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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 18

Clash City Rockers - Part 2

In 1981 the Clash left for New York to do seven shows, and took me along to document the event on film—which became ‘Clash on Broadway’—and that’s how this London-based Dread got to meet the B-Boys in downtown NYC. All seven shows were oversold, and the Clash ended up playing seventeen shows back-to-back to satisfy demand. The venue was smack bang in the middle of Manhattan, in a place called Bond’s, Times Square. Before the Clash had got to New York, their “Magnificent Dance”, a remix of “Magnificent Seven” was being played on the black radio station WBLS. Frankie Crocker from WBLS had mixed a version of “Magnificent Dance”, and over-dubbed bits of dialogue from the movie Dirty Harry with bits of Bugs Bunny samples. For the whole summer it seemed like WBLS rocked that tune and the B-Boys loved it. Mick Jones was responsible for bringing the whole New York hip-hop scene to the Clash. It was a genre The Clash took on board in the same way they had embraced reggae.

Don Letts on the Subway, NYC

In the beginning of the eighties there was a new sound breaking out of the badlands of the Bronx and Harlem, moving downtown via the New York trendies—and, it has to be said, with a little help from the Clash. They invited Grandmaster Flash, the Treacherous Three and the Sugarhill Gang to support them, aiming to turn downtown New York onto something that was going on in their own backyard. Initial reactions were not always favourable though; on one occasion the predominantly white audience threw bottles at Grandmaster Flash whilst they were on stage, little realising they were witnessing an embryonic scene that would soon dominate the world. There had been the “punky reggae” thing in London and now there was that “punky hip-hop” thing going on in NYC. I was particularly bemused as once again the hip-hop scene had roots in Jamaica, inspired by the rapping style of Jamaican toasters, which was ironic in itself, as the Jamaican DJs had been inspired by American jocks broadcasting out of Miami in the late fifties.

Like punk, hip-hop would become a complete sub-culture with its own dress code, film-makers, artists and photographers. The notoriety and popularity of the graff writers like Haze, Futura 2000, Dhondi, Zephyr and Fab 5 Freddy grew with the music. It was Fab Five Freddy that took Debbie Harry to hip-hop events, and Blondie’s “Rapture” was probably the first ‘rap’ the masses got to hear, whilst Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” video introduced the world to the look and moves of the scene. Africa Bambaataa had a vision of bridging punk and hip-hop, and the black youth thought he was crazy, which was a similar reaction I had from my Rasta brethren before going off to play reggae and dub at the Roxy a few years earlier. For most, funds were tight so they had no choice to do anything but mix-and-match to create their own unique style of dress. As with any burgeoning scene, the DIY ethic was evident right across hip-hop.

For the time that the Clash were in New York, it seemed to me that they basically ran the gaff. I mean people like Scorsese and De Niro were showing up at the gigs.  Not surprisingly, as the Clash were grabbing the headlines, people were falling themselves to show you what the city had to offer. And back then there was a lot on offer—why do you think they named it twice? It was like a real hip-hop-punk rock n ‘roll circus. As for the film, the bands manager Bernard Rhodes put it into a lab in NYC, didn’t pay the bill, and after a few years the lab destroyed the negatives. Luckily years later I managed to salvage sections of the film to create a DVD extra for my ‘Westway to the World’ documentary.

The Clash on the set of 'Rock the Casbah'

From NYC we moved on to Texas. I went there with the band to shoot the “Rock the Casbah” video and we came up with this half-baked idea of Jews and Arabs getting along, which I thought was a brave move for the Clash considering what could and couldn’t be shown on MTV back then. The plan was for the band to be filmed playing in front of an oil derry, and I was amazed when Mick walked onto the set wearing these red long johns and black DM boots apparently he was pissed off about something and it was his way of throwing a strop. I pulled him to one side and said, “Look Mick, you look like a matchstick, and don’t forget film lasts forever, so if you look stupid today, you’ll look stupid forever.” Mick got changed.

The Clash were like four sticks of dynamite. On the cue of “ACTION” these guys just went off. The armadillo was the mascot of Texas and was added for a bit of humour. Most people there had never seen a live one; only dead as ashtrays or handbags. The whole video was quite humorous; there is a scene where the Arab is driving the Cadillac and making the Jew pay for the oil. The video is a juxtaposition of ideas and thought-provoking scenes. The song itself was later used by the US military in the first Gulf War as a rallying cry. A prime example of left wing political statements being hijacked distorted and completely misunderstood.

Don Letts with Andy Warhol

In the summer of 1982, the Clash played Shea Stadium supporting The Who, which is where I filmed the video for “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. We were backstage and Andy Warhol was there. I remember jokingly telling Warhol that there was acid in the cake, and the poor guy completely flipped out. I felt really bad about that. The “Radio Clash” video was cut out of the Clash on Broadway footage and a few years later I got the chance to show it to Federico Fellini at a film festival. After the screening Fellini said that I “have the vision of a terrorist”. He was smiling at the time, so I guess it was a compliment. Sounded great in Italian!

Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 17

Clash City Rockers - Part 1

Out of The Clash guys, I got to know Paul Simonon first through our mutual love of reggae. We’d swap mix tapes, which was our way of communicating and serious currency back in the day. I had tapes of Mikey Dread’s late night radio show in Jamaica called Dread at the Controls, which I lent to Paul. The show played reggae exclusively and whenever it was on in Jamaica the crime rate went down! Mikey’s knowledge, approach and experience of making reggae music was invaluable to the Clash during the Sandinista sessions, and the end results of his contributions were stunning, with tracks like “Bankrobber” and “One More Time”. People make quite a big deal out of the punky/reggae connection, but what were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones listening to? It was black music. It’s just that to the uninitiated it wasn’t that obvious within their music, but with the Clash it was right up front. It was in their lyrics, in their bass-lines and their subject matter. Not only did the Clash cover Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, they name checked Prince Far-I on “Clash City Rockers”, Dr Alimantado on “Rudy Can’t Fail”, the Abyssinians “Sattamassaganna” on “Jimmy Jazz” and Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson on “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It made me immensely proud that my culture was being represented by these guys instead of being lost within self-interpretation. With the Clash it was not white reggae; it was punk and reggae. Their songs brought some of their culture to my culture. Reggae spoke in a language the punks could identify with. It was the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance, and importantly the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like “Money in My Pocket”, “I Need a Roof” and “Chant Down Babylon” struck an obvious chord with “the youth”.

Don Letts Chapter 17 1

I think one of the advantages that I had when I started making the music videos was that none of the bands that I worked with had aspirations of becoming actors or film-makers, of which the Clash were the best example. They just made music and let me get on with my job as filmmaker. They were obviously aware of my work with The Punk Rock Movie and the PiL video and chose me to be the man for their debut single ‘London Calling’. Now the punk look was supposed to be about individuality but after the Bill Grundy episode with the Pistols it soon became a uniform. The Clash were smart enough to see it was painting them into a corner. Punk was supposed to be about freedom and liberation, and all of a sudden you had the ‘punk police’ saying, “you can’t wear this, you can’t do that, you should sound like this.” The sound of ‘London Calling’ was the first real challenge to those punk shackles, throwing soul, reggae and rockabilly into the equation. It was cool seeing them break out of the restrictions that punk had very quickly developed. The Clash had also changed their look to an East End gangster style. They were always image-conscious rather than fashion conscious.

Don Letts Chapter 17 2

                                                                    Mikey Dread, R.I.P

For “London Calling” I decided to shoot the video on a pier in Battersea on the River Thames in the afternoon and wanted cameras on a boat to get the right angles. Now I didn’t know anything about tides and when we got there to set up it was out and the cameras were fifteen feet too low. Then there was the current. After setting each shot up we found that we were moving further and further away from the pier. By the time we had sorted out all these problems, it started to piss down with rain and it was nighttime. After about three takes I just wanted to get out of there. I am now told that the “London Calling” video is a classic. It was a textbook punk situation, turning your problems into assets. Around this time the Clash had decided against playing large venues and were due to play at the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I took the opportunity to shoot the “Bankrobber” video in the afternoon before the gig. Prompted by the title I decided to quickly get some shots of Johnny Green and Topper’s drum roadie Baker running out of a bank on Lewisham High Street with bags of money dressed as villains. This was intercut with the Clash playing “Bankrobber” live at the Odeon with Mikey Dread at the controls. As I was filming the last shots of Baker and Green running to the back door of the Odeon, two police cars came round the corner with their sirens blazing. Armed police jumped out and had Baker, Green and myself pinned against the wall. Johnny Green told them that we were art students working on a project. For the “Call Up”, a song about dodging the draft, we originally wanted to shoot the video in a cemetery but the local council refused permission and at the very last minute we ended up shooting at former sixties pop star Chris Farlowe’s warehouse—which was full of military memorabilia and equipment as he was a renowned collector. The song was about registration for the draft in America—a subject dear to Mick Jones since he had attended a draft demonstration in New York. The setting for the video shoot was just perfect—another example of turning problems into assets.

Don Letts Chapter 17 3

In the aftermath of the initial punk explosion it looked like the major record companies had regained control and were having it all their own way. The Pistols had imploded, the Clash had finally signed to CBS after months of negotiations and I had reinvented myself as a filmmaker. So it was a period of death and re-birth for all, and everyone looked to the Clash to take things to another level.

Part two of 'Clash City Rockers' will be available to read soon. Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

We Only Wanted To Be Loved 

My first venture into making music videos was courtesy of John Lydon for the debut single of his new venture Public Image Limited, the band he’d formed after the break up of the Sex Pistols. Before the PiL promo, I was Don Letts DJ at the Roxy, dread with a camera. All of a sudden I had a 20-man film crew around me. This was a situation created by the ACTT film union and as I was not a member at that time I was a ‘ghost’ director. Due to my total inexperience I went for the safe option going for a performance piece. It’s only John’s dynamics with the band that gives the video any substance whatsoever. Working with PiL was always tense as they were so volatile. The original line-up of Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker fused dub and rock into a warped, paranoid and claustrophobic sound. As long as I had known John, he had always been listening to reggae and avant-garde stuff like Can’s Tago Mago, Curved Air and Tangerine Dream. All these elements came together in the early PiL tunes. I was particularly taken with the King Tubby mix style of their first album, Public Image and its follow-up, the hugely influential Metal Box.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, Don & John

Everyone in PiL was on ‘something’ different (hell we all were!) Some were up, some were down, and others were coming in sideways. The initial optimism they had soon turned dark and out of that chaos came moments of brilliance. Jeannette and I had been an item for a very important part of our lives, but around this time we split up. Girlfriend broke my heart. I’d introduced Jeannette to John, who then got her to manage the band. She’d go on to eventually become a part of PiL (that’s her on the cover of their Flowers of Romance album). When Jeannette got involved with PiL, I was off in a huff. Soon after, Keith Levene and Jah Wobble needed some money, so they ended up making a single for Virgin Records called The Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP. They got me down to the studio to work on some vocals, even though I had never sung in my life. I remember sitting on the stairs with a microphone trying to write some words. Eventually I said, “OK guys, I’ll go home and work out some proper lyrics.” I never heard back from them and the next thing I knew the record was out. They’d used my demo vocals and stuck them with a track they’d worked up. The picture on the cover featured someone with a bag over his head. Now I’d come up with the title “Haile Unlikely” and I was messing around with this idea of “OK, I’m black, but I don’t want to go back to Africa.” I was basically saying, “I’m a black British Dread and I ain’t going nowhere! Now truth be told the record’s crap and looking back I can laugh at the whole thing but what’ll always piss me off is the picture on the sleeve - I mean people thought it was me for Christ sakes!

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, John & Jeanette

PiL’s headquarters were in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where John Lydon lived. It was like the Addams Family house he even had a cat called Satan that he trained to fetch things for him. I once took reggae legend Dr Alimantado round to the flat to see John. After the physical and verbal abuse John was getting on the streets during the Pistols era, Alimantado became one of his heroes, and “Born for a Purpose” his anthem. “If you feel like you have no reason for living, don’t determine my life,” sang Dr Alimantado on the classic track which he penned after a near-fatal “accident”. In 1977, John Lydon, then Rotten, named it one of his top ten tunes of all time. The Clash would also later pay respect with the lyric “like the Doctor who’s born for a purpose” on “Rudie Can’t Fail” from London Calling. Joe Strummer once told me that Dr Alimantado’s “Poison Flour” was a tune that Paul Simonon played all the time, citing it as an example of how to sing about things that had an effect on daily lives. It was this reportage quality in the lyrics of 1970s reggae that captured the punks’ imagination (along with the bass lines and the weed!). So “Born for a Purpose” quickly became one of the few records to actually bridge the curious alliance that was punk and reggae during that period in the UK.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

When you went round to Gunter Grove it was like a trial by fire. John would psychologically mess with you. If you had a weakness, he would find it. People would pop round John’s for a visit and leave psychological wrecks. It was only those that could stand there and take it that John would let back in. For Leo Williams’ birthday (Basement 5, B.A.D, Dreadzone) John decided to throw a party at Gunter Grove. The two tribes were on the floor with their Red Stripe, sensi and the heaviest dub reggae courtesy of the John Lydon Sound System. I can remember the bemused look on John’s face as he watched Althea and Donna, who were also in attendance, skank the night away. This was a “punky reggae party” before Bob Marley even penned the tune. One night there was a police raid. John freaked, all he knew was someone had entered the flat so he ran down the stairs with a huge sword someone had given him as a present. The police must have wondered what the hell was going on. Their sniffer dog chased Satan the cat, who climbed up onto a speaker in front of John’s teapot where his weed was stashed. The police thought the dog was barking at the cat, and didn’t think any more of it. Satan had saved the day! John was duly taken down the cop shop, bare-footed in his dressing gown and pyjamas and had to walk all the way back home dressed like that. He was seriously pissed off and moved to New York soon after.

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE