“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
Megatop Phoenix by Big Audio Dynamite
Released September 1989
Maybe this doesn’t belong here. Maybe this is well-known to everyone and holds a place of honor and devotion in everyone’s collection. Maybe not. It was released quite a while ago for pop music but I think it holds ip well, especially when compared with some of its contemporaries.
This was the last album by the original line-up of Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’ post-Clash band. In the previous three albums (including the second co-written and produced by Joe Strummer) he had continued and expanded his Clash work, moving deeper into dance music but minding the political, social, and psychological themes of the former band. By this album he was creating music that couldn’t be fully recreated organically, using tons of samples and programming. It is a beauty of a headphone album, layers still revealing themselves twenty years on. It is dance music with a brain, if you want to think while you move or move while you think. Some of the sentiments are more political than others, but I honestly listen to disc not for the opinions but for the beats. BAD II went on to greater commercial success and didn’t lose a step musically, morphing further to Big Audio before Jones shut down that operation to co-found Carbon/Silicon and work with the Gorillaz.
But here, as I was graduating college, BAD was delivering further studies at the disco. At 59 minutes, the album is basically a great set from a superb band. It is sequenced seamlessly and to tell you the truth I can’t tell you where one track ends and the next begins. There are 17 cuts, but four of them are intros, outros, or bridges—not that they are any less compelling. After a spoken, spacy, slightly spooky, open, an MC announces ‘the best band in West London, B.A.D.!’ and an organ riff and massed voices begins ‘Rewind.’ Percussion joins and samples drift in and out (the samples are ubiquitous for the album, and contribute to the party mood. The listener catches snips from numerous speakers, just like being in a crowd.) At 2:42 the character and rhythm of the song changes slightly; the tempo doesn’t really change, but the listener becomes aware of the song heading for a climax as new voices start discussing music—this song, itself?—and other voices join in as a single chord is repeated, pulling us to the next track as instruments drop out, leaving just the chord and the original organ with a new riff until ‘All Mink and No Manners’ tumbles into a drum kit to begin. A faraway horn and backward orchestra introduce this tiny bridge, which includes what sounds like a movie quote with the title phrase. The horn part is looped, flanged, and distorted, then joined by a vocal hook that swiftly give way to ‘Union, Jack,’ which opens with a traditional brass rendering of ‘Rule, Britannia.’ Don’t get comfortable though, because that dissolves before a combined house beat and a loop from ‘Honky Tonk Women.’ Nothing less than a recruitment appeal—‘Your country needs you to play football’—this begins to reveal where Mick Jones’ heart lies. Unlike his peers whose legacy is ‘No future,’ it’s been pointed out that Mick went from ‘London’s Burning’ to ‘London Calling’ to track 15 here, ‘London Bridge.’ He doesn’t believe in no future; he’s not giving up. This is a gently patriotic call to find what you believe in and stand up for it. And, surprise, it’s danceable. (I’ll leave that unsaid for the balance of the album. Take it as written.)
‘Contact’ was a single. After 20 seconds of mixed samples and playout from ‘Union, Jack,’ this starts with a fiddle figure and ‘ooh-ooh-ooh’ choruses, kicks in a bouncy beat, and some lovely samples (like ‘My Generation’) and a synth solo make this 1990 state-of-the-art techno. When other parts fade out and leave the drumbeat, another sample, a wholly objectionable clip about the Chinese, fades into a sample from George Formby and ‘Dragon Town’ begins. Pretty straight-forward: an ode to the wonders of the Orient. Take that as you will. Faster tempo than ‘Contact,’ which works great. A softer vocal from Mick, but it feels more insistent nonetheless. With a fadeout on a sample nicked from Wings’ ‘Silly Love Songs’, ‘Baby, Don’t Apologize’ commences. (The samples sometimes provide a clue or sarcastic irony about the song. Here, I think Mick wants us to consider ‘Dragon Town’ his silly love song for the album.)
Just a note here: every song is packed with hooks, whether vocal, instrumental, programmed, sampled—you find your foot tapping, your head bobbing, humming lines that may be melody, rhythm, bass—the disc digs into your memory and you think of lyrical snippets and riffs for weeks. The only thing more amazing than the work itself is the number of remixes from the album that show how much potential there was even after the disc was ‘done.’
So—‘Baby, Don’t Apologize.’ The other end of the affair from ‘Dragon Town.’ A breakup song, but not a downer—there are none of those. Mick establishes who he is and why the relationship just won’t work out. It’s no one’s fault, just the way it is. A simple fact, but so hard to grasp for nearly everyone. A sample asks ‘is this the way it’s gonna be from now on?’ and Mick answers ‘What you see is what you get, without apology.’ Really, too mature an attitude for a pop song.
‘Is Yours Working Yet?’ is a long bridge with a quavering synth line, a great Alfred Hitchcock sample, and an instrumental break that resolves with what sounds like a silent-movie organ before it distorts and ‘Around the Girl in 80 Ways’ begins, with Mick helping the bachelor out to land in ‘Dragon Town’ and not have to say ‘Baby, Don’t Apologize.’ Another hook showcase coupled with a skippy organ line, snappy rhythm and encouraging rap verses make this a winner. That rounds out side one, as a pair of samples lead us to…
‘James Brown.’ I’ve said before that modern music is pretty much equal parts James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Charlie Rich. Unfortunately almost none of the acts who have stolen those stalwarts’ work are capable of doing what they did with it. Mick has a list of influences and heroes on the liner to this album that show you clearly where he’s coming from (when you buy the record, you’ll see what I mean), and naming the lead track on side after one of them is not only bold, it’s almost fearless. This track is so strong it not only earns the name, the remix I have with emphasis moved to different beats is possibly even better, proving Mick is more than worthy to claim his place beside the Godfather. A synth bass line comes in after the opening sample of James speaking…from prison? ‘Now I just can’t say exactly what did happen. You just don’t understand unless you been through it.’ Could be. Car horns are stretched to sound like a string section, there is a vocal scream that surfaces like a guitar riff, and the verses, such as they are, are smooth and entered almost like speech, but not rap. The story is what actually happened as James might tell it. The chorus: It’s a man’s man’s world in America/Jump back, kiss myself/Please, please, please in America/Slipping into hell. Art and artist. Maybe he did terrible things, but he unquestionably did beautiful things. This is Mick’s reminder to us all not forget or destroy the latter just because of the former. James has the last word as well as the first: ‘I’m sorry.’ What else is there to say?
After that, ‘Everybody Needs a Holiday.’ 34 seconds of intro, then another fifteen seconds of sample, then the song begins in earnest almost a minute in. Am I saying the time is wasted? Not at all. This is a much lighter, reassuring testimony to the rejuvenating power of taking a break, an offer to take the responsibility off while the listener chills. One of the riffs here is whistled, the definition of carefree. Everything here—harmonica fills, slightly dirty guitar, even the sound effects of people stretching—encourages the listener to relax, if not sit down.
‘Mick’s a Hippie Burning’—don’t really know what to make of this. Think of a 2:30 ‘Revolution 9’—tape loops, backward tapes, snips and bits that apparently didn’t work out but were too interesting to toss. It’s fun, and even danceable in that the rhythm is steady. Easy to see a dozen reasons it wasn’t picked for a single, but not bad by any means. Think of it as a long intro for ‘House Arrest,’ the too-clever-for-its-own-good account of a night out with the sex, drugs, and rock and roll we all know take place. ‘UV, dry ice, and DJ.’ Oh yeah, samples from ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I wish U heaven.’ There’s even a raid. Almost sounds like Mick doesn’t like the scene he’s helping to perpetuate. Sounds like fun, though.
Maybe it’s the paddy wagon crashing into a wall that makes the whooshing, gong-banging noise that opens ‘The Green Lady,’ another visit to the Orient. Does that make it repetitive or derivative of ‘Dragon Town.’ Never. The horns (bagpipes? synthesizer?) evoke more of a middle-eastern sound, but the singer is ruminating on a ‘lady from the Orient.’ Still, in the most unadorned section, he exhorts her to ‘Dry your eyes, Salome/Mona Lisa, too/Lady in a picture frame/My heart belongs to you,’ so it seems not to be a true journey anyway.
The aforementioned ‘London Bridge’ is the love letter to Mick’s grey old lady in particular that ‘Union, Jack’ hinted at. Although he wants you to ‘give me dollars/I don’t want pounds,’ ‘I still love this town/from the Tower to the underground.’ It’s honest and eloquent, straight-forward and simple. Joyous, even.
An odd choice for the last full song, ‘Stalag 123’ is the writers’-block staple, writing a song about being unable to write a song. Sounds like he succeeded after all. The writer is ‘fixing on a jailbreak/but the door is open wide.’ Seriously, how miserable can the life of a rock star be? He seems to be dealing ok, and admits as much in the song. This one lopes along, complete with samples from ‘The Great Escape,’ a synth-horn figure, and echo-filled multi-tracked vocals, with Mick’s Jimi-Prince guitar providing stings and a coda, ‘End,’ that finishes off (the album) with a couple more samples and a truncated, distorted piano solo. All-in-all, maybe what the Beatles would have worked up, at least in part, 20 years on. More danceable than anything any of them did singly, including ‘Cloud 9.’ Growth and development in all kinds of Western music traditions, thought-provoking dance music, a textbook of how to use the studio as an instrument—there’s a lot to get from this album.
The works of Mick Jones are what I’d take to the desert island. If you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and give it a try.