Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 9
Tuesday, 29th May 2012
Dread Meets Punk Rockers
By 1976 the writing was on the wall. John Lydon and the other guys had taken a big swipe at the pompous stadium bands with their twenty-minute solos. A typical “event” was Rick Wakeman with his The Myths and Legends of King Arthur extravaganza at Wembley Arena—which was as far removed from reality as you could get. My white mates were totally disillusioned with this soundtrack. ELO, ELP and Rick Wakeman’s tunes said nothing about working class youth trying to survive in mid-seventies Britain. The popular music of the time no longer spoke for the people—well, none of my mates, anyway. We didn’t know where California was, never mind being able to check into a goddamn hotel. The British establishment had managed to alienate its own white youth; politically, musically, artistically and in just about every other way possible. As a first-generation British-born black of Jamaican descent, I was already well pissed off, so it was inevitable that we shared a sense of disillusionment. A lot has been made of the interaction between the punk and reggae scenes of the late 1970s. Popular music of the previous twenty years had been informed by black music—the difference was that the punks weren’t being inspired by an alien culture thousands of miles away. They were being turned on by the man next door — more River Thames than Mississippi Delta.
As I was behind the counter every day at Acme with Tappa Zukie’s MPLA Dub booming out of the speakers, I started to notice the same white faces coming down to the basement. These guys were checking me out and I was checking them out. It was like some kind of macho stand off, like in a Peckinpah Western. The guys were John Lydon, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer. Initially we said nothing to each other and just observed. It was Jeannette that got to know them at first, and I was pretty pissed off as I did not want anyone to steal my thunder — or my girlfriend. Maybe, if it had not been for Jeannette, I would have stayed like that. Eventually everyone dropped their guard and we started talking about reggae and dub music whilst sharing a spliff in the basement. I quickly became friendly with Strummer and Simonon, but John Lydon caught my imagination in particular. John had an aura that attracted people to him, which I believe stemmed from the fact that he was very self-aware. Joe Strummer was smart too. Joe and John were the brains behind what was emerging. These guys were already into reggae and were seriously interested in the stuff I was pumping out. They were familiar with tracks like “Liquidator” and “The Return of Django”. Paul Simonon had grown up in Brixton and Notting Hill and was well informed about Jamaican culture and the music.
I was coming in with King Tubby and Lee Perry’s heavy dub. I was also playing things like Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub, a set of records called African Dub Chapters 1,2 and 3, the Big Youth album Dreadlocks Dread and Tappa Zukie’s Man Ah Warrior album. King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown by Augustus Pablo was my theme tune. Lydon and the Clash guys liked the music that I was playing in the shop and we realised that we had a shared interest. They dug the bass lines, the rebel stance and the musical reportage aspect of the lyrics. In other words the tunes were about subjects and themes they could relate to. It has to be said they didn’t mind the weed either. Because of the position I was in at Acme, we gravitated towards each other. I can remember later hanging out with John Lydon after the Pistols’ gig at the Nashville. We went back to my house in Forest Hill and spent the whole night talking about reggae music and Jamaican culture. We also used to hang out at the Roebuck in Chelsea, which became the punk rock pub, so to speak. We also used to go to a restaurant called Up All Night on the Fulham Road after we’d been to the Roxy. Sid used to tag along with us. We’d be eating our food and he would be annoying the other customers by burping in their faces or trying to fart on them. Sid used to do things that would draw attention to him. It was sad to see him take on the Vicious person.
Now I was the man when it came to compilation tapes. In those days they were cultural currency. People like Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, John Lydon, the Clash and the Slits would take them out on the road with them. Patti walked in to Acme one day with Lenny. They had found out I knew Tappa Zukie and they were crazy about his album Man Ah Warrior. Patti expressed an interest in meeting Tappa and invited us all to her sold out gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. So we’re standing in the wings watching the show when Patti pulls me on stage and hands me her guitar. We’re live in front of 3,000 people. I had never been on stage in my life and could not play guitar—worries! I decided to front it out and pretended to play. Dark glasses hid my terror. Tappa and Jeannette are laughing their heads off in the wing, so I grab Tappa and pull him onstage swiftly handing him the guitar! Breathing a sigh of relief I try and exit stage left, just as Patti decides to hand me her mike, BLOODCLAAT!!! She grabs another guitar and lies down on the floor at my feet. I break into my heaviest Jamaican accent so that no one could hear that I didn’t know what I was babbling about. Needless to say there was ’nuff “cramp and paralyze them and those who worship Babylon” type stuff to cover the bluff. I look to my right, Tappa is rocking pretending to play guitar, I look to my feet, Patti is writhing on the floor, I look at the audience and they’re loving it. Jah Rastafari!
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE.
Don has been working on a series of short films exploring 60 years of British subcultures and the music, styles and attitudes that surround them. The films will be shown on Channel 4 once a week from Thursday 31st May, at 12:30am (half past midnight). For more information, visit the Channel 4 website HERE