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The Clash Interviews: Paul Simonon, Part I

The Clash were never on any label I worked for. But they were my favorite band for a long time. I expect to write a lot about them in the memoir I’m working on. I was lucky enough to recently find a notebook filled with transcripts of interviews I did in the late ’70’s, including several with each of the members of The Clash. How did I wind up with that kind of access? Well, I promise to get to that in the book but the short version is that, as a journalist, I toured with them in England early on and we became close, especially Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. But it was Paul who was the dream interviewee, answered all my questions without any pretense or guile. The band had just been on a long grueling tour of the U.K. and Strummer was in the hospital with hepatitis and Paul was laid up at home with the flu. Mostly I was hanging around London-- on CBS Records' dime-- with Mick and his pal, Tony James, the guitar player from Generation X.

But there’s an undercurrent to this story that I’m not going to get into today except to say that the whole reason I had this great opportunity to get to know The Clash— and with all expenses paid no less— had to do with an assignment: getting to know Paul Simonon. So, already knowing him from the tour, I went over to his home. It was February and he didn’t seem that sick. He was definitely a trooper about a long, tedious interview. Maybe he was just lonely and happy to have some company. We started by talking about what he was doing before he joined The Clash just a year and a half earlier. He told me that at the time he had no interest in rock music. “There really wasn’t much going on that I liked except reggae, which I heard from the people I was around with,” he told me. “The schools I went to— most of the kids there are Black. So all I had heard was basically just reggae. I used to live in Brixton and then Ladbroke Grove, which are quite heavily populated with Blacks. The last school I went to there, there were only about 5 white kids; the rest were Black. You just sort of heard their music all the time.”

After secondary school he went to work in a factory. “I wanted to go to art school ‘cause I used to do a lot of drawing and that stuff but they wouldn’t send me because I didn’t have enough “O” levels— not enough qualifications, so none of the big art colleges would take me on. So I went to work in a factory where most of me mates went. I started taking days off to do drawing and they kicked me out of the job. So I saw an advertisement for a private art college where they take you in on the merit of your work. So they took me in and they got the government to pay for me to stay. It’s a private school [Byum Shaw School of Art] so there’s all rich people there.”

I asked him what he did there and he said mostly he was “mucking about. I just was going around to all these rich girls’ houses— getting fed, nicking paints. All I wanted when I first went there was a place of my own to work in. But they tried to get me painting squares and stuff like that all the time. I wasn’t interested in that.”

I asked him how he made the leap from being an aspiring painter to being in a rock band. “Well,” he said, “what happened, somebody I knew at art college met Mick Jones in the street. He was a drummer and he rehearsed with Mick’s old group, London SS. I was going out with some girl at the time and this drummer, he was sort of like after her and he was sayin’, ‘Why don’t you come down and see me play?’ So, she wanted to go and I didn’t want to go but in the end I went. When I went down there, Mick said ‘You’re a singer, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘no, I can’t sing.’ So he got me down there singing. It was really terrible. This is only about a year and a half ago. Then I used to hang around with Mick. He used to say to everyone, ‘This is my bass player but he can’t play.’ I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t sing; I couldn’t play instruments; I couldn’t do anything; I was useless. Mick, in fact, taught me how to play. Every note I hit, that’s all from what Mick taught me.”

He laughed and remembered that they borrowed a bass and he pointed to a very colorful one in the room. “It’s that one hanging over there on the wall. It used to belong to Tony James of Generation X— who used to be in London SS. So I painted it and because I was learning it, I painted the notes on it so I could know where to put may fingers.”

He told me how he perceived his role in The Clash, which was generating huge excitement at the time. “There’s so many things I’m interested in that’s centered around the group— the music, the words, everything. I sort of basically design the clothes. I’m very much a visual person.” Paul came up with the name The Clash and Mick had told me that Paul was responsible for the band’s look; in fact, Paul showed me a wardrobe filled with clothes he had designed.

I asked him how he felt about the band’s growing reputation as a “political band.” He was enthusiastic about it and enthusiastic to talk about it, although he noted that “It seems a bit funny when people say ‘a political band’ because I’m not really much tuned into politics. I find it quite boring. I mean we are a political band, definitely; I won’t deny it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be in the group, if I didn’t agree with it. What happens in learning a new song is like… Well, Career Opportunities for example, there was gonna be a line which I sang on the song which was something to do with pensions. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m not singing that; I don’t wanna sing about pensions.” And Mick got angry but Joe, he sort of sussed my point and agreed with me. I couldn’t relate to it.”

He’s such a creative guy that I wondered if he was writing any of the songs on the upcoming album, Give ‘em Enough Rope. I think I struck a raw nerve. “No, he said, “I do not write, but it’s very difficult; I get put off in a way that I’m always being told that I gotta learn my bass. It’s not my job to write songs. Also, when I look at the lyrics— what Mick and Joe are doing— I just think ‘That’s really good; I couldn’t do anything better than that.’ Maybe I could but I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing at the moment and sort of writing and maybe I might come up with something. I practice all the time.”

I noted that the band had just been playing for not much more than a year and that they had become one of the biggest bands in the U.K. “Yeah,” he said, “when I first joined the group— even before Joe was in it— I always sort of felt we were gonna get somewhere, ‘cause what we were doing was so different. I just felt really good in what we were doing. I knew it was the right sort of thing we were doing.”

He was living in a very modest place and I asked him if he was making any money in The Clash. “Well, we’re better off than we were a year and a half ago. I get a meal everyday so, yeah, things have improved a lot for us. We’ve got more sort of freedom now in a way that before we’d always be worrying about where we’d get our next meal. Whereas now we don’t have to worry about that so much.”

He said they want to be “a top-selling band which has got something to contribute, which people actually get off on and which can help change people’s attitudes. I mean, like we play reggae in our sets and kids come along to our concerts— and some of them are National Front-type kids [think MAGA]— and they like The Clash and when we play reggae it’s sort of like turning them away from that racialist feeling they might have, which is like changing them. Also and from what we’ve done, it’s made loads of kids that would normally go around wrecking up streets and fucking up cars, form groups. They’re doing something creative, which I think is really important and they’re enjoying it. We’re definitely not a chauvinist band. That’s one thing I feel very strongly about— attitudes towards women.”

Neither of us could imagine this would happen but he wound up marrying the lead singer of one of the bands on my indie label, Pearl Harbor, and I was very interested in what he had to say about his attitude towards women— and he had a lot to say. He told me there were no songs in that direction yet but there probably would be. Now they just put it across in interviews. “The reason I like the Patti Smith Group, for example, so much is basically the singer… well, if you compared Patti Smith to, say, Debbie Harry of Blondie, I mean… well, Debbie Harry is just sort of like ‘For Men Only’ and like The Runaways— men go to the concerts and they’re all sort of going mad because there’s some girl on the stage whose whole attitude is to make men drool and all that stuff. Whereas Patti Smith is quite sort of strong and quite honest. Slits too. Men generally expect women to be quiet and not be any trouble or anything, not to swear— to do the cooking. Patti Smith and The Slits… they’re very honest; they’re doing what they wanna do. They don’t need to bother with men— they do what they like.”

I asked him if the band was getting so big now because the whole punks scene was getting big. He didn’t think so, at least “not just ‘cause of that. I mean it does help in some ways but we’re basically just a rock’n’roll group and we’re quite different from all the other groups— not in the way of the tunes we play, but our attitudes.”

I wondered what exactly he meant by that. He said to look at Mick Jagger. “He’s had a chance to make a load of money and he has. He hasn’t done anything with it; he hasn’t put it back into the system. He hasn’t used the money— he’s just sort of floundered it. We intend to do things with the money we get— putting it to use in the way of helping other groups— like that first tour we done, the White Riot Tour. We took two groups out on the road with us and we’ve been offered quite a lot of money by record companies to take their groups out with us, but we said no and we took The Slits and Subway Sect and The Buzzcocks and we paid for The Slits and Subway Sect, for their food, their hotels, everything. That’s using our money positively. I think if you’re in a position to do that, you should do it. Joe wants to open a radio station. Every time he turns on the radio, he gets so bored with what he hears. He just wants to turn on the radio and flip stations backwards and forwards and just hear really good music. I’m not too sure what Mick wants to do… None of us want to live in the south of France and have swimming pools and stuff like that. As far as I’m concerned, I wanna stay in this country all the time; I don’t wanna move out. I don’t really care about things like that. I don’t really like swimming anyway. All I want basically is a place to live which is my own— which is a base anyway where I can do some projects. When I leave this group, I’d probably like to get into films and to do films on social things that involve kids from blocks of flats.”

I noticed there were books everywhere. I asked him if he reads a lot. He said he doesn’t. “They’re not really my books. I sort of get bored by reading. I just sort of read occasionally. I’m reading this at the moment [picks up and holds up The Second Sex which was written in 1949 by Simone De Beauvoir and was very controversial and banned by the Catholic Church]. One book that I just read that I really enjoyed was the Female Eunich [Germaine Greer’s feminist classic]. I thought that was really good, even though I didn’t agree with some of it. Basically the overall thrust I did agree with. I don’t read pulp novels and stuff like that. I just read things that I learn from, that give me a better understanding of something.”

I asked him why he decided to go to Moscow recently. I’ll get back to this interview and that question tomorrow evening. We haven’t even covered half of it yet. So come back tomorrow, ok?



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