about the box set, why he stood in the way of a possible Clash reunion shortly before Joe Strummer died, playing bass on Bob Dylan‘s worst album and his recent stint in a Greenland prison.
How did this box set come together?
Well, a few years ago it was suggested that we put together a box set of everything ever created by the Clash and put it in a box. We really wanted it to be a work of art in itself, where one could say “Box Set of the Year.” We hit upon the idea of making it a boombox, because the cassette-recorder boombox is a thing that every member of the Clash had and carried around. There’s quite a lot of photos of us traveling in all parts of the world playing music via our boomboxes.
We did this to entertain ourselves, but also we were in different parts of the world, and we’d carry these machines through airports and anywhere else. We were bringing music to new, fresh years. I used to play a lot of reggae or rockabilly.
How much unreleased material did you find in the vault?
This is a question that should be directed at [Clash guitarist] Mick Jones. He took care of the musical side, the remastering, and I took care of the content and the artwork, completely. So we had two separate jobs there. Mick spent many, many months in the studio going through tracks and also remastering the Clash albums.
He said he was a bit skeptical about remastering until he experienced what it meant. It doesn’t mean messing around with the original record. He discovered that when they initially transferred the music to CD they only got about 80 percent of the music. You weren’t hearing 20 percent of it. So now he’s found that 20 percent, and it’s 100 percent. If you’re familiar with the original records, maybe you don’t need the box set. It’s for fresh ears, I suppose, or somebody that wants to enjoy the piece in itself. Like I said, it’s a piece of artwork.
The package includes your first recording session at Beaconsfield Film School in 1976. It’s pretty amazing that was captured on video.
The guy that filmed us was Julian Temple. He was a student at film school and we did some initial footage with him. He managed to secure a place at Beaconsfield for us to record and for him to film. So it was sort of a test trial on both sides, for him and for us. Nothing really came of it, until now.
I’ve seen some of the footage, and it struck me just how much you guys had the sound of the band down from the very beginning.
It was a cacophony at times, but the sound comes from each person, depending on their instrument. Obviously, a bass sounds like a bass and a guitar sounds like a guitar, but the way you play the guitar reflects your personality. You had four personalities in that room expressing themselves through their various capabilities. I mean, I was still struggling, because I’d only been playing bass for probably six months beforehand. Maybe even three.
I’ve always found it so interesting that you guys had completely different musical interests, from rockabilly to reggae to punk. The fusion of all that was really unique and wonderful.
Joe was influenced by Woody Guthrie and countless others. Mick was very influenced by the New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople. I obviously had my reggae, but I got quite into rockabilly when I was a kid, because I was trying to find something that represented me as a white person. That was something Joe was into as well, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination within the band, musically.
When you listen to all the albums in a row, it’s apparent just how different they are from each other.
That’s how how they developed. Nothing was pre-planned. As an example, we’d be struggling with a song in rehearsal and somebody would pipe up and say, “I know, let’s play this song rockabilly or reggae style.” We’d go around in circles and it would lead to something else. It’s just people working together, really.
A lot of people see London Calling as the group’s high point. Do you agree with that?
It was an interesting point. The members of the band were spending a lot of time working, traveling and touring. It was a point where everybody felt very comfortable being in the studio and recording. But to add to that, we had somebody called Guy Stevens. He was really important, and he helped create a very positive atmosphere, even though he was a little crazy. But he was like a conductor. He brought out the best in everybody, and he was the crazy one that let us not be crazy and get on with the job. I think if you put is all in the room together you’d look at Guy and you’d say, “Yeah, he’s the crazy one. Those other guys, they’re the normal ones.”
Just two years later, you guys peaked commercially with Combat Rock, but then totally fell apart at the same time.
I think it had a lot to do with seven years of nonstop touring and recording and traveling as a band. It was more than just a band, –it was a lifestyle as well. Seven years without a break really takes a toll on you, and you don’t even realize it. You’re affected by other people, and after a while, sometimes they have love for you and sometimes they don’t.
It’s really an intense burst of energy and passion and creativity. The only thing you can compare it to is a shooting star.
Do you think carrying on as the Clash after Mick Jones left was a mistake?
Well, you know . . . that was a journey to be experienced. And who knows? It became what it became, and I don’t have any regrets about anything. You can’t really change it, but you hope to learn from these changes.
Why isn’t Cut the Crap part of this box set?
Partly because out’s not a total Clash record insofar as it doesn’t have Mick on it, or [drummer] Topper [Headon]. And that’s a real big part of the Clash, really.
How did you wind up playing bass on Bob Dylan’s 1988 record Down in the Groove?
Bob used to come to a lot of Clash shows, so I met him prior to that situation. I actually arrived in Los Angeles with a friend of mine named Nigel Dixon, who was in a rockabilly band. We both left to live in El Paso and form a new band together. We bought two old motorcycles and we journeyed to Los Angeles and met up with Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols. After a couple of days Steve said to me, “Paul, they need a bass player and it’s for Bob Dylan. Do you fancy coming along?”
