Big Audio Dynamite (Dan Donovan – keyboards and vocals, Mick Jones – guitar and vocals, Don Letts – effects and vocals, Greg Roberts – drums and vocals, Leo “E-Zee Kill” Williams – bass and vocals) were a big part of my high school years, and their final album, Megatop Phoenix, was a great way to go out on top. I had it on a mix tape for years, so it was high time I bought a proper copy of it. Recorded not long after Mick Jones nearly died of pneumonia (special thanks are given to his doctors and nurses in the album’s liner notes), the album is a reflection on the band’s history and a look to the future.
“Rewind” is a battle cry to all of us to stay strong in the face of adversity and to never count out the underdog. The kick-in of Williams’ bass after the first verse still gives me chills. It’s a great blend of their raga / post-punk / new wave / electro mix that made them so innovative. “Union, Jack” is Jones, Letts, and Williams’ call to British people to get back up on their feet in the Reagan / Thatcher years that were grinding them down into complacency. It opens with a sample of the British national anthem and then kicks in some of the slickest beats by Roberts. Lyrics like “Now in the classroom I was told about the Empire, how you were bold. A pint of beer, life passes by, your spirit’s squashed just like a fly.” continue to resonate today.
“Contact” is a song about Jones’ inner struggle to express himself to perhaps a lovely lady or even his own band mates. This was B.A.D.’s last album, after all. His guitar has nice heaviness to it when it comes in during the chorus. “Dragon Town” has Jones expressing the band’s wonder at being lost in a Chinatown while looking for an exotic woman.
“Baby, Don’t Apologize” is, on its surface, about Jones telling a lover not to be sorry things didn’t work out because he can’t or won’t change. It’s probably a veiled reference to the end of the band, however. Jones had a life-changing experience with his pneumonia, Don Letts was becoming a producer and DJ, and the other band members were also involved in other projects. Jones was worried about how he might be perceived (“My head is in the stock. It rains refuse, some shout abuse, and others throwing rocks.”), but as he puts it, “What I am is loud and clear for all to see, for all to hear.”
“Around the Girl in 80 Ways” is a straight-up love song from Jones and Letts as they teach how to woo the lady of your choice. They suggest everything from “a bunch of flowers” to playing it cool. “James Brown” was written after the Godfather of Soul was involved in a domestic violence case and a police pursuit that landed him in jail. Jones and Letts tell the story from Brown’s perspective, paying tribute to him and calling him out on his bad behavior at the same time. The beats are wicked, as is the verbal takedown of American celebrity culture (which is just as bad in Britain nowadays).
“Everybody Needs a Holiday” sounds better than ever in this world that has only gotten smaller, busier, and less personal since 1989. “House Arrest” is a tale of partying on Saturday night until six in the morning when the cops show up. It’s a floor-bumper with heavy bass and kick ass drum licks. Letts gets to take lead vocals on it as he sings about “bouncers, bimbos, lager louts” and “cops and dogs in transit vans.”
“The Green Lady” is a clever and slightly bittersweet song (with great guitar work by Jones) about a man who falls in love with a Chinese woman in a mass-produced photograph hanging in his flat. “London Bridge” is about the Americanization of London, but Jones professes his love for his town with catchy hooks. “Stalag 123” is about Jones and crew being stuck in the studio working on a record while the building’s basement is flooded and they have to deal with “no windows, no air, and secondhand gear.”
B.A.D. didn’t sound like anything that came before them, and no one has really matched their mix of genres since. They had a successful reunion tour a few years ago, and we can always hope for another. If not, there’s always their excellent catalog and this fine end to it.
Keep your mind open.
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