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Paul Simonon: 'The Clash never had a holiday – we were on a mission'

Punk icon Paul Simonon’s world opened up when he went to art school, and he realised creativity could help him through the darkest times

Paul Simonon

Paul Simonon. Image: Supplied

Paul Simonon was born in South London in 1955. His father was an artist and his mother worked as a librarian. He grew up near Brixton before moving west to Ladbroke Grove – two multi-cultural areas that informed his open-minded attitude to life.

Simonon went to art school, but his friendship with Mick Jones led to him starting The Clash. The band developed from their punk roots into one the world’s most revered rock outfits – with the iconic image of Simonon smashing his bass famously appearing on the cover of their 1979 album London Calling.

Since The Clash split, Simonon has continued to work in music – most notably with Damon Albarn in The Good, the Bad and The Queen and as part of Gorillaz’ touring band (alongside Jones).

Simonon has also continued with his art, showcasing his work at a number of solo and group exhibitions.

In his Letter to My Younger Self, Simonon reflects on a life of endless creativity, which shows no signs of slowing down as he approaches 70.

When I was 16, my passion was painting. I got that from my father and it was good currency in school. Because if you could draw, you could barter with the other kids who weren’t so good at drawing but were good at other subjects and get them to do your homework. So that worked out pretty well.

I grew up in Brixton and got into music at an early age. This was at the pre-beginning of the skinhead movement, which was pretty much an offshoot of the mod movement. So it was pro-black music. I went to Effra School off the Railton Road and lots of my friends were the sons and daughters of the Windrush generation. We’d listen to people like Prince Buster, but I didn’t know most of the names, I just heard the music. We’d hear rocksteady, and when my dad was living with us he listened to French singers like Jacques Brel. My part of Brixton was a journey through different sounds. 

Politically, I was guided by my father. He had lied about his age and was sent to Kenya to help suppress the Mau Mau uprising. He was quite haunted by it. I went to Catholic schools, then one day he said, “We’re not going to be Catholics any more, we’re going to be communists.” So from an early age I was aware of thinking about other people. I remember walking down Somerleyton Road in Brixton with my dad and seeing “blacks out” sprayed on the walls. I asked him, “What do you think of black people, dad?” He said, “Well, I think they should have the chance to rule the world too,” and we carried on walking home for beans on toast. Very matter of fact.  

The Clash in 1978
1978: (L-r) the Clash’s classic line-up of Joe Strummer, ‘Topper’ Headon, Simonon and Mick Jones. Image: Sheila Rock/Shutterstock

I was getting in too much trouble – hooliganism, street mischief, naughty things – and my mum and stepfather couldn’t cope. So I went to live with my dad. I idolised him. Even though he brought me and my brother up like it was the army and was a bit harsh with the cane. He’d say, do you wanna go to school today? No? OK, do the shopping, do the laundry, then come back and do a copy of that Dürer painting! Absolutely lovely. 

By 16, we were in West London and I would go to friends’ parties and a few kids would say, “Why is he here?” Because I was white. They’d go, “No, he’s OK.” But this was a time of Burning Spear and black consciousness. People were struggling with the street climate of police intimidation. So it introduced me to another side of the world.  

They were running out of teachers in our area so we had art lessons at Ladbroke Girls School. It was intimidating at first, then after a while it was amazing. The art teacher took a shine to my work. I left school and worked in the carpet department at the John Lewis warehouse. But I ran into her and she said an art school would give me a scholarship. So I got a council grant and was suddenly at art school. It felt like the world was opening up.  

I went to art school to be a painter. Mick Jones went to art school to put a band together. My friend was invited to try out as the drummer for Mick’s band London SS, and I went to support him. They dragged me onto a mic and it was a disaster, but the story is that Bernie Rhodes suggested Mick get rid of his band and start one with me. It was the same way Bernie was responsible for getting John Lydon as singer in the Sex Pistols – mixing musicians with non-musicians. The magic was that Mick had the patience to teach me how to play bass. 

The Good, The Bad and The Queen
2007: Onstage with The Good, The Bad & The Queen bandmate Damon Albarn in SXSW in Texas. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

We were fighting to survive. I got kicked off the dole and when Joe [Strummer] joined [The Clash], I had no income whatsoever. So I was penniless and living off half of Joe’s dole money. That was really bonding. I remember me and Strummer talking about how mirrored sunglasses were cool and quite intimidating. An hour later, he came back with a pair. I said they look brilliant, and he’d got a pair for me as well. It says a lot about Joe as a person. I try to live like that too. So we walked around looking pretty sharp… but we were bloody starving! 

I would tell my younger self to just keep going. At the beginning of The Clash, we were following our instincts and passions. I wouldn’t change anything. My younger self would just be excited about getting something to eat and actually being able to afford to buy a pair of socks! But we worked so hard. It was all action for the whole period of The Clash. We never had a holiday – we were on a mission. We toured forever, which was the best thing in the world because travel is the best education. I was fortunate because in Brixton, with the Windrush generations, and then working down Portobello Market as a kid, it felt like the whole world was wandering up and down. So I grew up with broad horizons. It was exciting, enlightening, and made a deep impact on me. 

Any dramatic events that happen to you in life as a kid – like my parents separating – it helps you learn to navigate through life. And any mistakes you make help you learn. So the situations that happened with us as a band, and after The Clash finished, there are a lot of regrets. But you learn from them, so they are not regrets any more.  

I went to so many schools that I was always the new boy, so I learned tactics to deal with that. It meant I found it easy to leave relationships stone cold and move on. Sometimes I’m a mess because of it, but I’m doing my best. Divorce isn’t easy, but leaving the kids is shocking, devastating. The terrible thing is, I felt I was repeating what happened to me as a kid. That’s why being creative is the best thing I could have, which came from my father. It has been a solace and helped me out of lots of emotional situations – I channel my feelings into painting, carving, sewing, cooking, music, you name it.  

Damon Albarn has been a great musical comrade. I love working with him. When we started working together [with The Good, The Bad and The Queen] we realised we both had a love for English music hall and vaudeville and songs about London and where we grew up. To play on that stage [in 2019] at the London Palladium where I saw Macbeth or something on a school trip and Jimmy Tarbuck and people like that on telly? Ken Dodd stood here! It was like, wow, mum, look where I am.  

Paul Simonon with painting
2015: With his painting Black Bonneville in London. Image: ukartpics / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve always been the sort of person that does rather than just says. I felt compelled to contribute my time and myself to the Greenpeace mission [in 2011]. I wasn’t expecting any flags or medals. I’d just come back from touring with Gorillaz. And I had the lowest job on the ship because I had no skills, so I was assistant to the chef and occasionally helped prepare for when we had to scale the Leiv Eiriksson rig to ask for their oil spill response plan. I was only in prison for a month and ended up on cooking duties for our wing.  

If I could relive one day it would be going to Hiva Oa. It is in the Marquesas Islands north of Tahiti. After a Gorillaz tour, none of my kids were interested in coming out for a holiday, so me and my girlfriend we went to Tahiti and Hiva Oa. It is where Gauguin ended up being buried. And a few headstones along, Jacques Brel was there too. That was magical.  

Every so often, you wake up and you have had a conversation with someone who is no longer around. I’ve had conversations with Strummer, [Havana 3am bandmate] Nigel Dixon, even David Bowie. Whatever that is, it’s a bizarre communication. But it feels real at the time. What would I say to them if I could? See you soon! 

Galen & Paul’s debut album Can We Do Tomorrow Another Day? is out on May 19. galenandpaul.com 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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