Saturday, May 14, 2011

Colin and Mick: The Nicer-Voiced, Hit-Writing Second Fiddles

Mick Jones
Colin Moulding

As sugar is to coffee and tonic is to vodka, so were the songs of Mick Jones and Colin Moulding to the catalogs of The Clash and XTC, respectively.

Few would argue with my stating that The Clash were largely Joe Strummer's band and XTC, Andy Partridge's. However, as forceful as Joe and Andy's voices were, or however much they owned the stage and the spotlight, each of them needed foils to sweeten their medicine.

Trivia Question: Which of the following bands did The Clash never share a bill with?
a) The Fall
b) XTC
c) The Grateful Dead

Answer: b) XTC

From today's standpoint, one might think that at some time in history, The Clash and XTC would have crossed paths. After all, they both
--toured relentlessly from 1977-82
--were increasingly fond of adding ska/reggae and disco to their initially aggressive sounds
--consistently released high quality, increasingly ambitious albums
--inched toward the mainstream with each album
--were proudly British
--had drummers named Terry with last names beginning with "Ch" (though Terry Chimes was only in for a bit and was nowhere as good as Topper Headon) (and of course, I'm joking)

However, after some light research, besides appearing on a couple of the same charity compilation albums, the two never shared a stage. In fact, it was their differences that really kept them apart.

--XTC ended up on the "New Wave" side of the fence, The Clash on the "punk" side.
--XTC were country yokels from Swindon. The Clash were hardened punks from London.
--XTC were adopted mostly by bookish types who weren't concerned with seeming "hard". The Clash got all the punks, many of whom got off on the violence that The Clash were actually against.
--In America,  The Clash attracted people like Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Martin Scorsese....The Clash were exotic creatures for these accepted outcasts to check out and be photographed with and tell the world that they didn't bite and did read books. And looked CUUUTE SCOWLING AND POUTING IN LEATHER!
XTC got a tiny bit of attention from their elders (namely, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant were fans), but they didn't seem dangerous or greasy or sexy or remotely interested in the drug scene, so they weren't championed by the same types. They attracted a lot of fellow male musicians.

 XTC is to The Clash as Mike Nesmith is to Gram Parsons. There are a lot of similarities, but in the end, image and presentation wins out in the hipster history books. XTC had no image or attitude. When they tried to go with a look, they looked dorky. Whereas The Clash looked good dressed in leather, or as gangsters, or in suits, or in military duds...they were just lucky that way. And they did it up right.

1981: Nice lads. Not terribly hip. 
1981: Before you go out, do you know what you look like?
The Clash surely did. 

But all that isn't really the point of this essay. The point is to highlight the similarities in the roles played by Colin Moulding and Mick Jones in their respective bands.

Mick Jones live in 1978
Colin Moulding live in 1978

Mid 1977--early 1978
The Clash's eponymous debut and XTC's debut White Music are both released. Jones and Moulding each sing two or three songs on these albums, but stylistically, the songs sound pretty interchangeable with the songs Strummer and Partridge sing. Moulding in fact seems to be even a bit stranger and more anti-melodic than Partridge, not really yet having grasped the pop songwriting formula (oh, but very soon he would!)
Some B sides begin to show differences in style. One of these B-sides, The Clash's "The Prisoner", is one of my absolute favorite Clash songs. The guitar solo in it is noteworthy--very "out" for a Clash song.

1978--The Clash release Give 'Em Enough Rope, XTC release Go 2.
On Give 'Em Enough Rope, Mick Jones wrote and sang "Stay Free". In the context of the album, which otherwise is made up of Strummer's always excellent rants and raves about oppression and youth culture, "Stay Free" is pretty much a straight up pop song (with an F-Bomb) which is Jones' shout out to an old classmate (and count me among the many who first heard it as a love song-- in fact, its real life subject does go along with it being a platonic love song).
Meanwhile, On Go 2, Colin Moulding has an unprecedented FOUR songs, all very good. Three of them are in a row. He's slowly developing his own style--for example he's learned how to construct a melody--but still, the songs still seem to owe a debt to Andy Partridge's jagged, herky jerky quirky style.

1979--The Clash release London Calling; XTC release Drums and Wires (not a bad year for new music...)
And now we have Mick and Colin each standing confidently apart from their leaders, proudly presenting songs that are just as good and distinctive from Joe and Andy's efforts. Most importantly,  they each provided BONA FIDE HIT SONGS on these albums: "Train in Vain" and "Making Plans For Nigel", respectively. These are songs that, for all the high-minded, artistic visions that Strummer and Partridge may have had, put The Clash and XTC on the radio, on magazine covers, in department stores, school dances and housewives' kitchens. Pure, high quality sugar. The cotton at the end of the Q-tip. The gravy. You know what I'm saying. Strummer's angry bellows and Partidge's hyper barking were just not the soundtrack for a Sunday drive with Mum and Dad. These are the songs still found on New Wave Hits collections and which artists (and 80's cover bands) are still covering. More radio-friendly voices and photo-friendly mugs.

In addition, Jones has the near-hit "Lost in the Supermarket", the dance-rocker "I'm Not Down" and the indescribable, very very un-Clash sounding ( even on an album that embraces several styles), "The Card Cheat". Moulding has two ADDITIONAL songs released as singles: "Life Begins at the Hop" and "Ten Feet Tall". He also delivers what I consider to be one of the hands down coolest XTC songs, "Day In, Day Out". Partridge is beginning to grumble about his songs getting a fraction of the production time in the studio because the label sees Colin as the golden goose. Still, Partridge plays a big part in these songs--arranging them and delivering extremely innovative guitar solos.

Here are some video versions of the hit songs. Gritty bootleg clips, to keep it real.

This first taste of stardom had surprisingly predictable effects on Jones and Moulding. The rest of The Clash were no angels, but they did feel that Jones, who got into the very un-punk, very expensive, very bearded-Hollywood-type drug, cocaine, was beginning to stand apart from the band. And Moulding, while still a team-player, allowed Virgin to talk him into recording a solo single, which vanished without a trace. Frankly, the songs aren't his best by any stretch. Also, he came very close to leaving his wife and kid for an Australian groupie. But the bands were what the people wanted, so everything remained status quo.

1980--The Clash are still promoting the double LP London Calling, touring a bunch, and recording their TRIPLE LP, Sandanista. XTC record and release Black Sea, their most bombastic-sounding, yet user-friendly album yet.
On Black Sea, Moulding has two songs. "Love At First Sight" is fluff with a dated Linn Drum-driven disco beat. But his other song, "Generals and Majors" becomes another hit. With its anti-war sentiment (but no real lyrical sunstance) and ska-feel, it's sort of Clash-lite. But what XTC lacked in street punk ballsiness, they made up for with hooks galore.

1981--The Clash release the monster triple LP Sandanista!. Mick Jones' best tune on it, in my opinion, is "Somebody Got Murdered". Spooky, moody, hooky.
Meanwhile, XTC spent 1981 touring the world, making some progress in becoming as big as the band they often supported, The Police. However, again, the fact that they had no gimmick or overt sexuality, many mainstream fans just had nothing to grasp on to. Awesome music and amazing live shows just weren't enough. And this was starting to really bother Andy Partridge, who gave every show his all. XTC also recorded what would be their most ambitious album to date.

1982--XTC release the double LP English Settlement. Finally, Andy Partridge scores the biggest hit, with "Senses Working Overtime". Just in time for his panic attack breakdown which immediately put an end to their touring days, and thus, their slow rise to mainstream fame. On English Settlement, Colin has four songs, the spooky "Runaways", the sugary/somewhat political "Ball and Chain", the so-described "insect punk" "Fly on the Wall" and the Police-like "English Roundabout". None of them are hits, though "Ball and Chain" is released as a single. This pretty much ends Colin's reign of hit-making (until his 1989 lite pop "King For a Day" from Oranges and Lemons)
Meanwhile, The Clash are now pretty much accepted by the mainstream, as they open for The Who at Shea Stadium, appear on the cover of magazines which mostly ignored punk, and most importantly, Mick Jones delivers the mammoth hit, "Should I Stay or Should I Go". However, The Clash are quickly unraveling. Joe Strummer disappears, takes up running, gives up drugs and kicks Mick Jones out of the band.
Though both bands carried on for varying lengths of time, 1982 saw the last of each band's original formula. A stellar 5 year run for both of them.

So, here's a Spotify playlist paying tribute to the two alternate, more friendly voices in each band.
Of course, to start, each are adopting "the punk pose" before gradually settling into their more comfortable pop clothes.

Protex Blue    1:44    The Clash    Clash On Broadway
Cross Wires    2:07    XTC    White Music
Hate & War    2:06    The Clash    The Clash
Instant Tunes    2:31    XTC    White Music
Remote Control    3:03    The Clash    The Clash [UK]
Crowded Room    2:53    XTC    Go 2
The Prisoner    3:01    The Clash    Super Black Market Clash
I Am The Audience    3:48    XTC    Go 2
Jail Guitar Doors    3:04    The Clash    Super Black Market Clash
Making Plans For Nigel    4:14    XTC    Drums &Wires
Stay Free    3:40    The Clash    Give 'Em Enough Rope
Day In Day Out    3:08    XTC    Drums & Wires
1-2 Crush On You    2:58    The Clash    Super Black Market Clash
Life Begins At The Hop    3:49    XTC    Drums &Wires
Gates Of The West    3:27    The Clash    Super Black Market Clash
Ten Feet Tall    3:17    XTC    Drums &Wires
Lost in the Supermarket    3:47    The Clash    London Calling
Limelight    2:27    XTC    Drums &Wires (bonus track)
The Card Cheat    3:50    The Clash    London Calling
Love At First Sight    3:08    XTC    Black Sea
I'm Not Down    3:06    The Clash    London Calling
Generals And Majors    4:05    XTC    Black Sea
Train in Vain    3:10    The Clash    London Calling
Runaways    4:35    XTC    English Settlement
Somebody Got Murdered    3:35    The Clash    Sandanista!
Ball And Chain    4:33    XTC    English Settlement
Should I Stay or Should I Go    3:10    The Clash    Combat Rock
Fly On The Wall    3:19    XTC    English Settlement

1 comment:

  1. One difference is that Mick Jones actually wrote a lot of or major portions of songs that Joe Strummer sang