The Clash’s bass smasher and style icon returns next month with a new album, Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day?, made with Galen Ayers, the singer-songwriting daughter of Soft Machines’s Kevin Ayers. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview, Simonon revisits joining The Clash, the tensions that broke them apart and the reunion that never was...
Portrait: Tom Oldham
The Clash story starts in late 1976 when you accompanied a friend to an audition for Mick Jones’s group The London SS.
Yeah, they asked me to sing [Jonathan Richman’s] Roadrunner and [The Standells’] Barracuda: “I’m a young barracuda, don’t mess with me…” or whatever. I couldn’t relate to that at all, and I’d never heard of Jonathan Richman. I was later told that [manager] Bernie Rhodes said, “Mick, get rid of your group and start a band with that bloke that just left.” We started hanging out and Mick taught me to play bass. I would play along with reggae records, and The Ramones when it came out. Me and Sid Vicious both used to play along with that.
It’s good for the engine – (mimes picking furiously) “der-der-der-der…”
What was the highlight of The Clash for you?
Going to Jamaica, for the first time [in April 1980]. Being in Studio One, where all these great records were made, it was amazing, and we were dead lucky having Mikey Dread around, though we all had to pile into his Renault and skedaddle when we heard some gunmen were on their way to the studio, after money. He introduced me to all these people, like [singer] Edi Fitzroy… We went to Prince Buster’s shop, which was a bit dusty by this period. It made a full connection to my growing up and background.
Topper Headon was fired in 1982, Mick followed in 1983… were you zen about The Clash’s intra-band turbulence?
I don’t know how to put it politely… (Pause) Mick had his way of doing things. He liked to be in his hotel watching TV and he loved having room service – and I don’t blame him. It was probably like it was for him at home with his nan, who’d cook his dinner while he watched TV. For me and Joe, we’d like to go out and explore the town. And Mick did get grumpy. That famous line from Strummer that Mick was “like Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood”. After six or seven years we’d had enough of it. We looked at each other and said, “OK, then, shall we cut our right arm off?” Because Mick was so important.
How had the atmosphere in the group changed?
We were 27 by then or whatever, we were grown men. I was losing patience with Mick and he was probably pissed off with me too. I didn’t feel good about it. But I’m not going to apologise because he became a brat. But then, maybe we were all about to become brats. We were so mollycoddled by then, people running around after us all the time on tour. We were getting too pampered. So it was a good way of getting un-pampered.
What do you think of the five-piece Clash Mk II today?
The best thing was the busking tour [in May 1985]. It was as exciting as the White Riot tour. But it took on another agenda that was led by Bernie and Kosmo [Vinyl, band aide]. With [final LP Cut The Crap], they suggested I go back to painting in New York, maybe as a ruse to get me out of the studio so Joe could finish the album. I said to Joe, “We’ve never had an argument, so I’ll let you finish the record how you want.” But then when I got back from New York, Joe had left the sessions and Bernie had taken over. I didn’t hear from Joe for a good few weeks. Then my dad had a serious car accident, which killed his wife. He ended up in hospital with a cage holding his head together. Then The Clash ended.
There were always rumours of a Clash re-formation in the early ’90s. What actually happened?
There was talk between me, Joe, Mick and Mick’s manager, Gary Kurfirst, who was looking after Mick in B.A.D. But it didn’t happen for lots of reasons. Like what? I was getting pissed off with Mick. I said, “I don’t want to do it.” Mick said, “Why not? You’ll get a million pounds.” That pissed me off even more. So I said, “I don’t want a fucking million pounds.” I think he was a bit shocked that I wasn’t keen on the idea. And I don’t think Joe would have really wanted to do it either. For me The Clash story was over. Joe and I really liked Lawrence Of Arabia, and I liked T.E. Lawrence’s book, The Mint [where Lawrence shuns fame for an anonymous life
as an ‘erk’ in the RAF].
When The Clash were due to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, there was more talk of a reunion…
They wanted us to play on the stage at the ceremony. I said, “I’m not doing that.” So Joe said, “OK, maybe we’ll get Mani to do it.” I said, “OK, go on then…” I had no interest in those kind of awards things. I don’t want a pat on the back.
Strummer died suddenly at Christmas 2002, before the reunion issue could be resolved. You spoke at Joe’s funeral – was that hard?
Yes. (Pause) Some time before that, we met up at the Earl Percy pub in Ladbroke Grove one night, and Joe said he had something really important to tell me. The gravitas of the way he said it, in retrospect I wonder if it was something about his heart. I know when you sign a record contract you take a medical. Maybe he discovered something? He could have died at one or 90. It happened to be 50. (Sighs) Bullseye.
“Punk was exhilarating, it kept you on your toes…” Read MOJO’s interview with Paul Simonon in full!
Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? By Galen & Paul is released May 19 by Sony Music.
BECOME A MOJO MEMBER today and receive every new issue of MOJO on your smart phone or tablet to listen to or read. Enjoy access to an archive of previous issues, exclusive MOJO Filter emails with the key tracks you need to hear each week, plus a host of member-only rewards and discounts.