New Sounds from 1986: Big Audio Dynamite lays down “The Bottom Line” in the band’s memorable video

By on September 24, 2016

In this sixteenth episode of “Night Flight”‘s “New Sounds” — originally airing on January 17, 1986, and now conveniently streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — we’re featuring Big Audio Dynamite’s celebrated video for “The Bottom Line,” directed by the band’s co-frontman, Don Letts, who had previously directed The Punk Rock Movie in 1978.

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In August of 1983, Mick Jones of the Clash — their temperamental yet talented guitarist, co-lead vocalist and co-songwriter — was fired by the band he’d had a hand in creating. The dismissal came via a tersely-worded communiqué from the band’s office, telling him that he was ideologically not on the same path as the rest of the band (the missive arrived after Topper Headon’s departure months earlier).

Just like that, the seven years he’d spent with the Clash came to a sudden, crashing end, but he had always been involved with lots of extra-curricular projects outside of the band, and it was during his production work with the band Theater of Hate on their Westworld recordings that he glimpsed something beyond the Clash in his future.

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It would be another two-and-a-half years, however, before he was appear with his first true post-Clash project, a forward-thinking, racially-integrated new band who were going to attempt to shake up the world with a cutting edge mix of electro-dub-reggae-rock-disco sounds.

Initially, and for several months as 1983 ended and 1984 began, it was just Jones and a dreadlocked black bassist named Leo (“E-Zee Kill”) Williams, formerly of the Basement Five and a barman at the Roxy Club, and for a time Jones had tried to help out his former bandmate, drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon, but Headon was too deep into his heroin addiction and so it never came to pass.

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This group, essentially a trio with Headon at first, then a duo, was called Top Risk Action Company, or T.R.A.C., and as they were slow in forming, it would take awhile before things would start to click.

Through an ad in Melody Maker (some sources claim it was NME), Jones and Williams found their new drummer, Greg Roberts, a veteran of several soul and reggae bands, but they all knew the band was incomplete and something was missing until Jones and Williams were having a drink one night at a club, sitting with an old friend, a Rastafarian film and video director named Don Letts, who both men happened to know (he had directed several of the Clash’s videos).

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Jones asked Letts to join the group, even though he really didn’t play any instruments, per se, and the dynamic personality would end up becoming the band’s co-frontman, sharing responsibilities the way Jones had with the Clash’s Joe Strummer (up until the end, that is), writing lyrics and creating the band’s overall vibe.

Originally they thought they might adopt the name Real Westway, but Jones had liked the idea of using an acronym, and had liked B.A.D. for a name, and so they came up with that first, and then created the full name later, settling on Big Audio Dynamite, but mostly just used the letters B.A.D. whenever they could get away with it.

B.A.D. would, in their own way, help to shape the sound of the mid-80s modern rock era and beyond with an eclectic, modernized sound that relied heavily on all types of keyboards, tape loops and computerized-samples which ran the gamut from contempo news reports to audio snippets from movies, including Sergio Leone westerns and assorted Nicolas Roeg-directed dramas: their “E=MC²” plays as a kind of homage to Roeg, sampling dialogue from Performance, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Eureka, and Bad Timing (A Sensual Obsession).

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Big Audio Dynamite’s sampling, in fact, pre-dated some of the artists who would take the same idea to much success later on, including hip hop groups like De La Soul, 2 Live Crew, Beastie Boys, and B.A.D.’s sampling even pre-dated the massive #1 1987 hit “Pump Up The Volume,” which was the sole release by the studio group M/A/R/R/S (their very name for this one-one recording project being an acronym derived from the forenames of the five individuals involved who were all in bands signed to the 4AD label).

They were ahead of the curve on the whole dance-rock craze that crossed over the Atlantic with imported 12-inch hits by Jesus Jones, Pop Will Eat Itself and lots of other groups.

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Letts had an interesting background, starting as far back as 1975, when he operated the London-based Acme Attractions clothing store, which — much like Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shoppe — was a haven and hangout for punks, only Acme blasted dub and reggae music all day long instead of punk rock (Letts’ parents were actually from Jamaica). The Acme store was where a lot of London bands and those visiting from America would spend their days, and it was how Letts met the Clash, as well as members of the Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders, and Bob Marley, among many others.

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Letts — who is said to have turned the members of the Clash on to reggae music — ended up deejaying at the Roxy Club, which opened near Acme, and began to set aside money from his clothing store and deejaying gigs in order to make his first film, The Punk Rock Movie, which wasn’t released until 1978.

Letts would eventually leave the retail world in order to manage the Slits, who opened for the Clash on their White Riot tour, and he would eventually focus mainly on filmmaking, directing films and music videos, and by the time he fell in with Jones in 1984, he had all kinds of new ideas to bring to the group, which in addition to adding percussion and keyboard effects courtesy of his Ensonic keyboard, it was also his idea to incorporte the aforementioned movie samples from cassettes played on a boom box, dropping in dialogue he’d taped from movies like A Fistful of Dollars, A Fistful of Dynamite, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

This new sound fused Jones’ guitar-based 80s rock (filtered through both punk and new wave), and added to it Dan Donovan’s electronica keys, Greg Roberts’ New York City-style hip hop beats, Leo Williams’ Jamaican bass lines, and mixed these together created a new widescreen cinematic sound that was partly world music, partly rock, and partly dance.

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The members of B.A.D. spent a good amount of time in the studio and rehearsal halls, perfecting the mixtures of this alchemical new sound, making sure that whatever they ended up with would sound good blasting in a club setting, and so lots of emphasis was placed on dance beats and hooks, while also making sure that it was something they could also replicate onstage, in a concert setting.

Lastly, they acquired keyboardist Dan Donovan, who was working as a photographer, shooting photos of the band for what would be their debut LP, when he happened to mention that he also played keys. This was the lineup would play their first live gigs in the greater London area, in October of 1984.

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They would eventually end up touring Europe with U2, in the Spring of ’85, before they entered the studio to begin work on what would become their debut LP for CBS, titled This Is Big Audio Dynamite, released in October of 1985.

One of the first tracks to introduce the band’s new sounds to the awaiting public was their first single from the album, “The Bottom Line,” with its stirring, anthemic melody and coming fully-loaded with all kinds of references to other musical forms (we also love the voice sample, “The horses are on the track!”)

The original title, according to Letts, was “Trans Clash Free Pay One.”

Of course, as this was also the era of the music video, and Letts was an experienced director and Dan Donovan — who happened to also be the son of famed 60s photographer Terence Donovan — could operate a camera professionally, B.A.D. were bound to make a big splash with their first video, and that’s exactly what happened.

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In the video — which you can see streaming in our “New Sounds” episode from early 1986 — we first see Jones, clearly trying to look like a rough character you might see in one of Leone’s spaghetti westerns as he strides purposefully down a street in London (we believe this is Golborne Road, in front of Trellick Tower, which shows up later on the cover of a B.A.D. album).

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We also see Letts, checking himself out in a mirror while he gets ready to meet up with Jones and the other members of their gang.

Much of the rest of the video takes place around and in front of a big of marble monolith inscribed with ”BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE” in gold lettering, with the band members wearing costumes ranging from a Roman legionnaire to an astronaut, and there’s assorted other dudes in powdered wigs and other outfits who also come along and interrupt the proceedings.

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We’re also treated to the sight of the band’s comely U.K.-based office manager, Tricia Ronane — once the wife of the Clash’s Paul Simenon — who is being photographed by Dan Donovan whilst she’s wearing some kind of black patent leather get-up. Ooh, baby.

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There’s also near-naked jungle women in long blonde wigs who cavort and twist along to the tune, and we’re not going to try to make sense of any of the rest of it for you, you’ll just have to watch it yourself.

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A remix of “The Bottom Line” would be released on Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label, which brought the band even more notice, particularly in the U.S., where they would finally play their first shows iat the beginning of 1986, just as this “New Sounds” episode of “Night Flight” was airing. It was also used as the title track for the film Flashback, although it was not included on the film’s soundtrack.

For the rest of ’86, B.A.D. would enjoy a successful tour and their singles were given airplay on the radio stations — particularly college radio — who seemed receptive to these new sound, although they never did quite achieve the commercial success that Jones (and his record label, CBS) had hoped for. There’s more to their story, of course, but that’s what the Google is for.

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Head on over to Night Flight Plus and check out Night Flight’s sixteenth episode of “New Sounds“from January 1986, which also includes Blancmange’s Zbigniew Rybczyński-directed video for “Lose Your Love” — be sure to read our previous post about Rybczyński here — as well as Kate Bush’s classic “Cloudbusting” video, and videos by Midge Ure (“If I Was”) and Paul Hardcastle (“Just For The Money”), which we told you about here.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.