In 1983, just as the band were starting to fall apart, The Clash decided to make a film. But stung by their experiences on the strange but compelling Rude Boy, they decided to make it themselves. They called it Hell W10, filmed it on 16mm silent black and white film, and made the plot up as they went along. The result, understandably, was somewhat bizarre.
‘Let’s make a film!’ said Mick Jones in 2005. ‘We had no other agenda there than that. Everyone put in their time without thinking about it. That was what we did on our time off; we worked! It was totally Joe [Strummer]’s idea. He directed it, he shot it, he did it. And then it was gone. It didn’t even come out!’
Strummer believed the film was lost forever. In 1987, when it looked like he might carve out a new career for himself in the film world, he told an interviewer, ‘I have directed a film myself, a black and white 16mm silent movie and it was a disaster. Luckily the laboratory that held all the negative went bankrupt and destroyed all the stock, so the world can breathe again. I shot without a script. God knows what it was about. I’m the only other one that knew, and I’m not telling.’
In 2002, the film was rediscovered on video tape and re-edited by long-time Clash collaborator Don Letts, who added a fine Clash soundtrack over the top. It is a strange piece indeed, a gangster tale that follows Earl, a musician and small-time hood played by Paul Simonon, who falls foul of the local crime boss called Socrates, ‘The Lord of Ladbroke Grove’, played with some relish by Mick Jones, resplendent in white tux (‘You wanna end up as a pillar in a Canning Town flyover?’ he threatens one lackey). Strummer gives himself a cameo as a corrupt and racist policeman. It’s a cross between The Harder The Come and some of the pulp London crime novels of the 1950s (many of which have been republished by London Books).
Hell W10 also features some cracking period photography of Notting Hill, Paddington and Ladbroke Grove, and weighs in at almost 50 minutes, which suggests it must have taken quite some time to film.
What makes it particularly fascinating is that it was filmed just as the band were starting to go belly up; Topper Headon had already been kicked out for drug abuse, while Simonon and Jones were barely speaking, making their feud in the film a little too close to the truth. Things came to a head within weeks of Hell W10 being made, with Jones sacked from the band in September 1983.
In Letts’s documentary, Westway To The World, both Jones and Strummer confess that the band had simply spent too much time in each other’s company and should have taken a break; if they had done so, hotheads may have had time to cool. Instead, they made a film. Perhaps if they’d had a summer holiday in 1983 rather than fool around with a camera, the band of Jones, Strummer and Simonon might have lasted another few years. Still, it looks like they had fun making it.
Was it worth it? Watch and decide, this is the first of five parts.