In 2005, DON LETTS interviewed by SIMON McKAY about his latest film 'Punk: Attitude' featuring, amongst others; Clash, Slits, Bob Marley.
DON LETTS - Dread on a Motorcycle
I've seen Don do a couple of Q&As after screenings of his films. He starts by throwing away the microphone and paces around the stage ready to take all comers. Rat-a-tat-tat - belting out the response to a question and then without pausing, moving onto the next one. Away from the stage, I'm meeting with Don in a room above the Electric Cinema in Portobello where he is doing a day of interviews to promote his new DVD 'Punk:Attitude'. As we sit down, I ask about a few words I had heard him say in his previous interview that had filtered down to the bar where I had been waiting. They were, 'so what do you do if you're ugly and can't dance?' He looks mortified and asks softly, "They can hear me down there?" There's a lovely turn to this because it turns out that the previous interview had just been broadcast live on the radio. I guess people heard it! So it's not all pacing and bluster, immediately Don has shown a quieter more reserved side.
Whether he's hustling, which he claims is 90% of the job when you're a director, or he's filming; he's obviously got something that cuts through. He was close to the Clash, the Slits and John Lydon during times when these artists would have been practically under siege. He shot film of Siouxsie backstage putting her make up on. I suggest that she doesn't strike me as a woman who would allow people to see that side of her, much less film it. There's a bit of a twinkle in his eye that suggests that he particularly enjoyed filming Siouxsie. I get the technical answer though, "A genuine bond was formed that allowed me to get to places that other people couldn't. There was a vibe going between us. I wasn't this odd guy who was working for the media. We were all growing up together. I was good at melting into the background and becoming a figment of their imagination."
Don's long association with punk began when he was managing a clothes shop called Acme Attractions on the Kings Road at the same time as Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had their more celebrated shop, Seditionaries. As well as having similar clientele they also shared the same accountant, Andy Czezowski. Czezowski recognised that in punk, there was a movement going on and that it needed a base from which it could grow. There was nowhere for the bands to play so he opened the Roxy. Immediately, it flourished; perhaps a little too much. After 100 days, the owners of the club decided to take it over and run it on the same format. They didn't understand the scene of course and how tight it was. The scene quickly moved on and moved away.
DON LETTS - cover of Sniffin' Glue in February 1977
During those 100 days Czezowski brought Don in as the DJ. Don had been playing Dub in Acme and they were both aware of how good the response was to the sounds coming out of the store and that it was actually drawing people in. "Punks picked up on the bass lines and the musical reportage quality of the lyrics," says Don, who is first generation British Black; "I could see the affect of my culture on their culture. That made me feel good and that I had something to bring to the party."
When he went back to his black mates and said that he was going to DJ at a punk club, they all laughed at him. "Then they came down, they saw the girls and they saw that untapped herb market and they're like, 'Yeah, we're in.' After a few weeks of selling spliffs they realised that there was something going on that they could relate to. There was a genuine bond formed. We turned each other on by understanding our differences and not trying to be the same. The punks didn't grow dreadlocks and my brederin didn't have Mohawks. We could be what we were and still get on. There's a good life lesson there.
"Most of the punks couldn't make spliffs so the staff, who were all of my Rasta brederin who I lived with, used to make ready rolled spliffs and sell them from behind the bar to the punks. One day Shane MacGowan came up, 'Gimme 2 beers and a spliff.' He thinks for a minute and he goes, 'No, no… make that 2 spliffs and 1 beer.' So we're talking about serious cultural exchange here."
BOB MARLEY - 'JAMMING'/'PUNKY REGGAE PARTY'
With a little shimmy, Don also took punk to Reggae. Bob Marley was another visitor to Acme and had become a friend of Don's. Marley only knew punk from the tabloid headlines and couldn't understand Don's alliance with 'these baldheads'. There was a minor falling out because as Don pointed out, these 'baldheads' were his mates. Marley found another way of looking at it later though as this exchange is the inspiration for his 1977 B-side 'Punky Reggae Party' which includes the conciliatory line, 'The Wailers will be there. The Damned. The Jam. The Clash.'
Whilst Marley produced a perfectly respectable record, I have heard talk of Lee Scratch Perry making versions of 'Anarchy In The UK' and 'Holiday In The Sun'. It seems that the marriage had produced a monster.
"When the Pistols first broke up, John Lydon went to Jamaica looking to escape the paparazzi so he takes his mate Don Letts because he's black and he figured he'd have been to Jamaica but the closest I had been was seeing 'The Harder They Come' in Brixton. Some bright spark at the record company decided to get Lee Perry to do Reggae versions of Pistols songs. It was done for the money more than the ideology. They came up with really cheesy versions of the songs. John and I were in the control room listening. They were laughable."
Don admits that initially, he wasn't crazy about punk music but he realised there was something more going on. "The DIY thing kind of turned me on. What punk showed me was how to use DIY to better your situation and not just survive. In fact, to the point of reinventing myself as a film-maker."
THE ADVERTS (TV Smith, Gaye Advert, Laurie Driver, Howard Pickup)
Outside Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly London
Don got a Super 8 camera and started filming the bands that played at the Roxy. He wanted to capture the energy of the emerging scene and immediately found that there was an interest in what he recorded. There were post Roxy gatherings at his place in Forest Hill. Primarily, they were just to make the night last a little longer but he'd also play back some of his recently processed footage. There's a clip in 'Punk:Attitude' of one of these gatherings and as the camera pans around the room it shows some of the Pistols, Clash, Generation X, Slits and Adverts. This just seemed normal to Don at the time but now he appreciates that it was pretty amazing. He recognised that "the bands were checking themselves out to see how they were coming across on stage."
When the NME reported that Don was working on 'Punk Rock Movie', it struck him as a good idea so he took it on. The resulting 75-minute film didn't go on general release but it broke box office records when it played for 6 weeks at the ICA in 1978.
POSTER FOR DON LETT'S PUNK ROCK MOVIE
'Punk Rock Movie' is the earliest footage of UK punk but it hasn't been widely seen. It appeared briefly on VHS in 1982 but hasn't been officially released on video or DVD since then, mainly because of the problems with getting clearance. Don assures me that it's not the bands that stand in the way of this but rather the record companies. All of Don's archives are with the BFI and they are keen to release the movie so it might happen yet. I certainly hope so. It contains some truly iconic images:
That man again, Shane MacGowan - in the audience dressed in a Union Jack jacket pogoing into those around him.
The Slits - clearing chairs from a school hall so that they can play a gig there.
ARI UP (SLITS) - Onstage 1977
In stark contrast to the shock tabloid headlines of the day, there's a shot on the 1977 'White Riot' tour bus (Clash, Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and Slits) of Joe Strummer and Ari Up larking about like kids putting pillowcases over their heads as they laugh hysterically. They hardly resembled the threat to the very fabric of British society that they were supposed to represent at that time. Maybe the subtext to that scene says more about what was really happening. It turns out that the pillowcases were 'appropriated' from Newcastle's Holiday Inn. The hotel pressed charges and Joe was arrested. It's a long way from dropping TVs out of a window but this disproportionate response by the authorities says a lot about the hysterical reaction to punk at that time.
And then there's the audience - I do like a good audience shot. The theatrics of a guy in a black rubber mask emblazoned with the word rapist. As the camera points at him he takes the extra precaution of putting his hands across his face… like he'd forgotten it was already covered in rubber!
It was a magical time in the audience. The crowd really looked like they were enjoying the bands but there was such a mish mash of appearances. There were punks with the look that we came to know them for but there were also plenty of guys with long bushy hair wearing flares. They were just enjoying themselves. Then the Bill Grundy interview happened with the infamous headline, 'The Filth and The Fury'. This was followed with a tabloid feature '10 Ways To Make Yourself Look Like A Punk'. Suddenly a bin liner, safety pins and spiky hair became a new uniform. Don picks up on this, "It was like there were punk police saying, 'that's punk, that's not. You can't do this… can't do that.' They painted themselves into a corner."
CLASH (JOE STRUMMER & PAUL SIMONON)
Newcastle 1982 (Photo by Stephen Joyce)
Don has a long-time association with the Clash, which produced the Grammy winning documentary, 'Westway To The World'. Don is most definitely a Clash fan.
"The Clash embraced everything. Punk was supposed to give you your freedom. The Clash wiped the slate clean with their first album but as they grew and they made 'London Calling', they weren't afraid to show their musical influences and different music from around the planet."
I back that with an anecdote of my own. I was in Newcastle's independent record shop, Listen Ear in late 79 with Toot, my punk schoolmate. There was a white label LP playing. The guy behind the counter asked Toot a little pointedly, "Do you like this?"
"Nah," Toot replied. After a pause he asked, "When's the new Clash album coming out?" I cringed. The music was new to me too but I recognised Strummer's voice. The LP was of course 'London Calling'. Toot walked right into that one.
I ask Don what he would like Joe to be remembered for. "For saying, 'shut up and get on with it'. He was a guy who had his feet firmly on the ground. It's important that we keep these people real. If they're real then it's something that you can aspire to, it's attainable."
"After their gigs anybody who wanted to talk to those guys could talk to them. They broke down the fourth wall of 'we're the band; you're the audience'. It was kind of cool but it was usually geezers who wanted to talk to them so there weren't a lot of girls backstage. That was the only downside about that."
DON LETTS - NOTTING HILL 1976
(Featured on Black Market Clash LP sleeve)
The image of Don is immortalised on the 'Black Market Clash' compilation. The picture is taken in 1976 at Notting Hill just as the riots are about to erupt. It is such a confrontational image, yet according to Don that is deceptive. "It's me in front of 500 cops. Behind me all of the brothers are getting bricked up and bottled up ready to launch into the cops. I decide that I'd better step aside. That's all I was doing, crossing the street. I didn't know that I was being photographed."
When was Don Letts' first stage appearance? Remarkably, it was at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1976, when Patti Smith who he was already friends with, pulled him and Taper Zukie out from the wings and thrust a guitar into Don's arms. At this time, Don was the shop owner at Acme with no ambitions to be on stage. "Luckily I had my dark glasses on. I stood there and did air guitar. I was thinking, 'I got to get out of this.' There's a lull in the music. I hand the guitar to a roadie and go to leave the stage but Patti grabs me, pulls me back on stage and puts a mic in my hand. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as air mic so I had to do something. I break into my heaviest Jamaican dialect, 'cramp and paralyse dem and dose who worship Babylon!' and it worked. The crowd starts loving it. I look to my feet and Patti's got another guitar now. She's at my feet, lying on the ground, whining on this guitar. They had to pull me off in the end as I was really getting into it."
BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE (Mick Jones seated)
The element of faking it would stand in him in good stead for future performances with Big Audio Dynamite, that's the way Don tells it anyway… "I was at the keyboard with stickers on the keys and I had to jump about on stage to look like I was doing something." In reality there was more to it than that. "My role was that I wasn't a musician so I came up with ideas that weren't musical so I had no rules. Why can't I nick a minute out of Good, Bad Ugly & stick it on Medicine Show? Things like that... Mick got me precisely because I wasn't a musician & my ideas came from left of field. In the studio, I'd write songs with Mick & also I'd be watching these great films to find bits of dialogue. I was totally happy with my contribution." I suggest that Mick must have been looking for somebody strong after being with Joe for all those years. Don say's he always felt like he was in Joe's shadow even though BAD obviously wasn't the Clash and was something very different. He says, "I'm very proud of it because it signposted the way things were going. I mean, hey! reggae bass-line, hip hop beats, rock n roll guitar and sampling sounds like everything today doesn't it? Or a lot of the more interesting things today so I'm very proud of that. I could do with better royalty cheques though."
And when you already have all of this behind you and someone asks you to do a punk rock doc? "Oh man, not that again. You know, subject covered but then I went away and wondered why people keep looking back at this particular sub cultural movement. The over emphasis of 70's punk rock trivialised a bigger idea of the ongoing dynamic as counter culture. In my film, 'Punk:Attitude', the birth of rock 'n' roll is a punk rock moment. The birth of the hippie movement, reggae and hip hop are all punk moments. It was widening the brief and getting out of the idea that punk began and ended in the late 70's. Put it in the context of an evolving living thing not this weird thing that happened back then. The point being that if it happened back then well… it can happen again. And when you look around these days, it sure bloody needs to."
The film includes substantial interviews with Tommy Ramone, Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, David Johansen, Glen Matlock and a number of influential observers of the scene. It's a fast timeline with lots of cuts. It moves and it flows. The story is there and it's coherent; it covers a lot in 90 minutes. It's not intended to be the definitive role call of everybody who was in punk. "The original edit was 3 hours and there were still people missing from it."
Don was looking for a new way to tell the story of punk and was excited to be talking to the less exposed figures of Pete Shelley, Ari Up, James Chance and Marti Rev. "It was almost fortunate that John Lydon was away in Africa making a nature programme at the time because it left more time for other people."
At one point the film seems to give Nirvana a big build up but it doesn't actually come to fruition. There is no Nirvana music. I think I heard 'that tune' in my head, but definitely not from the screen. "You know why that is? Courtney Love… she stopped me using it. I don't know what that was about. How can somebody so thick be responsible for something so important? I couldn't use any Nirvana archive or music because somebody makes a comment in the film that she doesn't like."
'Punk:Attitude' does of course draw liberally on Don's 70's archive footage of bands. I ask what else is still in the can. "More of the bands that were my favourites; Pistols, Slits, Clash, Heartbreakers and some that I found interesting like Johnny and The Mopeds (he was like somebody who escaped from 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'), Slaughter and the Adverts."
"Punk inspired me and I want to pass it on. I still use the punk ethos everyday. It didn't begin and end in the late 70's. It's not something to look back on; it's something to look forward to."
Don Letts Director - Selected Filmography
Punk: Attitude (2005)
Sun Ra: The Brother From Another Planet (2005)
Making of 'London Calling': The Last Testament (2004)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil Scott Heron (2003)
The Clash: Westway to the World (2000)
Return of the Supers Ape: Lee Perry (1997)
Dancing in the Streets (1997)
Legend: Bob Marley (1985)
The Punk Rock Movie (1978)