AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL SIMONON
"What made a big difference was the open door policy we had. Anyone who wanted to come backstage could, and it was never a problem. I don't know whether other bands did that. It was good for us to meet people who had come to see the group and converse with them, ask them 'What's it like in your town? What, there are no clubs here? So what do you do?' It was about sharing information and it was good to know what was going on out there, and how people were dealing with their lives. And that spread right across the world"
Paul Simonon of The Clash talks to Ben Myers
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3AM: How does it feel today, looking back on footage that only previously existed as memories?
PS: You do feel displaced in so far as thinking 'Who are those handsome young men?' (laughing). But, yeah, it's strange looking at yesterday and seeing yourself documented in that way. It's shocking but it's hilarious because back then it all seemed normal. At that age you're like an open book because you're less experienced, so when the producer comes in and starts smashing chairs and throwing ladders around you think, 'Oh well, this is what happens...' To a point, anyway.
3AM: You've said on many occasions that the making of this album was one of the happiest times for you in the studio -- when you came into your own as musician.
PS: Really it was Guy's injection of a live energy and enthusiasm that was contagious. We tended to stand up when we were playing a number, and occasionally sit down, but once Guy was in the room there was no time for sitting down because either a chair or ladder might crack you on the head. The thing about London Calling is that it has the quality of a band playing live then and there, which comes down to Guy Stevens, as opposed to the different role of Sandy Pearlman on the previous album [1978's Give 'Em Enough Rope]. Sandy Pearlman was able to extract the live Clash performance and produce it in a very technically spot-on way, whereas Guy's approach was to go in all directions, leave the tape running, charge ahead and everything would be great. Record one song, move onto the next one. Give 'Em Enough Rope is a solid rock record but it was quite different to our debut too. Sandy Pearlman wanted to put the lab coat on and create this supersonic sound, which I think he achieved, but on London Calling Guy was able to translate what we were trying to do in a more human form.
3AM: As with so many people before me, listening to The Clash document and mythologize London was a major factor in me moving down form the North to the city. I now live in the Camberwell-Peckham area.
PS: Well, I know Camberwell very well: I used to go to Camberwell New Baths a lot and the cinema, which used to be the Odeon. My old school is around there too, though you've got to understand that I went to a lot of schools.
3AM: You made London sound like an adventure playground. 'Guns Of Brixton' was a pretty bleak and violent little commentary, but I thought: 'I want to go there'.
PS: Well, you've got your fair share of things going on up North in… where is it?…it sounds like a Durham accent (laughing). You just need someone to sing about it. I suppose you've got Roger Whittaker. Perhaps he could update 'Old Durham Town' into something more contemporary. That was always a big thing with The Clash: writing about what's on your doorstep. But after a while we had become grown men, certainly by London Calling and, having travelled, we had become more worldly and our thoughts more international, as opposed to being eighteen, nineteen, and getting the group to sing about 'Career Opportunities' or 'Garageland'.
3AM: When did you first become politicised?
PS: To be honest, I didn't have much choice. When I was pretty young my dad decided we didn't have to go to Catholic church anymore, and went on to join the Communist Party. But what I couldn't get was how comes I was the one out delivering the leaflets and he was the one at home watching the telly! So I was aware of the political system and also, obviously, because I grew up listening to a lot of reggae -- music that had more edge than a lot of contemporary music as far as political content -- it seemed normal. For Joe it was folk music, people like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. For all of us there was the knowledge that a song can be about things other than love, kissing and…having a nice dance.
3AM: Was there a lot of discussion in the early days about the band's presentation as a political force, or was it more natural process?
PS: Very much. You have to understand that Bernie Rhodes was integral to the birth of The Clash. After rehearsals we'd sit down and ask each other what we wanted out of it and there's that famous line about Terry Chimes replying 'I want a Lamborghini', which was fine for him. But, yeah, we cross-referenced with each other, and asked 'Where are were going? What makes this band different?', rather than 'Let's all get drunk, pull birds and play guitars and that's it'. We wanted more depth, a more human approach.
3AM: Would the band have been as powerful or effective without the aesthetic edge? A lot of which came from you: the Jackson Pollock clothes, the military look...
PS: That was why we had so much trouble with our record company, because they were used to groups who didn't have a clue about where they were going, how they wanted to dress or whatever. But because of Bernie everything needed to be in-house: all ideas came from the group itself, which was why we were such a tight unit in that respect. This was especially true during London Calling because we'd parted with Bernie and left our rehearsal studio in Camden because it belonged to him, the Pistols had split up, Sid had died and we felt quite alone in some ways. We found the place in Pimlico and became even tighter. In this type of environment you get tighter, to the point where you didn't even need to talk when you were playing, because there was a natural communication there.
3AM: In Johnny Green's book it really becomes apparent how skint the band were at that stage, something perhaps which the punk police and critics failed to recognise as you began to progress form being a punk band to an international rock 'n' roll band.
PS: That's it. You could say that our backs were against the wall and we had to get on with the job at hand, which is why the album came out the way that it did. The second album hadn't been very well received and people were throwing accusations around that we'd sold out.
3AM: You were criticized -- as many political bands are -- for being idealistic, but I've never seen idealism as being a negative thing. It's often from idealism that great ideas flourish.
PS: That was up to us -- we could be as idealistic as we liked. If someone knocked us down for that then that was up to them, but it was our group and we did things our way. It might be the wrong way, but at least we were trying: why don't you go and try your way if you think it's better? Better to be idealistic than the opposite...
3AM: You were the member of The Clash who was actually most friendly with the Sex Pistols and John Lydon's circle of friends. What are your memories?
PS: The first time I saw John was at the Nashville. I sort of knew Steve, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, and I knew of John because Bernie Rhodes talked about him, but had never met him. John seemed like he had a pretty strong attitude towards the audience -- or anybody -- insofar as it wasn't 'Pleased to meet you, this is my little group' and more a case of 'I don't give a toss about you, I'm on the stage and I'll do what I like'. If you think about that period most of the world was still in flares and had long hair, and here's this character with a ripped-up jumper and cropped hair. The first time we had a conversation was outside the Screen On The Green and he was with a bunch of his mates. I went over and asked him if he knew where I could buy some cigarettes and he said (sarcastically) 'Yeah, there's a shop about two miles in that direction'. We giggled at each other, he showed me the shop and it went from there. I haven't seen John in ages, but we seemed to have a respect for each other from the start. We both came from non-musician situations, which might have something to do with it.
3AM: Were you fans of his later work with PiL?
PS: Yeah, I thought it was brave to jump in at the deep end after the Pistols, but that's John, he doesn't do things by half measures. He's always been very clear on where he's going. A lot of people slagged him off for doing the TV thing but I thought it was good to do because people have the wrong idea of him -- like some sort of fat, bean-slurping idiot like in that Alex Cox film [Sid & Nancy]. That pissed me off, making him look like an idiot. Whereas when he did the TV show the rest of the world saw a very sharp, intelligent human being and that surprised a lot of people. They expected him to be a mindless idiot, but John has a fantastic wit, a wicked sense of humour.
3AM: The Clash were confrontational, but by 1979 punk had dissipated to a degree into a subculture interpreted by many as an excuse for violence. Did you find yourself in any particularly hair situations?
PS: Well, we didn't feel particularly comfortable walking the streets of Northern Ireland and having our photos taken dressed in what could have been seen as some new military wing of the British army: black leather jackets, SWAT-style Clash trousers. But the reason we did that session was to really promote the idea of other bands coming over to Belfast to play, because no one would. There was more trouble in the early days too when people didn't quite understand what the group was about. there'd be times you'd come offstage and there'd be darts imbedded in the backdrop (laughing). That's probably why we moved around so much…
3AM: You set out to change people's ways of thinking and you succeeded in some ways, if only by galvanizing new groups, writers, designers. Do you look back on such achievements with pride?
PS: To inspire people, even just for one second, is worth something. To be honest, we were blokes with guitars, and it's unlikely we could change the world, but at eighteen you at least think it's possible -- and it is, but maybe not in the way you first think. The amount of people who come up and say we changed their lives and gave them a whole different concept of how to look at things, is fantastic. I'm not saying we were holier than thou, we were pretty regular blokes.
3AM: And that's why people got the band: they saw something real they could relate to.
PS: What made a big difference was the open door policy we had. Anyone who wanted to come backstage could, and it was never a problem. I don't know whether other bands did that. It was good for us to meet people who had come to see the group and converse with them, ask them 'What's it like in your town? What, there are no clubs here? So what do you do?' It was about sharing information and it was good to know what was going on out there, and how people were dealing with their lives. And that spread right across the world.
3AM: What are your opinions on The Clash film, Rude Boy?
PS: It was a confusing period for us. It's great for the live performances, but I remember on many occasions asking the director what the film was about. Mick and Joe certainly asked the same, and no-one seemed to have much of a clue. The directors were busking it. As a documentation of the time it's fine, with the rise of the National Front and so on, but it's nothing more than that. The story was a bit weak and the whole situation with the black guys in Brixton...I don't know what they were trying to set up but it was a bit unclear and careless. I didn't even know that stuff was being filmed. The film-makers generally just followed us around and put the camera on from time to time. There were a few scenes that were staged or based on a loose sketch of a script, but that was about it.
3AM: You must get asked the same questions relating to the band day in and day out. Are you happy to talk about The Clash so long after the event?
PS: Actually, I don't talk about it all the time and don't really sit around thinking about it, to be honest. But then situations like re-releases or seeing new footage of Guy Stevens is like poking the pond and all the information is floating to the top again. It is a bit odd sometimes talking about it all again. It's like me doing an interview and asking you about your school, you know? It seems so far away.
3AM: What are you working on at the moment?
PS: Right now, I'm working towards another exhibition. It's not going to be London scapes this time. It'll be something very different. I'm busy, I'm productive, and that's what I fancy doing at the moment. Maybe in two years time I might fancy making an album.
PS: Maybe, maybe not. I might fancy writing a poem. Who knows!
3AM: The London scapes were very impressive. I thought the one with Battersea Power Station in the background and the light bursting through the cloud was the strongest one of that series.
PS: Thanks. That one was actually my favourite, and it was also the last one to sell, which is strange. But it's on to the next show now. I'm hoping to put it on next year. I'm working away at the moment because I like to get a large collection together so I can pick and choose about which paintings make the grade. I spend a long time pondering which works should be shown, I'm very brutal in my selection. It has to be top notch.
3AM: Do you have regular working routine when you're painting?
PS: Yes, I do. when I was doing the Thames painting I didn't have a studio at the time, so I tended to work outside. Now, though, I'm very fortunate to have a place about five minutes away from where I live and it's under the bloody Westway of all places! I can't get away from that bloody bulk. I remember seeing it being built as a kid and it's still there now. I'll probably be buried underneath it as well.
3AM: You must have seen a lot of changes in and around Notting Hill/Ladbroke Grove?
PS: You're telling me. I'm probably one of the few local yokels still living here -- a lot of people have been priced out. But then again there's a good ecosystem around here, because there's still a lot of the same housing estates, and also a lot of new businesses and fancy shops that have opened up. A couple of blocks away from me it's like Bond Street or something. The rich come in and buy their goods and maybe meet a few of the local trouble makers who might relieve them of a bit of cash, and everybody goes home relatively happy one way or another.
3AM: That's what makes London so fascinating -- the fact that millionaires can rub against some of the roughest estates in the country.
PS: It's mad. But Ladbroke Grove and Portobello has always been like that. If you look in the history books you can see that on one side there was Holland Park with its fancy houses, and on the other side, pig farmers, gypsies and brickies. It's odd.
3AM: Who are you listening to at the moment?
PS: The most recent thing I bought was Dexy's Greatest Hits, but like everyone else I've been listening to The Libertines. I still listen to music, and I still play at home, but not professionally in a club or whatever any more.
3AM: What type of stuff would you be playing if you want 20 today? Do you think it would be like The Libertines or would it be vastly different? Would you even pick up a guitar?
PS: Er...I don't really know. When I did Havana 3am we were veering towards a lot of Latin stuff. It's hard to say because every few years your headset changes. I've had various ideas, but I've put them aside because I'm really just thinking about the painting at the moment. I'm too distracted by art to seriously think about music at the moment.
3AM: Well, thanks for the time Paul.
PS: That's all right, it was nice talking to you. And good luck in Peckham!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Ben Myers is the author of the novel The Book Of Fuck (Wrecking Ball Press, 2004), which was recently nominated for the 3AM Good Sex Writing prize. His latest book is John Lydon: Sex Pistols, PIL & Anti-Celebrity (Independent Music Press). Ben lives in Peckham and is a member of the Captains Of Industry collective. You can get in touch with him here.