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Wednesday, 25th Jul 2012
The Punk Rock Movie
It has been said that when people saw the Pistols or the Clash play, half of them formed a band the next day, which is partially true. But many people, myself included, left those gigs and took the inspiration and the attitude to inform whatever we did, or were going to do. Inspired by this ethic, a lot of people did pick up guitars and the stage soon became full. I wanted to pick up something too, so I picked up a Super-8 camera. I’d always wanted to express myself visually after seeing The Harder They Come in the early seventies but could never see a way forward- until punk came along.
Soon I began filming the punks for practice and while filming the Clash playing at Harlesden, a journalist must have seen me. The following week I read in the NME that Don Letts is making a film about punk rock and I thought: “that’s a good idea, I’ll call it a film.” Before long people were asking me when it was going to come out!
Straight away I began documenting all the events I thought were either interesting or ridiculous. I approached the movie in the same way that punk rock had evolved, saying, “Screw the rest of you, I am doing this the way I want to.” I was in the right place at the right time, and looking back, I had a knack for filming what was important, rather than tabloid punks trying to grab some screen time.
The whole thing had a life of its own—even the title—it became 'The Punk Rock Movie' because that’s what everybody was calling it. After the shows at the Roxy, Chrissie Hynde, some of the Slits, the Clash, Generation X and the Pistols would hang out in Forest Hill, often all at the same time. One reason was that they did not want the night to stop; they also wanted to check their moves on stage and get their shit together. With Super-8 film you only had three-minute cassettes, so it was really fortunate for me that the punk bands seemed to cram everything into about 2½ minutes. As the Roxy crowd knew and trusted me, I managed to film what the TV cameras couldn’t get; the real background, the real truth. Every time someone announced that London Weekend Television were coming down to film, all the guys that were really important stayed away. The other kids stuck on some more safety pins and some more make-up and jumped around in front of the cameras—so it was a really distorted view of the whole thing. Journalists like Vivienne Goldman, Tony Parsons, Caroline Coon, Janet Street Porter and John Ingham were really influential in helping to break the punk rock movement—and they were also massive reggae fans. Richard Williams of Time Out did a big write up on The Punk Rock Movie and put me on the cover.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London then caught wind of the Time Out article and asked to show my film. The Punk Rock Movie ended up running at the ICA for six weeks breaking all box office records. As I was using Super 8, there were no negatives, so I was showing the original in the cinema. It did not have any titles, it was just the raw film stuck together, a bit like the Fred Flintstone school of film-making. On any given night, the film would break or the bulb would blow. On several occasions I had to say, “Hold on everybody” and run up to Piccadilly to get a new bulb for the projector to start running the film again.
Eventually the film was blown up to 35mm and titles were added. I cringe when I see it now, as the techniques for blowing up film in those days were pretty primitive. The end result blew it out of the context of punk rock. I filmed the Sex Pistols at Screen on the Green and The Clash on their White Riot Tour. The film also included Johnny Thunders, X Ray Spex, Generation X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, Jayne County and Shane MacGowan pogoing in his Union Jack jacket. There is no narrative, just pure punk mayhem. There was always plenty to shoot at the Roxy; characters like Johnny Moped who looked like an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Buzzcocks, The Adverts who featured the female bass player Gaye Advert, dressed in black leather she was easy on the eyes. There’s also footage of Eater (who had a twelve year-old drummer called Dee Generate) the night they decided to bring a pig’s head on stage and proceed to hack it to pieces. Kids eh!
I remember I had to get Sid Vicious to sign a form to give me permission to use footage of him in the film. Sid arrived with Nancy, and as usual they were pretty much out of it. He had a huge knife that he was prodding Nancy with. I told him to “chill with it” as someone was going to get hurt. Anyway, he signed the form and they left. Two weeks later, Nancy was dead.
Later on, when Malcolm released 'The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle' he slapped an injunction on me preventing showing The Punk Rock Movie. Strangely I was not that bothered, because looking back I have never liked The Punk Rock Movie that much, as I could see how rough it was compared to the vision of what I felt I could do. Malcolm did me a kind of favour as I no longer had to show a film that technically made me cringe. It also gave the film a cult status. It’s a bit like when I finally got to see the Stones’ cult film 'Cocksucker Blues' that never got released. Sometimes the myth is better than the reality.
Monday, 9th Jul 2012
In Spring 1977, John Krevine and Steph Raynor decided to close Acme Attractions and leave the basement that had become a hive of cultural exchange. They started a shop called Boy, which was located halfway between Sloane Square and World’s End on the King’s Road. Boy sold T-shirts with mock-up death images of Gary Gilmore on them and jewellery made from hypodermic syringes. On the walls were framed newspaper pages with the headline ‘Boy’ on each page. Krevine told the Evening News that the clothes were about “survival in London in 1977”.
After the Grundy TV interview with the Pistols, the whole country thought they knew about punk and it heralded the start of the tabloid punk movement. I ran Boy with Jeannette and when the shop first opened John and Steph decided to generate some controversy with a window display that had forensic sculptures of a burnt foot and hand made by artist Peter Christopherson. Two nurses swore blind that the body parts were real and called the police. I was taken to court and charged under some Napoleonic law about exhibiting war wounds for financial gain. I was prosecuted for indecent exhibition—which made me sound like a flasher!
As Boy opened, punk had reached its peak—there were even tabloid-fuelled Teddy Boy versus Punk battles on the King’s Road. We were right in the middle of the King’s Road and the fights would be happening from Sloane Square, past Boy, all the way up to World’s End where Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop was. The Teds were forty and fifty year-old geezers who arrived with their ten year-old kids dressed up in drape jackets. Many a time I saw a bunch of Teds chasing a lone punk and I would run out of the shop cussing heavily in Jamaican to deflate the situation. But at the same time if I saw a Ted being chased by a load of punks, I’d do the same thing.
I got fed up working at Boy, so I went off to try and manage The Slits, try being the operative word. The crucial four were Ari Up (who was just 15 at the time), Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollit and Palmolive. I remember seeing them play one of their first gigs at the Roxy Harlesden (not to be confused with the legendary Roxy Club in Covent Garden). They were on the bill with Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and The Clash: a punk line-up made in heaven. The Slits sound erupted as a stumbling rhythm packed with maximum energy and determination: Palmolive destroying the drums, Tessa’s heavyweight bass with Viv’s choppy guitar chords delivered like broken glass; on top of this raucous rhythm was Ari’s signature screeching vocal style.
They were rough, rugged and they rocked. These girls came with an attitude unlike anything I’d ever seen before, male or female! They soon gained a reputation for being unpredictable, chaotic and downright scary. But what intimidated the A&R men, inspired and empowered legions of young girls up and down the country who were fed up with the options open to them at that time. The Clash were impressed enough to take them on the White Riot tour (Mick Jones would have to tune their guitars for them!). It was at this point I realised that I was trying to manage the unmanageable. Bands fighting each other was one thing (and not unheard of) but The Slits would be fighting on stage, off stage, and all points in between. The thing about The Slits was they were The Slits twenty-four seven, not just while they were on stage performing. It wasn’t an act. I remember trying to check the girls into a hotel one time, but before I’d even signed them in, we were being thrown out. Ari had decided to start wrecking the joint while we were still in reception. Such was the chaos that was the Slits.
But it wasn’t all outrage and chaos; these girls were breaking new ground without really trying. Musically, lyrically, stylistically everything was different. They were the last of the first wave of punk bands to get signed such was their reputation. Their debut album ‘Cut’ was produced by the dub master himself Dennis Bovell (Matumbi/Janet Kay). Its sleeve featured the girls naked and covered in mud and the music inside was a sonic delight. Bored by what punk had become, The Slits were one of the first bands to embrace reggae and later African rhythms. It was their love of reggae in particular that brought us together as friends. When we went to reggae clubs every eye in the house would be focused on Ari who’d be whipping up a storm on the dance-floor.
By the late seventies, punk had become trapped by its own definition and post-punk bands like the Pop Group and PiL were actually far more liberating than what punk had become—a shambles of safety pins and bin-liner bands. As for The Slits, a new deal with CBS produced the Return of the Giant Slits album in 1981 and not long after, they announced their final gig at the Hammersmith Palais.
When I first met Ari she was fifteen, feisty and confrontational and she remained that way her whole life. The last time I saw her was at Metropolis Studios in West London and James Brown happened to be recording there. We went to the canteen to get some food and it had all gone. James Brown and his crew had eaten it all. Arianna went straight up to James Brown and said, “Oi you, you have eaten all my bloodclaat food.” James just grunted, turned and looked at her somewhat surprised.
Sadly on October 20th 2010 Ari Up passed away and although never commercially successful, through sheer emotion and desire, The Slits created some great music and remain one of the most significant female punk-rock bands of the late 1970s. Madonna bow down, Courtney Love step back and as for Spice Girls—don’t make me laugh. Whatever you think they’ve done, The Slits did it before…
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE
Monday, 18th Jun 2012
One Hundred Nights at The Roxy
The Roxy Club was started by Andrew Czezowski as a direct response to an emerging scene that already had a new soundtrack and a new attitude, but no place to play. Andrew was aware of the buzz created by the music I was playing in the shop, so he asked me to DJ there on a regular basis, and I hesitantly took the job. It meant I was perfectly placed to witness the most exciting and inspiring period of my life. There were no UK punk records to play as none had been made yet. So in between the fast and furious punk sets I played some serious dub reggae, although I did spin some MC5, Stooges, Ramones and New York Dolls. Most of the upcoming punk bands owned the first two Dolls’ albums and many actually learned to play by listening to the Ramones’ debut album. Speed was usually the drug of choice whilst listening to the Detroit garage bands, but once that heavy bass dropped on a Prince Far I track like “Under Heavy Manners”, spliffs were definitely the order of the day. There was only one deck working at the Roxy, and I never played requests. The Roxy opened in what had been an old gay club called Chagaramas in Covent Garden. It had a small upstairs reception room with a bar, and downstairs was a stage and dance-floor surrounded by bench seats and mirrored walls. It completed the third essential ingredient of any serious musical movement; the bands, a set of characters and an HQ or a base where these elements could feed off each other. I went back to Forest Hill and when I told my brethren I’d got the gig DJ’ing at the Roxy they burst out laughing. I mentioned Andrew was looking for staff, and they basically told me to take a hike. But eventually I got them to come down to the Roxy, and they saw an untapped herb market and the girls. A week later all my Rasta mates from Forest Hill were working at the Roxy.
The punks couldn’t roll their own spliffs, so the guys swiftly decided to sell ready-rolled ones behind the bar. I can remember Shane McGowan coming up and saying, “Give me a spliff and two beers please,” and after a moment’s hesitation, “No make that two spliffs and one beer!” There was some serious cultural exchange going on in the Roxy. I played my dub reggae sounds in between sets by The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Slits and Generation X and to name just a few. And for a brief moment in time there was indeed a punky reggae party. Inspired by the punk DIY ethic (and seeing the Pistols), punk bands started springing up all over the UK and the Roxy was where many got their first break. All the hardcore dub stuff I was playing was the antithesis of punk, which was speedy. I came to realise that it was really a welcome break having these dub interludes between the punk bands cause it has to be said that 70% of them were shit, real rubbish in amongst moments of genius. Of course this was around the time that the ‘pogo’ phenomenon erupted on the dance floor (some say courtesy of Sid Vicious) along with that other strange punk habit: ‘gobbing’—basically the audience spitting at the bands while they performed. I have to stress that during ‘our’ period at the Roxy, nobody gobbed at anybody. Partially because the scene hadn’t deteriorated into the post-Grundy tabloid-punk circus it became, but mostly because of Big Joe (one of my Rasta bredrin), who was effectively a bouncer who stood in front of the stage while the bands performed.
The Clash played at the Roxy on January 1st 1977. I couldn’t understand a word they were singing, but the energy was like being hit over the head with a plank. You couldn’t just be a fan, you wanted to be part of it, you wanted to get involved. Watching the Clash or the Pistols on stage was like somebody dropping a match into a box of fireworks. I already had Bob Marley, dub and roots reggae, and added the Clash and the Sex Pistols—it was like having lightning in one hand and thunder in the other. Even though I had my own anti-establishment thing going with reggae, seeing the Pistols and the Clash live for the first time was a cultural year l zero. I was lucky enough to see The Pistols play live at Brunel University, the Nashville and at the Screen on the Green, which I filmed and formed part of what would later become The Punk Rock Movie. Sometimes after the Roxy finished I take John Lydon, Joe Strummer or Arianna from the Slits to the Four Aces reggae club in Dalston. It was the heaviest reggae club in the country and Lydon, Strummer and Arianna would be the only white faces in the dance. They got a lot of respect, mainly because they had the balls to walk in the club in the first place.
One time I took Joe to the Hammersmith Palais, a night that would inspire him to write “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”. He had gone down there to see this roots rockers ghetto kind of show, not realising that the brothers back home were not reveling in a ghetto lifestyle. The ghetto is something that you get out of, not into, and Joe had a romanticised idea of what ghetto life was about. So what Joe describes in the song was getting something quite glam and glitzy and being taken by that. The Clash and Johnny Rotten understood and aligned themselves with reggae’s revolutionary stance and ruthless hate of the establishment. All this energy came out in such a short space of time. During the days I’d be working at Acme, before leaving for my evening stint at the Roxy. In between spinning my tunes I’d watch the bands I liked, or laugh at the ones I didn’t. The original Roxy only lasted for 100 days and during that period it was like going on tour without moving such was the turnover of live acts on a nightly basis. At the end of March 1977 the landlords ousted Andy with a view to taking the club over so my bredrin and me’ walked as a show of solidarity.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE