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Wednesday, 12th Sep 2012
Dread with a Camera
What I picked up most from mixing with the punks was a new way of approaching things—the DIY ethic. I came to realise that a good idea attempted was better than a bad idea perfected. So with the birth of Punk Rock I literally reinvented myself as “Don Letts the film-maker”. My next effort was another rough n’ ready venture called Rankin’ Movie. It featured Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Congos, Culture, Big Youth and many others. I filmed Prince Far I playing at Dingwalls with his Chelsea FC bag that he claimed was filled with ganja, and Dr Alimantado bursting into a full performance of “Born For A Purpose” in the middle of Daddy Kool’s reggae shop. There was no narrative to Rankin’ Movie it was held it together with performances juxtaposed with footage of things like Jamaican police shaking down a car load of Rastas in Kingston with footage of the Notting Hill riots in London.
There were scenes of U-Roy smoking his massive chalice and Tappa Zukie with a gun-toting brother who was shot dead a couple of weeks later. Most of the material was filmed on my first trip to Jamaica with John Lydon. Rankin’ Movie generated a lot of publicity for me which helped when I later approached Michael White with a script I’d written called Dread at the Controls. It was directly inspired by radical poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Five Nights of Bleeding” which he recorded under the pseudonym of Poet & Roots. Released in 1977 it really summed up life as a young black man growing up in the decaying and violent inner cities. As it turned out my film was never got made, as around the same time Franco Rosso had just made ‘Babylon’. It was about a South London sound system in late-seventies Britain called Ital Lion Sound System, and the people who passionately ran it against all the odds. Brinsley Forde, Aswad’s singer and child actor was the lead and there’s some great footage of Jah Shaka in session. Dennis Bovell put the soundtrack together utilising tracks like Aswad’s mighty “Warrior Charge”. Even though it’s a good film, Babylon didn’t make much money, so Dread was shelved.
It was The Harder They Come that made me want to express myself visually and I’d always wanted to make a movie that reflected the London that I knew. Ironically my first feature film Dancehall Queen, directly inspired by The Harder They Come was shot in Kingston Jamaica in 1997 and made possible by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. Blackwell was the also the man behind The Harder They Come. Perry Henzell (R.I.P) did a great job of directing a brutally honest depiction of ghetto life in Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff, the star of the film, was not a trained actor, so that also added an element of realism.
Cliff plays a character called Ivan, who comes to Kingston looking for work. He finds it impossible to get a job, so he decides to make music. He quickly realises that the recording industry is just as corrupt as the world outside of it and finds himself becoming a Jesse James-type hero. When Ivan first comes to Kingston he goes to the cinema and gets caught up in the on-screen drama; but the local wide-boy, Jose, tells him that the hero cannot die until the last reel. Ivan goes and lives the movie for real and dies in a shoot out in the last reel. It is a great scene that parallels the whole movie. When Jose is run out of town by Ivan, all through the altercation between them “Pressure Drop” by the Maytals is simmering underneath. The way Henzell interweaves the music within the storyline is remarkable. The marriage of the soundtrack and narrative in The Harder They Come left an impression on me that has inspired my life and work. It was telling how closely I could relate to The Harder They Come, even though it was far removed from my experience as a black youth in the UK. I liked the idea that The Harder They Come raised awareness of Jamaican culture and entertained at the same time. It must have had the same impact on me as Rebel Without a Cause must have had on young white kids in the fifties.
Now growing up in the UK not only was I exposed to the obvious American influences but I was also totally captivated by the films of European film makers like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also influenced and inspired Martin Scorsese. They made films that had an element of fantasy to them but were misunderstood at the time by film critics and audiences alike. Winston Churchill even tried to ban their film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. For the most part it was crafted storytelling, the technical aspects of their films were so intricate, unless you are tuned into that stuff it is hard to notice (check The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). The abrupt end of Powell’s career can be pinned down to one film, Peeping Tom. An uncompromising portrait of madness, it is the story of a young man who murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror. Powell cleverly makes a sober study of sexual violence, as well as a meditation on voyeurism set in twilight landscape of backstreet London. The film opened to scathing reviews in April 1960. Years later, Scorsese heralded the film as an English classic that said all there is to say about directing.
They say the true sign of genius is inconsistency and this could well apply to another of my favourite directors—Nic Roeg. Watching ‘Walkabout’ made me acutely aware of different ways of telling a story. Sure you might need a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order! There’s some great examples of this in his film Don’t Look Now and the Roeg classic Performance. It’s a visually compelling and disturbing look at two diverse sides of 1960s London; the criminal underworld and hippie culture. Robert Fox plays a gangster fugitive who takes refuge in the Notting Hill home of Turner (played by Mick Jagger) a semi-retired bisexual rock musician. Turner becomes infatuated with Chas’ violent charisma and his “vital energy” he himself feels he has lost. As the title suggests, the film is all about performances and role reversal. Full of Roeg’s visual flourishes it’s still my favourite London movie and features one of the best soundtracks ever. Roeg continued challenging the industry with The Man Who Fell to Earth, with the inspired choice of David Bowie playing an alien visiting earth, telling a tale of how the American dream had been hijacked by consumerism, and had a deeper message than your usual sci-fi rubbish.
I learned the technical aspects of film-making from seeing the beauty of Powell and Pressburger’s work or watching the Ealing films like Passport to Pimlico along side the American classics. But it was with the inspiration of The Harder They Come combined with a punk attitude that I became - Don Letts the film director.
Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE.
Thursday, 23rd Aug 2012
No Don’t Stop the Carnival
London’s first Caribbean Carnival was held in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The idea stemmed from a meeting at the Brixton office of the West Indian Gazette a few months earlier. Claudia Jones, who worked for the paper, wanted to do something to improve the morale of the West Indian Community in Notting Hill. Race Riots had spread from Nottingham to Notting Hill during 1958 when locals waged their racial war on the newly settled West Indian community. Held at the Town Hall, the Carnival went well, with dancing, lots of curried goat, rice n’ peas. It was not until 1965 that it moved to Notting Hill after Rhaune Laslett, a local resident, spoke to the police about holding a carnival there. She wanted to involve all of the community; Irish, Spanish, Caribbeans, Africans and Portuguese to name a few. Notting Hill at that time was a piss-poor area, but it had a real multicultural vibe to it. Laslett ran the Carnival for several years and the attendance grew to about 10,000 people. The event was a great success and blurred the lines between participant and spectator and quickly became a symbol of freedom.
By 1976 Carnival had become a predominantly Caribbean event built on Jones’ racial offensive and Laslett’s cooperative activism. For my parents’ generation the Carnival was a reminder of life back home but for my generation it was statement about duality of our existence which was black and British. Tensions had been building through that year and it came to a head when police tried to arrest someone close to Portobello Road. Several black youths went to help the guy and it escalated into a riot. The police had to grab dustbin lids to protect themselves from the bricks and debris raining down on them. To this day people think that there was a racial theme to the riot in 1976, but it was not a black or white thing. It was a wrong or right thing. Working class people being harassed by the police. Hence the Clash song “White Riot”, with the words “Black man gotta lotta problems/but they don’t mind throwing a brick.” The Clash were saying, “look our black brethren have had enough and they have done something about it.” Ironically it was misunderstood by some as being a right-wing song.
During the Notting Hill riot I was wandering around with my Super-8 camera, torn between getting the shot and throwing a brick. The infamous picture of me that ended up on the front of the ‘Black Market Clash’ album was taken at this time. It looks like I am fronting the cops off, but I am actually crossing the road.
Behind me are 500 brothers all armed with bottles and bricks and the police lines were right in front of me. It was best that I moved out of the way. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were also caught up in it. They were throwing bricks. The white youth were right in there alongside the black youth, including myself, all sick to death of the SUS law. The SUS law was a stop-and-search policy based upon Sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, which made it illegal for a suspected person to loiter in a public place. SUS was routinely abused, usually to the detriment of black youth. If I went to the cinema I had to schedule an extra half hour, because I knew that I would probably get pulled up and miss the start of the film. When I saw a police car behind me, I’d pull over before they could pull me over. I’d walk up to the cops and say, “Look, what do you want? You make me really nervous and you’re going to make me crash so let’s get it over with.”
I remember one particular time they pulled me up somewhere off the King’s Road, Chelsea. I got out of the car and jumped up onto the bonnet and I was like, “Yo, what are you guys trying to do, crucify me?” and all of a sudden passers-by were watching me. From that point on, every time I got pulled up on the street I would stand with my legs spread-eagled and my arms in the air, sort of American stylee. The cops would be shocked and say, “Look young man, there is no need for that.” I’d simply reply, “It’s OK officer, I feel a lot more comfortable like this, and you can’t say I have done anything wrong.” The minute you did that on the street everybody was looking. I flipped the script on them. I even remember being pulled up in various places and I’d start taking my clothes off and walking around in my underpants. It was my way of taking control of the situation. However if you were pulled up in the middle of the night with no witnesses, you were screwed.
Nowadays the Notting Hill Carnival has grown to be the biggest ‘street’ festival in Europe. Over a million pleasure-seekers every year cause a roadblock in the heart of London, oblivious to the Carnival’s political, social and historical background. In its early days, it was controlled by the first Trinidadian settlers of Ladbroke Grove, but it was not long before all the Islands found a voice at Carnival. It was nearly hi-jacked by the Jamaican sound systems in the seventies and that’s where I came in, listening to sounds with names like ‘Shaka’ and ‘Coxsone Sound’. After an initial sound clash, a balance was struck. Reggae and Calypso provided a running commentary on current events. Journalism set to music. And if you can resist the smell of the various foods on sale then you are a slimmer man than I.
Today regular fixtures like Norman Jay’s ‘Good Times Sound-System’ and Gaz’s ‘Rockin Blues’ really capture the evolution of the carnival sound. One of my favourite spots used to be on the junction of All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road; sound systems piled stories high on every corner, just as the steel band pulls in. Calypso, Soca, Soul, Ragga, Reggae and Hip-Hop. The tree-lined harmony of west London gets slapped upside the head. Ladbroke Grove—Ladbroke groove—dub town. By my logic 2009 was the 50th anniversary of Carnival and that same year I was moved to make a documentary celebrating that fact as it continues to be a kind of a cultural barometer for the times, charting and reflecting the journey of multi-cultural Britain.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE
Thursday, 16th Aug 2012
Malice in Ganja Land
By January 1978 the Sex Pistols had split up and John decided to go to Jamaica to help Richard Branson set up the Front Line reggae label for Virgin Records. It was also a way for him to escape the media frenzy around the bands demise. So in February I get a phone call from John asking me if I’d like to go to Jamaica. He’s figures I’m black and a mate so I must know what’s what. Truth is I’d never been to Jamaica in my life, the closest I’d been was seeing The Harder They Come in my local cinema. Never-the-less I turned up at John’s house with my passport, a plastic bag and one pair of underpants. When we checked into the Sheraton Hotel we found out that Branson had booked the whole floor. Over the next two weeks it was like exodus movement of musicians, everybody who was anybody came by to try to get a deal with the exception of Bob Marley (R.I.P), Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh (R.I.P) and Burning Spear. Many an afternoon was spent pool-side hanging out with the likes of Prince Far I (R.I.P), I-Roy (R.I.P), The Gladiators, U-Roy, Big Youth and the Abyssinians to name a few. All the mystical names that John and I had admired for years were now blagging food and drinks from us.
