To Mick Jones, the Clash‘s new box set, Sound System, represents the band’s final statement. The 13-disc collection includes remastered versions of their five studio albums, video of everything from their first recording session in 1976 through incredible gigs in New York and Sussex University and three discs of remixes, alternative versions and b-sides. We spoke to Jones about assembling the collection, the group’s breakup and why they never reunited.
There was a Clash box set about 20 years ago. What made you want to do another one?
For me, it was a chance to get the music remastered. I knew that some of the tapes were getting rotten. There have been other remasters lately, but in the past few years the technology has really increased. I mean, I buy other peoples’s records – mostly old recorders – and I always ask if it’s been remastered. I think we’ll be hearing more than we heard before, hopefully. That’s pretty much what we managed to do with the records. So the box set comes with nearly 99 percent of the Clash’s recorded work.
How involved were you in the process?
I listened to everything. It’s taken about three years, though I obviously wasn’t working on it all that time. But it took three years from its inception until completion. At first, the record company just wanted some reissues. But I looked at is as a chance to get all the stuff out. Then I suggested a box.
Did you find stuff in the vault that you didn’t even know existed?
Yeah. But it didn’t really come from one set of archives. They have lots of archive places now on the outskirts of London. They give you a list of things and you go, “Oh, can I get a CD of this and that?” Then you get to hear it all. But we did it all from the original tapes. It’s really close to when it first came out of the recording studio. It’s the closest we got to that.
But you have to bake the tapes before you play them. You can only play them once, because the oxide on the tapes will fall off if you don’t do that. There’s stories here on the news about baking therapy, where you bake a tape and it helps you with your issues. I likened it to that. [Laughs] There obviously has been elements of nostalgia listening to the records, but we’re trying to approach it in the most modern way. Everything is very up-to-date.
So you actually took the master tapes of London Calling and physically baked them?
Yeah. But I didn’t do the actual baking myself. [Laughs] If you don’t do that, the oxide where the music is on will fall off. Also, they found that since the last time they were remastered, there’s actually a bigger playback head now. So we might have missed music on the edges of the tape. Now we’re getting all of it. If you’re familiar with the music, you’re getting stuff you didn’t get before. To me, that’s more enjoyable than listening to a bunch of odds and sods.
Are you hearing guitar parts that you never heard before?
Yeah, though sometimes I can’t tell if I’m hearing them or they’re in my head.
Are there lots of outtakes in the vault that nobody has heard?
Not really. In general, we put lots of stuff out. There are bits and pieces, but I don’t know what we’d do with them.
Right. You weren’t the kind of band to write and record 30 songs and then put 10 on a record.
Not really. We’d write 30 songs and then put 31 out. [Laughs] That’s because we practiced a lot. We spent all our time together. We were a regiment, really. And you can’t help but produce when you’re like that. We were living out of each other’s pockets for years. We never had a holiday, and if we did we would have been working in some way. It was work all the time, though we played football, too.
There’s some great video footage on this set. I watched it and thought, “Bloody hell, that’s some energy level . . . ” We had a real moment. They say the best time to make an album is when you come off tour, because you have that momentum. And when the four of us came together, we were more than our parts. The same goes for the audience. We were one of the bands that helped break down that barrier between the audience and the group. We broke though that barrier.
The footage of you recording “I’m So Bored With the USA” at your first rehearsal is pretty stunning. Few bands are that developed from day one.
That’s right. That was truly our very first recording session. We were lucky that Julien Temple filmed that. He was in film school. We had a sense that something was happening, but we didn’t know what it was. You’re right about us having our sound. It wasn’t contrived in any way. It was natural and instinctive. There were certain elements that went together quite rightly. It was as combination of the four of us. For example, Joe was a lefthanded person who played righthanded guitar. His hands were different, which is why he was such a great player.
I think a reason why it’s lasted so long and people are still interested today is the power of the words and the truth. That’s what carries it on. It’s the same today. We had an honesty that people still recognize.
I loved watching the footage from your New York residency at Bonds in the summer of 1981. There’s a great scene where you watch some young rappers on the street. I imagine that was some of your earliest exposure to hip-hop.
Not exactly. I had heard some even earlier. But it was a lucky kind of break. We went around town with all these graffiti artists, and they helped us bridge a couple of cultural scenes. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Radio stations all over New York were playing a version of “The Magnificent Seven” called “The Magnificent Dance.” That was all over the city when we came in. Our manager put posters all over uptown. It brought a different crowd to the shows, a very mixed crowd. By the time they realized we were a bunch of punks, it was too late. [Laughs]
There’s not a ton of live music on this set. Are you thinking about releasing more Clash concerts in the future?
Not really. Years ago, before even the Internet, there were places where you could send off blank tapes and get nearly every concert. This fantastic exchange was going on. They wouldn’t even charge you money. I know fans want to get their hands on everything, but it’s already out there. So there’s no plans to release any concerts now. I’m not even thinking about any more Clash releases. This is it for me, and I say that with an exclamation mark.
In hindsight, do you think the Clash should have just taken a break of a few years and not broken up?
I think any kind of recognizable break would have been good, I reckon. But that’s all in hindsight. It would have helped. We were just all fed up with each other. The bigger it got, the more difficult it became. We battled through constant issues. When you’re together all the time you’re going to get fed up with people, especially without breaks. And then we started to get into whatever we were into individually, and that became an issue. I don’t think the music was ever affected, or the stage show. It was all going on behind the scenes. We could have dealt with it better, in hindsight.
You played with Joe a few months before he passed away. Do you think you were building towards a reunion at that point?
No, I wouldn’t have said so. There were a few moments at the time, but it had nothing to do with a reunion. It was just a pure lucky thing. I went to see Joe play at a firemen benefit in London. I just went there to see the show. I had no intention whatsoever of getting up onstage. But I wound up doing just that.
Another thing on the cards then was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was up for it. Joe was up for it. Paul [Simonon] wasn’t. And neither, probably, was Topper [Headon], who didn’t wind up even coming in the end. But Terry [Chimes] did. It didn’t look like a performance was going to happen anyway. I mean, you usually play at that ceremony when you get in. Joe had passed by that point, so we didn’t.
We were never in agreement. That’s why we never got back together in the first place. It was never at a point where all of us wanted to do it at the same time. Most importantly for us, we became friends again after the group broke up, and continued that way for the rest of the time. That was more important to us than the band.