I went along and met Bob and we started to record. It was quite difficult in some ways. We’d do three songs, and by the third song I’d just about remember how the songs went before we started recording them. But instead of recording them we went on with another three songs, and then another three songs and then another three songs. So after about 12 songs he said, “Let’s start from the beginning.” And my memory of the first song was so vague. It was a difficult one, but it was enjoyable, and it was nice to see Bob and it was really nice to part of something unique and special.
Many see that album as the low point of his whole career, but I still enjoy parts of it.
Yeah, I suppose he was in the process of experimenting. That’s a good thing. You have to be courageous and take chances. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.
You really backed away from the spotlight in the Nineties. Why was that?
That was really because my friend Nigel Dixon died of cancer. This is when I disbanded [our band] Havana 3a.m. After he died, I don’t know. I needed to readjust my head and consider where I needed to go. I grew up wanting to be a painter and paint pictures. This seemed as good a point as any to go back to painting. It helped a lot, actually. I’m in a situation now where I do probably about 70 percent of my time painting and 30 percent playing music or getting involved in music projects.
I’ve read stories over the years that Joe Strummer wanted to reunite the Clash for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2003, but you were the lone holdout. He obviously died before the ceremony, but is any of that true?
Mick, Joe and Topper were very keen on getting the Hall of Fame and doing that. The proviso was that, I think, if we got together and played, then we got the award. But to be honest, I didn’t really want to reform the band, full-stop, especially not in that environment, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Joe was keen on doing it, as was Mick. My point was that if we were going to reform, it can’t be in that corporate environment. Joe was unaware that the tickets were something like $1,000 a seat, maybe more. I think if the Clash is going to reform, it should be somewhere where the seats don’t cost $1,000.
Joe was unaware of that and, of course, he died a couple of days later, so I wasn’t able to send him a message and give him that information. So then we did get inducted, and rather than be childish about it I thought, “Well, I’ll go to support everybody and the memory of Joe.” But I had no interest in being part of any reformation.
When bands reunite, it does often taint their legacy, and it’s almost always just for money.
Of course. I mean, I don’t see what the point is. In some ways, we arrived and did what we did, like the shooting star example I said. I felt . . . that might work for other bands. It’s their band and they can do what they like, nothing to do with me. But for our band, I felt it better to not reform. We weren’t there to get what we could out of it and make money. We were there because we believed in i,t and it’s not about money. It was about the chance to have a platform and be creative and work together and create something special, hopefully.
The Clash and the Beatles lasted about the same amount of time. Some bands just weren’t meant to last forever.
Yeah, well, you grow up. We start out as teenagers and then then we grow up, and your horizons broaden.
You wound up arrested after a Greenpeace protest in Greenland a few years ago. What happened there?
I wanted to contribute my time to lend support to their cause. I went in undercover, and the only job that was available was the lowest job of the low, which is basically assistant to the chef. So I did that for about two months, and then we got arrested boarding the Leiv Eiriksson oil rig. The reason we boarded it was because we asked their main officers in London, “What is your plan if there’s an oil spill?” That’s what we wanted to know. We boarded it and said, “Can we see the response plan?” They said, “Well, no.” And that’s when they called the police to arrest us. A helicopter came and took us all to Greenland and put us in prison for two weeks.
How did that go? Did they treat you well in prison?
It wasn’t very pleasant. But the point was made that they didn’t have any answers. They didn’t understand that if you have an oil spill in the Arctic, it’s full of ice. Apart from the amount of wildlife and fish that it kills, there’s no practical way of cleaning it up.
Did the people on the ship know you who were?
No, they didn’t. I wasn’t really going there for any publicity stunt or anything. I was there as Mr. Joe Public, to lend my support. It was only later when it came out.
How was the Gorillaz experience for you?
It was fantastic. I really enjoyed that, and it was nice to have Mick [Jones] onstage with us. I’ve worked with Damon [Albarn] before, so we get on very well. He’s great fun to work for.
Any future plans to work with him?
We’re talking about things. Who knows?
You’ve really been more in the spotlight these past few years, with Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad and the Queen, than any other time I can remember.
I wanted to concentrate an amount of time on painting, that’s why. I really want to sort of do a bit of music, then a bit of painting. I wanted to bring my painting up to a level where people weren’t saying, “Oh, there’s a pop star with paintings.” I want it to say on my tombstone that I was an artist first and rock star second . . . I actually prefer “rock & roll star” over rock star. That’s just too much like heavy-handed guitar stuff.
Do you think there will be any more Clash releases after this box set?
I can’t imagine any, no. Maybe in 50 years they might release them to a whole new public. I don’t know.
You could release more full concerts, though.
Yeah, but how many times can we do “White Riot” or “London Calling?”
I’d say quite a few times.
Well, I heard it nonstop for seven years, so I’ve got a different outlook.