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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 13

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.

Don Letts John Lydon

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.

Don Letts & Joni Mitchell

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.

Don Chapter 13 3

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

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