Punk’s eye view of pop culture down the years
Keiron PimThe Clash were perhaps the greatest British band to come out of the 1970s, and guitarist Mick Jones was central to their success. Now a new exhibition of Jones' pop memorabilia can be seen in Norwich.Keiron Pim
'No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977,' declared Joe Strummer in an incendiary single by The Clash. But as an exhibition opening in Norwich reveals, all these cultural influences and many more were rattling around the head of the man credited as the band's musical director: Mick Jones.
For the last 40 years Jones has been hoarding memorabilia from his explorations through popular culture. As The Clash's lead guitarist he stood at the very heart of the punk movement, and with songs like White Riot and London's Burning he and the late Joe Strummer articulated the tensions simmering in the suburbs.
But while they began with the 'here's three chords, go form a band' DIY ethic that fuelled the punk explosion of 1976, The Clash never truly held the intolerant Year Zero attitude exhibited by some leaders of the movement. They may have decried Elvis et al around the time of their scorching self-titled 1977 debut album, but at heart they were more generous and open-minded than that. If the music excited them then that was good enough… so with thrilling disregard for musical boundaries, by the time they reached their musical apex in their third record, London Calling, audible influences spanned 1950s rock'n'roll (their cover of Brand New Cadillac), then-contemporary Jamaican roots reggae (bassist Paul Simonon's Guns of Brixton) and American soul-pop (Jones's sweetly sung Train in Vain), to name only a few of the strands that entwine on that glorious double LP.
While the Sex Pistols supposedly kicked bassist Glenn Matlock out for 'liking the Beatles', Jones never had a problem with them, as the presence of various Beatles fan club magazines at this wildly eclectic show at Norwich University College of the Arts demonstrates. Where the Pistols' spittle-flecked manifesto served up hatred and nihilism, The Clash offered earnest political conscience allied to a humanist generosity of spirit and inquiring interest in the wider world that's evident in this exhibition.
Entitled The Rock and Roll Public Library, the collection includes many items garnered during the days of The Clash and Jones' subsequent band, Big Audio Dynamite. Guitars and stage clothes nestle by posters, books, album covers and videos. Flight cases hinting at The Clash's globe-spanning tours and the gold disc for their greatest album, London Calling, remind us of their commercial success. More recent are the wellington boots that Kate Moss and Pete Doherty customised for Jones to wear at Glastonbury, and a painting that Doherty smeared with his blood and gifted to Jones, who produced two of Doherty's albums with The Libertines and Babyshambles.
It is not only about music, mind, as there are artefacts from across the pop-cultural spectrum. The Complete Carry On Videos, assorted Marvel comics, Doctor Who memorabilia, an autograph book containing the signatures of England's 1966 World Cup winners, the Classic John Wayne Collection Volume One. Wandering through the cluttered rows of metal shelving and poster-covered walls amount to a journey through the contents of a pop culture obsessive's mind.
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This is the show's first appearance outside London, where it debuted last spring at the Chelsea Space; prior to that the archive spent 17 years in a vast lock-up beneath the Westway in Acton, The Clash's west London spiritual home. At the time Jones gave an insight into the collection's creation and the thinking behind presenting it as a public library.
'I started collecting things when I was very young and I didn't really know why,' he said. 'Then at the Millennium, the change of the century, it started to become clear. I realised I wanted to share it.
'It's a fantastic collection people can take great pleasure from and also learn something.
'The Rock and Roll Public Library comprises a personal, cultural and social history of our times, and through that it extends beyond the local to the global.'
Jones, now aged 54, was an only child whose parents divorced when he was eight, his mother departing for America, leaving him 'with little parental control'. His maternal grandmother largely raised him. He started collecting odds and ends as a way to create his own world. 'If you are a young working class boy in London, you have to make a choice between sport or music. I made the choice for music,' he said.
He attended Hammersmith Art School, while Strummer and Simonon attended Central St Martin's and Byam Shaw respectively. This made them three in a long line of British art students-turned-rock stars; Keith Richards, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Jarvis Cocker, PJ Harvey and Florence and the Machine are a few others spanning the last half-century.
For NUCA principal John Last this connection, complemented by The Clash's participation in a Rock Against Racism gig at West Runton Pavilion in 1979, made the Rock and Roll Public Library a natural fit for the Norwich institution's gallery.
'In this digital age archives and documents are increasingly central to the study of contemporary art,' he says.
'This archive represents 'The Knowledge' that our culture is based on. How can we refresh our knowledge of what really happened over the last 40 years to art, rock, history and politics? We can trust this archive more than we would the normal sources.
'Mick Jones shows us that the 'garbage bin of history' spilt out on to the streets at the time of The Clash. Our young people will remain indebted to Mick Jones as they continue to piece together their own complex histories in the decades to come.'
Their formal art school training shaped the band members' thinking and still does today: Simonon now makes a living as a painter, Jones considers this library as an evolving piece of art. If punk's howl of rage often veered into wilful stupidity - see Sid Vicious and Sigue Sigue Sputnik's swastika T-shirts - then The Clash's anger was generally channelled more intelligently. Take the heartfelt Spanish Bombs, an 'echo of the days of '39' that name-checked the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and hailed the idealist spirit of the International Brigade.
But then again defining musical genres is a reductive exercise. Other than sharing a time, place and initially at least a musical aesthetic, The Clash had little in common with punk's moronic army of three-chord-wonders doomed never to play anywhere bigger than the spilt-beer-and-sweat-soaked back rooms of half-empty London pubs; Terry and the Idiots, where are you now? Anyone who has seen Lech Kowalski's 1979 punk documentary DOA will probably have wondered the same. As Jones once said of his music to the American rock writer Lester Bangs, 'it ain't punk and it ain't New Wave. Call it what you want; all the terms stink. Just call it rock 'n' roll.'
From his art school days Jones began knocking around with west London rock'n'roll bands. In the early 1970s rock music magazines sent across the Atlantic by his mother gave him a thrilling connection to the nascent New York scene. Those dog-eared copies of Creem and Rock Scene appear in the exhibition alongside vintage editions of the NME and Melody Maker.
Years before the two men met, Lester Bangs' inspired screeds introduced Jones to The Ramones and Patti Smith. Later, with typical glorious verbosity, Bangs would fill nine pages of the NME with his account of six days on the road with The Clash. He called the band 'righteous', comparing their egalitarian attitude with the distant snootiness of the rock aristocracy, which by 1977 is what the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin had become; and he asked Jones, ever the earthy Londoner, how his politics related to the Clash's fiery stage shows. He got a short response.
'The fact that Mick would make a joke out of it only shows how far they're going towards the realisation of all the hopes we ever had about rock'n'roll as utopian dream,' Bangs wrote. 'Because if rock'n'roll is truly the democratic art form, then the democracy has got to begin at home; that is, the everlasting and totally disgusting walls between artists and audience must come down, elitism must perish, the 'stars' have got to be humanised, demythologised, and the audience has got to be treated with more respect. Otherwise it's all a shuck, a rip-off, and the music is as dead as the Stones' and Led Zep's has become…
'The ultimate question is how long a group like The Clash can continue to practise total egalitarianism in the face of mushrooming popularity. Must the walls go up inevitably, eventually, and if so when?'
The band's success eventually pushed them to breaking point, Jones's sacking in 1983 for habitual unreliability signalling the beginning of the end, but that same old 'tearing down the walls' spirit finds its current expression in the Rock and Roll Public Library.
As Jones put it recently: 'Ultimately I'd like to have a permanent place to exhibit the whole collection like a museum, like a library where you can come and see the stuff and maybe get a copy or sit there and read it.
'I also would like to bring artists there, because it's history really.'
Mick Jones: The Rock and Roll Public Library, sponsored by M+A Partners chartered accountants, runs from April 13 until May 22 at The Gallery at Norwich University College of the Arts, St George's Street, Norwich. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Entry is free.
The exhibition is held in association with the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2010. See www.nnf10.org.uk for more details.