Punk had no impact in Jamaica other than the odd article in The Gleaner about a strange English phenomenon. But that didn’t stop anyone being more than appreciative of “the whiteman who sell ’nuff record, gold disc an’ ’ting”. One afternoon we ended up with Lee Perry in his studio where the assembled reggae artists had been hired to do reggae versions of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Holiday in the Sun”. I can remember sitting in the smoke-filled control room listening to the cheesy reggae versions that Scratch’s bunch of hired session men were banging out. Since the project was money-led it wasn’t so much Dread at the Control, more like Bread at the Control. It was on this same trip that I made the most embarrassing comment of my life. John and myself found ourselves around Joni Mitchell’s house in Jamaica –don’t ask! We’re partaking in the local produce, as one does, when I burst out with, “What is this shit we’re listening to? Take it off!” Joni calmly replies, “It’s my new album, actually.” Back-pedaling furiously (coolly disguised by the perennial shades) I foolishly reply, “Well it’s not ‘Carrie’.” Pathetic—but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a better comeback.
Hanging with Joni
John did not want to go back to London with a suntan, so he walked around in Jamaica’s summer heat dressed in heavy black motorbike boots, black hat and heavy black woolen overcoat. He looked like Lee Van Cleef. One day Tappa Zukie took me and John to Rema, the heaviest part of Kingston—they used to call it “Jungle” and it was a no-go area for the police. I was thinking, “What is the big deal, where are all the guns?” This guy said, “yu want see a gun?” and reached into his back pocket and whipped out this massive gun. Suddenly there were loads of guns waving in the air. Me and John were shitting ourselves. Three days later, the guy that had drawn the first gun was dead. As gun crime was so prevalent in Jamaica back then, Prime minister Michael Manley had this place built called Gun Court which was essentially a big fortress; a Stalag-type place. If you were caught with a gun or even a bullet, you were sent to Gun Court for indefinite detention. He had the building painted red, because he thought “red is dread” inspired by the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter where he has the town painted red. Jamaica was a country into Westerns like no other, and consequently there were recording artists called Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Dirty Harry. Jamaicans loved Westerns and Kung Fu—there was even an artist called Bruce Lee! There was a period when the gun thing got so out of hand, the rude boys would shoot at the screens in cinemas when certain movies were showing. The solution? They put up concrete screens.
For me that trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life; reggae had got me into the punks and the punks got me closer to the reggae acts. Consequently, I became very friendly with Prince Far I, Tappa Zukie, I-Roy U-Roy and Big Youth. But the whole trip was a bit of an eye-opener for Virgin Records who went to Jamaica thinking that they would be dealing with clean-cut artists like the soul boys from America. Musicians like Prince Far-I and Keith Hudson (R.I.P) could be very scary if you caught them on a bad day and they definitely had a different way of settling business. Now I’d played Prince Far-I’s album ‘Under Heavy Manners’ at the Roxy. His voice sounded like he gargled with bleach, which sounded great on record, but him merely saying, “Good morning,” in a heavy Jamaican dialect to the staff at the record company could really sound intimidating. Prince Far I eventually fell out with Branson and would later release a track on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label called “Virgin” which included the words “Branson is a pickle with no place on my plate”. Talk about culture differences!
Just before we were due to return to the UK we decided to experience a sound-system in the Jamaican countryside. U-Roy took us out with his “Stur-Gav” sound system, a gargantuan mobile disco Jamaican-style, piled onto the back of two massive trucks. The numerous sound boys were hanging onto the equipment for dear life, because they all knew you could ‘drop a bwoy but yu can’t drop a box’. We finally reached our destination after weaving our way through some truly glorious countryside, where John and I decided to burn some herb while the sound system was being strung up. The next thing I remember is John and I being woken up and somebody saying, “We’re ready.” “Ready for what?” I mumbled. “Dance done,” was the reply. John and I had smoked and crashed out where we we’d been sitting, and that was six hours earlier!
Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE