Mick Jones and Topper Headon get involved with Billy Bragg's 'Jail Guitar Doors' initiative
In 1978, Joe Strummer famously beefed about the new wave of punk groups who were “turning rebellion into money”. In the end, perhaps The Clash became guilty of that crime too, but in fairness they put more energy into staying poor and idealistic than pretty much anyone else from that era. So it was genuinely touching on 15 September 2009 to witness an event that stood Joe’s lyric on its head and, for once, celebrated a bunch of musicians turning their money into rebellion. Or at least rehabilitation.
The setting was an over-sized garden shed in Fleet, Hampshire, where Billy Bragg and ex Clash members Mick Jones and Topper Headon were recording a track with four former prison inmates, to promote Braggy’s Jail Guitar Doors initiative, which aims to supply musical instruments to Her Majesty’s prisons. Billy arrived an hour late, having spent the previous day in Yorkshire delivering guitars to a jail in Wakefield. (He quietly and thanklessly does this sort of thing all the time.) Mick Jones – who was the first musician ever to donate money to the campaign – turned up dressed in a dapper suit with a brown Telecaster under his arm; Topper, who did time in the late ’80s for drug offences, was already there, chatting amiably with the ex-cons about his successful fight against a life of crime and heroin addiction.
With Mick and Topper reunited in the studio for the first time since the early ’80s, it was quite a momentous day, despite the Biblical rain. There were lots of smiles and wise-cracking and old Clash touring jokes about McDonald’s fish burgers and Mick’s “no cheese” mantra. But the best thing was the nape-tingling confirmation that rock’n’roll has the power to change all our lives for the better, often by giving chances to those at the margins of society: after all, didn’t Sun Records’ Sam Phillips start the label that brought us Elvis Presley with a bunch of singing Memphis jailbirds called The Prisonaires? The Prisonaires’ big hit was called Just Walkin’ In The Rain, which perfectly described the numerous rain-soaked trips from the studio shed to the kitchen; but no-one minded the torrential downpour. The feelgood power of a bunch of idealistic old punk musicians saw to that.
Written by Pat Gilbert
Pat Gilbert is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and radio producer. A former editor of MOJO, the internationally acclaimed music magazine, his books include the Clash biography Passion Is A Fashion, research for which took him into Ray Lowry’s eccentric and ever thought-provoking orbit. Pat has kept many of the letters Ray sent him, all of which are addressed to a certain “Pat Giblet”.