The Dirty Strangers: Fast times, famous friends and filthy rock'n'roll
He’s toked with Bob Marley, played with Bobby Keys and partied with Keith Richards, but Alan Clayton’s new record with his band the Dirty Strangers is all his own brew
This particular autumn evening in 1984 has long darkened into deepest night, and the mood in Keith Richards’s suite at London’s plush Savoy Hotel is humorously mellow. Apart from the supremely chilled Rolling Stone, there are only two other people in the room: this writer and Alan Clayton, the Shepherd’s Bush singer/guitarist who, after hitting it off with Richards three years earlier, has been a regular visitor during the current internal conflict between Richards and Mick Jagger.
Perched on an antique couch, bottle of Jack Daniel’s in hand, Richards has hoisted up a big acoustic guitar and been gouging potent blues favourites, and even a spellbinding burst of Wild Horses. “Now it’s your turn,” he declares, handing the guitar to Clayton, who responds with a heartfelt rendition of his own The Gamblers Song. It earns howls of appreciation from Richards, who will even be reported in the press as having joined Clayton’s band the Dirty Strangers. Instead the Stone plays an active role getting the Dirty Strangers’ first album recorded and released, and becomes Clayton’s friend, collaborator, confidante, press champion and even employer over the next 32 years. “We’re the same, you and me, except you didn’t get the breaks,” Richards said to Clayton one night.
Now in his early 60s, Clayton has stuck to the simple but passionate rock’n’roll mission that started with the Dirty Strangers becoming terrors of London’s grass-roots gig circuit during the 1980s, cutting through shiny trends with their unpretentious celebration of rock’n’roll, as minted by Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent then continued through the Stones. Since then, Clayton has never stopped striving, ducking and diving. And now he has a sizzling new noir concept work, Crime And A Woman.
Over the years this Jack-the-lad-style dynamo has found himself recording at Richards’s Redlands home, travelling the world as part of the Stones’ inner circle, recording with legendary MC5 guru and beat poet John Sinclair, playing with late sax titan Bobby Keys at his last ever club show, and hosting the Dissenters’ Gallery series of events that saw former Clash members Mick Jones and Topper Headon reunited on stage for the first time in years. For the last two years, Clayton has also sung with the Brian James Gang, the original Damned guitarist being an old friend: “One of my favourite rock’n’roll players, a great guitarist.”
While the Keith Richards connection has been a major element in his life, Clayton’s own story has followed a fascinating trajectory, which always returns to the Dirty Strangers and his beloved West London. After his parents split when he was an infant, he grew up at his grandmother’s council house on the notorious Stonebridge Park estate. After attending school in Southall, he says he was “a proper hooligan, who got into doing security”. This could involve clearing out brothels, debt collecting and anything from working the Rolling Stones’ 1976 stint at Earls Court to Bob Marley’s 1980 show at Crystal Palace. At the latter, Clayton found himself sitting next to the late reggae icon in the backstage area, sharing “the biggest joint I have ever seen” after deflecting some unwanted backstage visitors. After Clayton’s wife Jackie became pregnant with their son Barrie around 1978, he bought the terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush that they still live in today.
Clayton was still working security when he started putting together the band named after a line in Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s Stranger Blues. He clicked with fellow bouncer ‘Big’ Joe Seabrook, who loved the Dirty Strangers and thought his current boss, Keith Richards, would too. “Big Joe looked after me. He believed Keith would like the band and also that the two of us would get on,” Clayton says.