Don Letts – The Rebel Dread
The punk rock spirit is like the force in Star Wars,
you cannot stop it.
Don Letts reputation as original culture clash master and one of the cornerstones of the UK’s punk and reggae scenes has been firmly established in both the music and film world. The film maker, DJ and musician first came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ who single handedly turned a generation of punks into reggae with his sets at the seminal punk club ‘Roxy’. He was mentored by Malcolm Mc Laren, inspired the Clash and was friends with Bob Marley. Adopting punk’s DIY ethic he soon started filming the things that happened around him with his Super 8 camera. Since the release of his first film ‘The Punk Rock Movie’ in 1978 he has amassed an amazing body of work, including the Grammy-winning Clash documentary ‘Westway To The World’ and dozens of music videos for the likes of Bob Marley, the Clash, Elvis Costello and Beenie Man. Apart from forming his own musical groups like Big Audio Dynamite and Screaming Target, Letts has always stayed loyal to his DJ Roots with his own BBC Radio 6 show and DJ gigs all over the world. We met the 60-year old to talk about his life and the history and legacy of two of this age’s true counter cultures: punk and reggae.
Don, how did you first get involved with the reggae and punk scenes in London?
My first contact with any of it was through Malcolm Mc Laren in 1972. I met him before he had the shop ‘Sex’. It was ‘Let It Rock’ and it was 1972, way before punk rock happened and I struck up a relationship with him. He was the one that really showed me that counter culture didn’t happen in isolation. It kind of had a lineage and a heritage. He made me realise that maybe if I was brave enough and had a good idea, maybe I could be part of this thing as well that I was so enamoured with.
Was that when you opened your clothing shop ‘Acme Attractions’?
Shortly after ‘Sex’ was opened by Malcolm and Vivienne I was offered a gig, managing a shop called ‘Acme Attractions’ which was just down the road from their shop. The shops actually became kind of rivals because Vivienne and Malcolm, they demanded total allegiance and if you weren’t with them, you were kind of their enemy you know what I mean. I mean I used to hang out with Vivienne, she used to take me to shows like Lou Reed and we used to go to the late night cinema together. The minute I opened this shop, which they saw as competition, I fell out of grace. Looking back at it I think it was quite funny.
But both shops really were a meeting point for all sorts of youth tribes like punks and rastas, I mean people like Bob Marley used to hang out in your shop, right?
You’ve got to look at the social climate in the mid 70s, you know, massive unemployment, three day weeks, rise of the National Front and as my friend Johnny Rotten so eloquently put it, a general feeling of ‘No Future’. To make things even worse, there was no place for my white friends to hang out, because the popular music at that time didn’t reflect how they felt and there weren’t any clubs for them to hang out in. Now they’d actually move between either my shop or Malcolm’s and Vivienne’s shop. They moved between these two shops, you know these disaffected white youths. There were more people in my shop because I had a better soundtrack. I played hardcore dub reggae, you know these guys who would later become punks, loved that soundtrack because it was very anti-establishment. It was very kind of ‘Fuck You’ music, they loved the bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed either, it has to be said. So what happened was that this alternative scene literally developed around these two shops. Bands started to perform – they had a look, they had a style and they had an attitude but they had no place to play. That’s when a guy called Andy Czezowski decided to open the very first live punk rock venue in the UK called the ‘Roxy’. And because of the reaction that I got to the music that I was playing in the shop, he asked me to DJ in his club. I had never DJed in my life, it was so early in the day, there weren’t any punk records to play so what am I going to do? I played what I liked! I played hardcore dub reggae. It was lucky for me that the punks liked it too.
Those must have been really exciting times, I mean it was the birth of these counter cultures?!
Yeah, definitely. When I was running the shop, there were a lot of interesting people around. I became friends with people like Patti Smith, Bob Marley would come in there quite often. I mean all the major players of the UK punk rock scene passed through that shop. Everybody, who was anybody passed through that shop.
And the one thing that brought all of you together was that anger about the establishment…
Exactly, we were like-minded rebels man, that’s what it was. We were like-minded rebels. We were classed out by society. When Johnny Rotten sang ‘No Future’, that really summed up how everybody fell. To make things worse there was no soundtrack for this generation and the Sex Pistols just came up with that soundtrack. It was of the people, for the people by the people and it voiced their dissent.
Next to The Sex Pistols another band, the Clash were also very important, because they not only fused punk and reggae on a musical level, but they also brought a slightly different voice to the table.
People say that the Sex Pistols would make you want to smash your head against the wall, but the Clash would give you a reason. And God bless the Pistols because without a doubt they kick-started the whole thing but the Clash gave punk rock a kind of gravitas, they gave it depth. They were the ones that really took punk rock around the world.
Around that time in the late 70s you started making movies, and I think ‘The Punk Rock Movie’ was your first film, wasn’t it?
Yeah, to me punk rock’s greatest gift was the DIY ethic. Do It Yourself. The reason that we are still talking about it now is that it was a complete subculture. It wasn’t just about guitars and mohawks, there was a spirit and an attitude in whatever you did. A lot of people took that energy and put it into whatever they did, so you had punk rock photographers, journalists, graphic designers, all kinds of things. Look at myself: I was inspired to pick up a movie camera and reinvented myself as Don Letts the film maker. There was a lot of re-invention going on. That’s why we’re still talking about punk rock now. Nothing has come along since, that has been that complete.
But that kind of ‘Fuck You’ DIY attitude has been a hallmark of a lot of other youth cultures like skating, and street art for example…
Absolutely. I mean the DIY thing, the idea of turning your problems into assets, the thought that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected, all these things still work on a day-to day basis for me. You see it in all kinds of things now, not just music. In fact music is probably the last thing that is punk rock right now. But I recognise it in various mediums around the world. I mean you can be a punk rock doctor, you can be a punk rock teacher. It’s how you do what you do, not just what you do. It’s a spirit and an attitude. It’s not some weird thing that happened 40 years ago. It does have a lineage and a heritage and if you are brave enough – just like I realised – you can be part of it too. Punk rock is not something to look back on, it’s something to look forward to.
You have made a lot of movies and music videos in your career. Do any of them stand out to you personally?
Well, ‘Pass The Dutchie’ was special for me, because within a very simple medium like the music video, which ultimately was about selling records, I was able to make a political statement. It was a very simple statement: by placing those black kids in front of the Houses of Parliament, which is the ultimate symbol of authority and establishment and having the red gold and green speakers, it was a way of saying to people ‘Hey, you think you know what England is about’? It was my postcard of England, which said ‘Well, this is what it is about’. I think it spoke to a lot of people, that video. But then obviously videos like ‘Rock The Casbah’ for the Clash was a big video for me, ‘London Calling’. There are others, but my work for the Clash I’m particularly proud of. They got people thinking, they engaged people in dialogue. Like I said music should entertain but it also can inform and inspire and be part of a creative process.
Which one of the movies and documentaries you made are you particularly proud of? Is it the Clash movie ‘Westway To the World’ which won you a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video in 2003?
One of the things I’m most proud of is ‘Punk Attitude’ because the whole reason I made ‘Punk Attitude’ is going back to what I was saying earlier: instead of people looking back at punk rock like it was some weird, strange anomaly from the late 70s, which belittles the bigger idea and the fact that it was an ongoing, living dynamic, something that had legs – I wanted to demonstrate that in that film to inspire people to keep moving forward. It’s very difficult to move forward if you keep looking fucking backwards man. What we really should be looking at is the new punk today. Really they should be looking at whatever the new equivalent is. I mean there is genres, but I’m talking about movements, schools of thoughts that rock the fucking world. I don’t know what’s going on but in the West, it’s all quiet on the Western front.
Why is that?
I think a lot of the problems in the West have to do with the aspirations of people. When I got into the whole music counter-cultural thing, we wanted to be anti-establishment, but now most young people want to be part of the establishment. And that’s what it really boils down to: if you want what they are offering, if you want to walk on the red carpet, if you want to be in the top-10, I mean how radical can you be? What you have to say is ‘Fuck all that’ and then things get really exciting.
But surely there are some people who still have that attitude and display that in various art forms. I mean there is some music, certainly some street art, people like Banksy…
I’m a big fan of Banksy and you are right he’s got that attitude. Of course there are many other people out there that have found other ways to express themselves and the technology allows us to do that and they are finding ways to survive through these alternative networks. But today you have to look really hard to find these people.
Which movements do you find interesting?
There is a movement in America called Afro Punk and that is very interesting and then there is another thing that I’m very interested in and want to make a film about, which is the Afro Futurist movement. Those two things are well worth finding out about. Especially the Afro Futurist movement is a major inspiration to me, and many others out there. It’s a whole way of thinking. It’s not about being street, it’s about looking at the stars.
Away from the film making you always stayed involved with music and in 1984 you started Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones of the Clash. How did that happen?
That was totally punk rock for me. To this day I still can’t play any musical instrument. I co-wrote most of the songs with Mick, I played live with all these different stickers on my keyboard and I have my gold disk. Whatever I was doing the punk rock attitude worked. I mean I’m living proof that music has that potential to be a tool for social change. It’s not just about entertainment.
Why do you think the music scene and young people in general were more political and conscious than today? What’s the reason?
I think nowadays we have more political moments and not so many movements and I think it’s a bit of a problem. A lot of music has become a soundtrack to profit-based consumerism and that’s not what it was about for us. I grew up as part of the vinyl generation. We listened to music, that helped you to be, all you could be man. I listened to Gill Scott-Heron and Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Chuck D and all the rest of it and all of those things influenced me and made me who I am today. I don’t know if you can say the same of a lot of the new music today. Sure it’s good party music, don’t get me wrong. It’s very in the moment, but it feels disposable, it feels like it’s about escapism, and most of the acts seem to be afraid to have an opinion. Not all of it but certainly all that stuff you hear in the charts. It has no edge. It’s very disturbing. I mean you can’t spend your life on the dance floor. Eventually the music stops and you have to face reality.
It’s a sad reflection of society really?
Yeah, but you mustn’t be sad because the punk rock spirit is like the force in Star Wars, you cannot stop it. In the 21st century you have to look at new places. From my perspective the Western culture has got increasingly conservative. Not all of it, but most of it. I think if you look at new places you find that there are a lot of interesting things going on. It’s like Joe Strummer said ‘You just have to make sure your bullshit detector is finely tuned’.
But in big cities like London the ‘bullshit detector’ of a lot of young people seems to be pretty warped and it seems that the voices of the disaffected have changed as well. How would you compare for example the riots that happened in Notting Hill in the 1970s with the ones that happened in London and other cities in August 2011? I mean in some ways I can understand the anger, but the way it went down was less political and more about opportunistic looting and vandalism, so what’s your opinion on that?
It was terrible, heartbreaking. There was no direction, a distinct lack of humanity and a lack of any focus of the anger. It was very different and very upsetting. With so much information freely available, there was no excuse for that kind of ignorance and inhumane behaviour that had no focus at all. Maybe that’s a sad indictment of today’s culture and the fact that there are no Joe Strummers and no Johnny Rottens. I don’t know if that’s the answer, and it’s sad to think that people need to be led in any form but it was a rudderless mess and it was very disturbing to me.
With regards to your work, when did you first become aware that you were right at the heart at these sub cultures and that your ways of documenting them helped to shape their history in many ways?
You know what’s funny is that all I ever did was work on the stuff that I was interested in. There was no plan. I’m not Don Letts the teacher, I haven’t got any message, I’m not a fucking postman, I’m just doing the shit I like. With any luck it has some resonance with my fellow men. I think I always gravitated towards things that inspired me. It’s like passing on a good book. Nothing comes out of a void, it’s like passing on this energy that you hope will push things forward. I’d like to think that maybe I’m part of this ongoing dynamic. Where it’s going, I have got no fucking idea but it gets me out of bed.
You obviously have your BBC Radio 6 show, but what other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m still hustling like I always was. It’s a creative hustle, but I never kid myself, it’s a hustle nevertheless. So I still have my radio show, which I’m very proud of. I really enjoy that because it allows me to be all I can be and not just fall into these conventions of punk rock and reggae because I’m bigger than that. You can’t define me by punk rock and reggae. I still DJ all over the place, that’s my way of communicating with people and turning them onto my culture and I’m still making films. My main passion is film making and I just finished a film for the BBC on skinheads, and I’m just about to embark on an archive project that is going to use a lot of the Super 8 films that I shot that have never been seen and it’s going to look at the ‘Punky Reggae’ story. I think that’s the only story of punk rock that’s not been told properly, especially the reggae side of it. I’ve got some very rare footage that I’m going to put together and tell the story. It’s called ‘Two //// Clash’.
Words & interview: Goetz Werner
Photography: Don Letts and Eddie Otchere.