A Strange Case: The Clash’s drummer-turned-chiropractor on music, healing, and his return to Catholicism
The Clash is one of those bands you’re almost guaranteed to have heard whether you know it or not. The seminal English punk act made a dent in the rock music scene in 1977 with their first, self-titled album, featuring a simple, aggressive style with political lyrics, exemplified by songs like “White Riot.” Over the course of their next few albums they expanded their sound with influences from funk and reggae, gaining international fame with infectious tracks such as “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “London Calling,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and their most infectious hit of all, “Rock the Casbah.” They disbanded in 1986.
The original drummer for the Clash was Terry Chimes, who left the band shortly after the first album was recorded because of an overall conflict in outlook with the other members (singer Joe Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon). Chimes, who was replaced by Nicky “Topper” Headon, played with several other bands including Billy Idol’s Generation X before briefly rejoining the Clash when Headon was asked to leave due to drug issues. After leaving the band again, Chimes played with Hanoi Rocks and Black Sabbath before making a startling career turn. In 1994, following a lifelong passion for biology, medicine and healing, he began a chiropractic clinic in Essex. Having retired completely from music, he founded a highly successful chain of clinics and also began to give seminars in chiropractic management and alternative medicine. But Chimes was yet to undergo a transformation greater than a mere change of careers. In 2000, while reading the chapter on pride in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he had a radical conversion experience: “Everything in my world seemed to be instantly shattered, leaving me feeling tiny, naked and exposed. At the same time I felt the most extraordinarily powerful love. This presence knew everything about me and yet still loved me.”
The words quoted above come from Chimes’s recently published autobiography, The Strange Case of Dr. Terry and Mr. Chimes (Crux Publishing). Light-hearted, humorous and inspiring in equal measure, the book begins with Chimes’s childhood, his early interest in biology and his appreciation for the sacrament of confession. Naturally, a great deal of the book is devoted to his time in the Clash. In these chapters, Chimes strikes a good balance between entertaining anecdotes of life with the band, which Clash fans will appreciate, and sober reflection on some of the negative aspects of the rock lifestyle, without straying into vulgarity, morbidity or sensationalism on either side, as is too common with memoirs of this kind. Chimes throws no one under the bus here; this is a compassionate book, and yet it benefits from his dry sense of humor particularly where some of the more bizarre characters in the music scene are concerned. The book grows more profound as it goes on, and the tale of his journey in healing is as interesting as his account of his musical career, if in different ways. Its climax is a spiritual awakening, and it concludes with reflections on spirituality, healing, interpersonal relationships, and faith.
Dr. Terry Chimes was kind enough to squeeze in an interview immediately before leaving for the Philippines to make the final preparations for his wedding there, just a couple of months off. We talked about his book, Catholicism, professionalism, pride, the importance of exiting one’s own comfort zone in order to continue growing, and of course, music.
There are several key points in the book that describe a process of self-examination and correction of faults you noticed in yourself—for example, when you decided to stop drinking, and when you decided to work on becoming more reliable to others. Was this ability to be self-critical something you learned by example from your parents?
I wouldn’t say from my parents; I think I’ve always looked at other people and thought “I’d like to be able to do what he’s doing.” If you want to go from where you are to somewhere else, you’ve got to improve something—I guess I’m always looking to get better. If I wanted to be Brad Pitt I might have a problem, but in most cases if I want to do something I can learn to do it.
You described a growing gap between you and your bandmates in The Clash leading up to your first departure from the band.
They were angry; they were angry at the world. And when they would get angry together, I would say “I’m not playing ball with this—I don’t feel angry at the world. I don’t think the world is a horrible place. I think the world’s a nice place.” I think that all comes down to my upbringing as a happy person. They all came from broken homes, and their anger was very easily stirred up, very easily aroused. I just felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing.
That was one thing that made an impression on me as I read the book—the observation that you were the only one who hadn’t come from a broken home.
Yeah—I only realized that while I was writing the book, ‘cause when you’re writing you look back a bit with older eyes and you suddenly think “Oh, that’s what happened.” Kind of funny, that.
It’s interesting, also, that when we’ve had school shootings in the US, a lot of those kids did come from broken homes, and they had a lot of anger at their parents and felt like they had been hurt by the world in some way.
When I was young, these school shootings never happened—it’s a modern phenomenon. I’ve been pondering why that is, and I’ve got a great suspicion that the use of lots of these drugs, now, these anti-depressants, has something to do with it, because one of the side effects of Prozac, for instance, is mindless acts of extreme violence. There are a lot of people angry at the world, and they don’t shoot anybody, but you take these drugs, and not very many, but one in a million will just go nuts and shoot people.
[Often, taking these drugs is] messing around with a perfectly balanced system. I’ve always been really into natural health care, and I think when we mess around with the brain with this stuff, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Best to avoid using a pill for it if you can find some other way of dealing with it!
Well, I don’t think people do look for another way; they go straight for the pills first, which is my problem with modern medicine. It’s lazy medicine, really, just give them the pills and that’s it.
Switching gears—do you think there was a big difference between your approach to The Clash’s songs and Topper’s?
Yeah! Mine was very much based around John Bonham—smack the drums really hard and keep it simple—and Topper was keen to explore jazzy things; he was putting jazz and reggae stuff into it. So I suppose he diversified the band, which is a good thing, because punk couldn’t stay the way it was; it had to develop, and he helped it do that.
Aside from Bonham, what drummers were you listening to and inspired by as a kid?
Ian Paice from Deep Purple. And Keith Moon [of The Who] a bit because he was just so crazy—very interesting. I think drummers are often the crazy one in the band—the ones who die first!
I loved the story in the book about how you prepared for the audition to join Black Sabbath—you only had to learn a couple of songs, but you learned all of the songs on their live album, and then learned the studio versions of those songs as well! You really went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure you got the gig.
Whenever we audition guitar players, and they’re given one song to learn, and say, “Did you learn the song?” they go, “Well, I’ve heard it a couple of times.” That’s really kind of insulting to the band you’re auditioning with—if you didn’t even learn the song, why are you bothering to show up? So I go the other extreme.
Probably my favorite aspect of the book was the recurring theme of pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone, of seeking out new challenges and also embracing life’s unexpected difficulties. You wrote, “Perhaps upsets have to happen at a bad time if they are really going to teach you anything.”
I think you have to be an enemy of mediocrity, because if you don’t challenge yourself, no one in life will do it—they’ll just leave you alone. So unless you make yourself push forward, it won’t ever happen.
You also wrote about the powerful effect that listening to your patients can have—while some of your colleagues weren’t interested in hearing a litany of complaints, you discovered how just sitting and listening to a patient can itself be part of the healing process. Is there a parallel between that and performing with a band?
Absolutely! The best drummers are the ones who listen to what’s going on. I used to teach people to play drums, and they could do what they wanted to do, but when you put them with a band, they didn’t seem to have the facility to listen to the music and fit in with it—they would just be in their own world bashing away, and everyone had to fit with them. Listening to the musicians you’re playing with is something that some people just don’t seem to have. I don’t know why, but they just don’t seem to be able to do it.
A lot of people used to say that Ringo was not a good drummer, but I thought he was a very good drummer because he listened and put just the right thing in there. That was a good drummer for me—I’m more impressed with that than I am about someone who flies around the drums very quickly but isn’t fitting in with what’s going on.
You’ve observed that musicians can easily become embittered by the challenges of the business, because of getting ripped off, having equipment stolen, and the various difficulties and sufferings that can arise even for those of us who have succeeded in making a living in music. How can musicians go through these trials and still keep a childlike attitude towards it all?
One thing I’ve found is that if you try and write a hit song or make a hit record, you fail, but if you do what you really love, you succeed. Rather than aiming to sell or aiming to be what they want you to be, just be yourself, be the best you can be and it’s more likely to succeed. But also, the business has changed a lot. You used to sell records and make money to subsidize the touring. It’s almost the other way around now; you have to tour to make money to make the record.
At the end of the day, if you can pull a crowd, you can make money. How you do that is up to you, but it’s hard to pull a crowd because there’s so much out there, people are so spoiled. It’s hard to get ahead of the competition. I saw a movie called The Prestige—it’s about these two magicians who are competing—David Bowie was in it, bizarrely—and someone in it says that in any performance there are three components. There’s the pledge, where you say “Here’s the hat, I’m going to pull something out of it.” Then there’s the trick, where you pull a rabbit out of the hat, and that’s what everybody expects. And then there’s the prestige, where you do something that’s way more than anybody expects, like making the rabbit disappear again. Not many performances have that third part—they have the first two, but not the third. In any performance, the goal is to get beyond what people expect—if you do that, they applaud, they book you for the next time, they tell their friends, and so on. I’m not saying it’s easy, but whatever you’re doing in your performance, you have to push yourself to get that third bit. You’ve got to surprise them somehow. A lot of performers give them what they expect, and they get polite applause, and people say, “That was nice, but I’m not gonna bother coming back.”
Do you have any general advice or encouragement you’d like to give to professional or aspiring professional musicians?
At all cost, avoid getting stuck in a rut. Always challenge yourself to do new things, to listen to different things, to try playing with different people in different ways to get something new. It’s so hard to stand out from everyone else, and you’ve got to keep experimenting to find that. So many people keep doing the same thing over and over and expect the world to change, but the world’s not going to change until you do something they haven’t heard before. It’s tough though, because you know what you know!
The catalyst for your return to Catholicism was an epiphany you had regarding pride. You wrote that you had been living in pride for the past twenty years. However, you had already been willing to see and correct your own faults on numerous occasions in the past. In what way, then, had this pride manifested itself?
C. S. Lewis crafted his words so perfectly that they really hit the spot, and the spot they hit was I had been doing these things—not drinking, being a vegetarian, doing meditation, all of this stuff—and I had been taking pride in it. And when you take pride in it, you trap yourself there. When you think you’re clever, and then someone points out that you’ve been trapped for the last twenty years, that’s a quite horrible thing to discover. It destabilizes your whole ego, and that’s when the collapse happens. It really was like the walls of a castle just falling over.
So it was a matter of realizing that you can’t get there on your own.
If you think you’re getting anywhere, then you’ve gotten on the wrong path. Anything about God is a gift, is a grace, and you should be grateful for it and accept it humbly.
Were you raised in a very Catholic household, or just sort of Catholic?
Not strongly. I went to Catholic school from the age of five to eleven, and then when I went to what you would call high school, that was a Church of England school, which is a similar sort of thing. But we weren’t as a family really practicing; we were sort of notionally Catholic. Went to church at Christmas maybe, and now and again—that was it.
How has your embrace of faith deepened or altered your understanding of music and its role in society?
It’s made me interested in sacred music, things like Bach’s Mass in B minor—I’ve suddenly thought, “My God, this is one of the best pieces of music ever written, and it comes from his faith!” In fact, I was talking to an atheist the other day, and I said, “Tell me the name of one person who was a great person, like a Shakespeare or Beethoven, that didn’t have a faith.” And they said, “Well, there might be hundreds.” I said, “Well, maybe there are, but just tell me one.” I’ve never heard them since. I’ve done that with several people, and they always say, “Oh, I’m sure there’s loads!” But they never come back to me!
I think rock music is a bit different, in that you don’t really know what they are. Whereas in the old days they used to proclaim their faith, nowadays some people hide it because they think it’s a bit embarrassing or something. You don’t really know what their faith is, because they think it might upset people or put people off or whatever. I make a point of never backing out—I always tell people I’m Catholic. I would say the media are very anti-Catholic largely, so of course people who aren’t into this sort of stuff, who have the information they’ve got from newspapers and TV, they’ll all probably be anti-Catholic because that’s what they’ve been given.
What’s funny—someone said to me yesterday in an interview, “Isn’t it good we’ve got a nice new Pope; isn’t he much better than the others.” I said, “No, he’s not better than the others, he’s different.” But the last two before him, the media didn’t like them and kept running them down. This guy, they like him, so everyone’s saying, “Isn’t he better?” No, think for yourself, find out what they did and then say he’s better or worse or whatever—don’t just go with the media, don’t let the media tell you what to think! Most people don’t like the idea of the media telling them what to think, but they do, in nearly every case.
Pope Francis himself has said he doesn’t think his popularity will last long.
[Laughs] I just heard Aristotle quoted—“He who is a friend to all is a friend to no one.”
What parallels have you noticed between music and healing?
I’m not sure why, but it seems like a lot of people do both. I’ve always had both passions, as you see in the book, and neither one will ever get ahead of the other—they both need to be expressed.
What about music and spirituality—as far as the creative process goes?
Well, I think that when you create music you’re probably channeling from a higher power rather than doing it yourself—so maybe the better connected you are spiritually, the higher quality what you’re doing is going to be. Lots of great composers say they don’t feel they write the music themselves; they feel it just came into them from somewhere else. And when a band plays together again and again and it all comes together, there’s a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we’re all plugging into the same source. That’s when the great pleasure of music comes, when their egos have been pushed aside for the greater good. In the groove, or on the wave, or whatever they call it!
After twenty years of retirement from music, you’ve started playing in a band again. [The Crunch, also featuring Sulo Karlsson of the band Diamond Dogs, Dave Tregunna of Sham 69 and Mick Geggus of Cockney Rejects. The Crunch recently released their first album, Busy Making Noise.] What was it like picking up the drums after so long away from the instrument?
Funny enough, I’ve been learning the piano lately, and it’s been harder than the drums because I’m learning in my 50s. But with the drums, there isn’t any echo, because I’ve done it so much. Even though I’ve had a twenty-year gap, the nerve pathways, or the muscle memory is still there. So although when I started playing again my arms were aching afterwards, in terms of what I wanted to do and where I was going it was all exactly the same. Smack the same drum at the same point—it was just there.
Since you’ve reduced the amount of time you spend on the business side of medicine and are back to the simplicity of just working in one clinic, how much time are you spending on music again now?
Still not a huge amount of time. But I’ve never been one to rehearse a lot; I just like to play. The guys come over and stay at my house and we play intensely for like a week or two; we record a few songs, do a couple of gigs and then they go away again and I don’t see them for another two months.
So it’s not so much a touring situation.
I call it “commando raids”—we go to Sweden next month, we do four or five dates and then come back again. It’s fun—it’s like city break; you’re on holiday. Long tours in the old days really disrupted your life; you were away for months at a time, but this is much easier. And with the technology now you can put it on YouTube and people can see it wherever they are.
The other guys all have other bands they play in, other projects that they’re doing in the meantime. Are they all full-time musicians?
Yes, one makes his living more from the songwriting than the playing, but they all do music.
You’ve mentioned the possibility of future books. Topics?
I’m looking at different things; I’ve got a publisher who’s very keen to get more titles out. You have to write something you’re passionate about, but it also has to be something people are interested in reading about.
Are you thinking about writing a book just about healing?
I’m still on a healing journey; I’m still experimenting with ways to heal. I think maybe in ten years’ time I’d write that book. I feel like writing a book about relationships in a moment.
You present an interesting perspective on relationships in your book; you seem very willing to let people be how they are—while helping them along the way in whatever way you can, of course. I’m thinking particularly about your relationship with [singer] Joe Strummer in the years after The Clash ended.
I’ve got that from working on people’s health. People come to me saying this hurts or that hurts, but they don’t really want me to take over their life and change everything—they just want me to fix it. So to an extent, I’ll say, “You could do with some exercise; you could do with eating or drinking differently,” but I try not to be too dictatorial, because I’m supposed to be there to help them, not give them more problems to worry about. I think I’ve learned that the hard way: when I first started, I tried to sort everyone out and get everyone perfect, and that’s just not the way it is. They’re not asking me to make them perfect; they’re asking me to get rid of that headache, so I meet them where they are.
Are there any contemporary musical artists you like to listen to right now?
I listen to a bizarre variety of stuff. I saw [jazz saxophonist] David Sanborn the other day. My brother’s a classical musician, so I see him play sometimes, all sorts of stuff. I listen to a really broad variety these days, and I like that—because when I was doing it in the old days, we were strangely restricted in our tastes. There was a very narrow band of what was cool, whereas now, if I like it, I like it. I like this band the Foo Fighters—not sure about the name, but I like the hard-edged kind of thing. I like piano music, I like listening to Chopin, Liszt, that sort of thing.
Have you heard the trio with [Led Zeppelin bassist] John Paul Jones that put out an album a few years ago? They’re calling it a “supergroup” because all of the members have been in successful bands in the past.
One strange thing we’ve had with The Crunch—it’s weird because they call us a supergroup, although we’re not as famous as John Paul Jones maybe. But when they put that label on, everyone assumes it’s a one-off deal—one album, then you’re gonna split up. It’s very hard to get people to see us as band that’s going to go on, but obviously you have to do another couple of albums and they’ll get the message. They keep on asking us, “Is this it? Are you gonna split up now?”
Some supergroups end up playing as many songs by the bands the individual members originally played in as they do songs by the supergroup itself.
We do one song from each of our bands just as a token gesture, really, just to please the crowd, I suppose—just a bit of fun.
What Clash song do you play?
“Garageland.” They asked me what my favorite one was, and I said that one.
Anything you’d like to say about the arts to Catholic Culture readers around the world?
I suppose the thing to say is that all work that gets done should be done to the glory of God, and that includes all music. I suppose—great music glorifies God greatly! That’s the message, really: to all musicians I’d say just keep doing it, and try and let God work through you rather than trying to do it yourself. Try and let it come through you—that’s where you get the best stuff.
Note: Chimes’ autobiography is available in both paperback and Kindle on his website and through third parties on Amazon, below.
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Posted by: pja -
Mar. 20, 2014 3:19 PM ET USA
Thank you for this great interview; as a young man I was a big Clash fan and saw them perform (with Terry on the drums). Wonder if he and Joseph Pearce ever get a chance to chat. Would be an interesting conversation.
Posted by: abc -
Mar. 18, 2014 8:54 PM ET USA
Wow! This is "different"!!! And Excellent! Thanks too! :-) Another famous rock musician who is very spiritual, though not Catholic (not even Christian, more like New Age, I fear) is Roger Hodgson from Supertramp. He describes songwriting in almost the same words as Terry Chimes, and many of his songs have suspiciously Christian resonances. I wonder if they are in contact with one another? Great opportunity for musician-wise New Evangelisation!
Posted by: ebierer1724 -
Mar. 17, 2014 5:25 PM ET USA
This is excellent! Thank you C.C.!