Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 7
Friday, 4th May 2012
I first met Jeannette Lee at one of the Monday soul nights at the Lyceum in early 1975. She used to go out dancing five nights a week. Before punk happened, black and white kids were also mixing at places like the Bird’s Nest, a chain of clubs in Waterloo, High Street Kensington and West Hampstead. The music played was James Brown, the Ohio Players, Staple Singers - mostly funk, but not Northern Soul. This was pre-dreadlocks; I was wearing three earrings, kohl on my eyes and a see-thru plastic mac with winkle pickers. This was Spring ’75 and a few weeks later Acme the stall moved to a basement beneath the antiques market and we started working together. Basically offering her a job was my lame way of asking her out. It was the basement version of Acme Attractions in Antiquarius that became famous. By famous, I mean as a shop/club. There was a three-piece suite in there complete with a TV. In the middle of the shop floor was a scooter; the same model as the one featured in Rebel Without a Cause. The jukebox played a bass heavy mix of dub reggae. I guess you could say Acme was very personalised, a clash of popular subculture juxtaposed together and for whatever reason, it all seemed to have a common thread. Acme was the place to hang out, much more so than SEX.
The clothes they sold were more expensive and it could be intimidating going in the shop. In Acme you could get a pair of trousers for fifteen quid, in SEX they were fifty quid. I guess our clothes were more user-friendly. Malcolm and Vivienne’s shop stocked fashion as art. Now Acme couldn’t claim that as far as the clothes were concerned, but as far as reflecting London’s multicultural tribal mix, it was the place to be. I remember reading journalist Robert Elms’ description of his first visit to Acme looking for a mohair jumper. He wrote “indeed there was a definite retro feel to Acme, with lots of Forties, Fifties and Sixties bits, old demob suits, scarlet swinging London hipsters, James Dean leather jackets, put together so that it felt terrifyingly modern, way out, confrontational and new.” The different tribes were checking out Acme and SEX. There were the sixties revivalists in leather ties and Chelsea boots. There were kids in demob suits and trilbies, Bowie boys and the Americana lot in their fleck suits and Hawaiian shirts, the SEX bondage crowd, as well as the soul boys in their jelly sandals, see-thru macs, mohair jumpers and peg trousers. Favoured items in Acme were winkle picker shoes and peg trousers that came in colours like shocking pink and electric blue.
The soul boys were working class white kids from the rural and suburban parts of London. They were more interested in buying hard to get hold of dance and soul imports from record shops like Contempo than getting into any band-based scene, although most of them would admit to being Bowie fans. They used to come into Acme and then go up the road to SEX to check out the competition. Some of the early punk look was built on the outside edge of that soul boy look. Those guys all used to shop at Acme, as did Chris Sullivan and his Welsh posse. But Acme did not just outfit the soul elite, it also catered for youth whose radars were tuned into anything that was not part of the establishment or the mainstream and who were inventing their own fashion rules. We had kids from Glasgow, Huddersfield and Newcastle visiting the shop to buy Acme clothes for their nights out. But Acme was more than just a clothes shop. It was like our private members’ club, where people could meet and hang out and find out what was going on. What drew people into the basement was the dub reggae soundtrack, the clothes and Jeannette but not necessarily in that order. She like a lot of white working class youth pre-punk rock, had aligned herself with black music. If it was not soul, then it was reggae. John Beverly, before he became Sid Vicious, used to come into the shop to hang on Jeannette’s every word. He wasn’t the monster that the press would later make him out to be. I remember him as being shy and quiet, gullible even. One time we sold Keith Moon’s jacket to Sid and told him it used to be Elvis Presley’s. In reality Keith Moon had worn it in the film Stardust.
Acme was all about multiculturalism, Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop was more exclusive and to a degree Eurocentric. They were not into that whole reggae thing that brought a lot of working class kids into Acme. When Jeannette and I started dating I was still living in the house where my brother Desmond and his family lived Brixton. In my room I had an original limited Warhol print on the wall a lava lamp that was as tall as Jeannette; a pinball machine, a one armed bandit and an 8-track music player and of course my precious collection of vinyl records which ran into thousands. Jeannette described it as my version of a Playboy pad and it wasn’t what she had expected to find in Brixton. I remember when she first came round asking her to think of any record she’d like to hear. So she asked me if I had ‘Chalice Blaze’ the new album by Jamaica’s Jah Woosh. It blew her mind that I had it…it blew my mind that she’d thought of it.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE