Pete Mitchell talks to The Clash

The remaining members of the iconic rock band recall the halcyon days of the 1980s, their New York tour and the importance of the ghetto blaster...

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The Clash release their impressive career spanning box set Sound System and a new collection Hits Back this week.  This thirteen disc collection includes remastered versions of their five studio albums, videos, remixes, alternative versions and B-sides and it’s mightily impressive. 

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Designed by bass player Paul Simonon, the various trinkets are presented in a cardboard beatbox or boombox, more commonly known as a ghetto blaster.

I had two of them when I was a kid, ordered and paid for over an eighteen month period from Freeman’s catalogue. One of them was housed in chrome and was the size of a small garden shed, it futuristically had a double cassette deck but more importantly featured a loudness button to improve the bass sound. Another prominent feature was the mysterious Dolby noise reduction system switch that did nothing but make it sound muffled. 

I would spend most of my spare cash on power, mine would take eight double D Flying bomb batteries that would last next to no time.

Available from 1969 onwards, boom boxes would become available in every high street electrical store. Inner city kids around New York carried them around the streets on their shoulders blasting out early hip hop by Grandmaster Flash, Incredible Bongo Band and the Sugarhill Gang and Kraftwerk.

They would congregate, lay down a flattened cardboard box and break dance along to their sound systems surrounded by admiring onlookers. Inner city streets came alive.

The sound system is integral to the Clash. 

They came from Ladbroke Grove in West London, where the first sound systems took root in the area as far back as the 1950’s. Playing ska and R&B they would soon spring up in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. 

When the Clash booked a 15-night residency at Bonds nightclub in New York in 1981, they found themselves at the centre of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. They booked Grandmaster Flash, Lee Perry and The Fall as support. As the band hung around around the city, the beatbox and street graffiti was omnipresent and made a huge impression on the boys from West London.

Drummer Topper Headon recalls those halcyon days: “We hit the city and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Sugarhill Gang along with street graffiti was all happening, it was just amazing to be there at the birth of hip hop. The beatbox was a delivery system for the music of the streets.” 

They went out and immediately bought the best systems available. Topper goes on to explain further, “When we went on the road we all had a beatbox each and we used to walk into airports with every single one of them blasting out different music. Paul would be blasting out reggae, Mick would be playing rap and I would be blasting out funk. Wherever in the world we were playing people would come up and ask us what the music was on our beat boxes, it was a very interesting way of sharing music.”

Mick Jones talks about decorating the system. “We would spray paint them, we would spray paint our clothes in those days. Even the decorating of the cassette cases was important. But there is no space to do that anymore, artistically music has become very insular”. 

All this would be the inspiration for the artwork of the new box set. 

Designer Paul Simonon: “Working on the Sound System was easy, we had such a wealth of ammunition that creating it’s look was a no brainer.” 

Sitting down to talk about one of my favourite bands of all time with the three remaining members was a pure delight. Their enthusiasm for their past work is infectious. So with this final career retrospective now out, how does it feel to look back and listen to your entire recorded works? 

Mick Jones jumps in immediately: “The further it gets away in time, the more you can have some overview on it retrospectively. I am now a big fan of the Clash, like I was of all the other great groups I loved growing up. I now realise that we were chasing an illusion that we thought we wanted. All I ever wanted was to be in a band and you could not have picked a better band to be in, with a better bunch of guys. We have almost become a force of nature.”

“It was a lot to do with having a good team to work with,” adds Paul. “Mick and Joe found a way of communicating and to create magic. It’s very rare to find someone that wants to work in that way. It was instinct that led us forward, with a sense of ambition. It was unspoken and we just went about our business. We were very receptive to things around us, it was about having compassion and being sympathetic towards other people.”

Topper pipes up: “When I first joined the group I was an OK drummer, but because of Joe I had to change my style and hit the drums really hard and it turned me into a better player. We were a classic example of  the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”

I leave the final words to Mick Jones: “Each album and tour was different. We were a band that never boiled our cabbages twice.”

You can hear Pete talking to The Clash on the Saturday Social at 10pm

The Clash Sound System Special can be heard this Sunday at 7pm on Absolute Radio 70’s


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