Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 6
Wednesday, 11th Apr 2012
You’re Gonna Wake Up One Morning...
In an atmosphere of IRA bombs going off in London, racism and the rise of the National Front, Chelsea continued to be a melting pot of fashion and counter culture. I remember one day in the early seventies, I was walking up the King’s Road and came across Let It Rock. It was like an Aladdin’s cave of subculture. Then, in 1973 Let It Rock mutated into Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, selling biker jackets, black sleeveless T-shirts, and custom-made zoot suits. While I was at the Jean Machine I got to know Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood when I dropped into their shop one day. Soon after that, they shrewdly changed the name from T.F.T.L.T.Y.T.D to SEX, and the scene around the new shop became very exclusive, like a secret society. Customers didn’t want to tell anyone else where they had got their clothes from, or even where the shop was, for fear of being scooped. There were very few people in the funk scene at that time that were tapped into what Malcolm and Vivienne were doing. But I thought nothing of moving between the world of funk, reggae and the desire to be unique. This meant that back in Brixton I was a laughing stock for a while. I was wearing wet-look peg-leg trousers with winkle-picker boots, as well as my earrings.
SEX was a shop with a definite ideology. It was not about selling golden oldies or any old tat; it was about creating ATTITUDE with a capital A. The shop could be intimidating to the passer-by, or even the customers, with its blacked-out windows. Once inside there was chicken wire on the walls and excerpts from Valerie Solanis’ SCUM Manifesto scrawled all over the place which gave the shop a dark and claustrophobic vibe. One of the earliest SEX T-shirt designs had “You’re gonna wake up one morning and know which side of the bed you’ve been lying on” printed on it. There were two columns; on one side were things that were “in”, and on the other side things that were “out”. What was cool was that it didn’t specify which side was which. Listed on the T-shirt were Jamaican rude boys, Zoot suits and dreadlocks and stuff like Durrutti. It gave the notion that cultural ideas were being shared and absorbed. There had been a brief moment while Malcolm was away in New York with the New York Dolls that Vivien actually offered me a job, and I remember her taking me to a Lou Reed gig.
We must have looked pretty strange, me in my electric blue zoot suit and dreadlocks, Vivienne in her see-through rubber cat-suit. The main reason I had not taken up her job offer was that I could not really see myself in black patent leather gear and high heels; it would have been a move too far even for me. She demanded total loyalty and commitment. You were with her or not. Soon after the shop would be run on a day-to-day basis by a guy called Michael and Jordan (not that one!) a curvy bouffant blonde who dressed like a dominatrix. We became good friends, which was useful as they ‘looked after’ me. I remember being up in my bedroom trying on a rubber T-shirt Michael had given me. I wasn’t sure I could pull off wearing it in Brixton, so I thought I’d try it on in privacy first. I put the T-shirt on and it was really uncomfortable and hot, so I tried to take it off and it got stuck over my head. Michael had neglected to tell me about covering myself in talcum powder before putting it on. Talk about panic, the T-shirt was wedged around my neck and the bastard thing did not want to come off. It was stuck like one of those face-hugging creatures from Alien, and I’m suffocating, literally. So I hooked the T-shirt onto the bedpost and tried to force the bastard thing off. When I eventually did manage to remove it I was out of breath, red in the face and the T-shirt was a heap on the floor with a huge rip in it.
In early 1975 I left Jean Machine and found myself once again unemployed for a brief while. On the Brixton Road I stumbled across a shop called Acme which sold jukeboxes, pinball machines and one-armed bandits. The shop intrigued me and I wandered in one day and struck up a friendship with the shop’s owner John Krevine. In late 1975 he decided to open a stall in the Antiquarius indoor antique market on the King’s Road. As I was unemployed, had experience at working at the Jean Machine and the gift of the gab, Krevine asked me to manage his newly named Acme Attractions stall and I accepted. One of the first things I did was load the jukebox with all my favourite reggae tunes. The Antiquarius market had some very old fogey-style antique stalls in it. There was a prehistoric atmosphere with lots of people selling antiques—and then there was me on my stall pumping out reggae and pissing everybody off. Also in the Antiquarius market around that time was Bernard Rhodes who had a stall selling his screen-printed T-shirts and vintage reggae albums, which obviously caught my attention. Our paths would soon cross as he would go on to manage the Clash and through my connection with them, I had a lot of dealings with him.
Malcolm McLaren sadly passed away April 10th 2010. Now a lot’s been said about him in his time and its probably all true but I have to say it was an honour to know the man. He showed me how to join the counter-cultural dots and set me on a path that led to where I am today. And let's be honest today’s culture just ain’t making mavericks like that anymore.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE