Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16
Wednesday, 26th Sep 2012
We Only Wanted To Be Loved
My first venture into making music videos was courtesy of John Lydon for the debut single of his new venture Public Image Limited, the band he’d formed after the break up of the Sex Pistols. Before the PiL promo, I was Don Letts DJ at the Roxy, dread with a camera. All of a sudden I had a 20-man film crew around me. This was a situation created by the ACTT film union and as I was not a member at that time I was a ‘ghost’ director. Due to my total inexperience I went for the safe option going for a performance piece. It’s only John’s dynamics with the band that gives the video any substance whatsoever. Working with PiL was always tense as they were so volatile. The original line-up of Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker fused dub and rock into a warped, paranoid and claustrophobic sound. As long as I had known John, he had always been listening to reggae and avant-garde stuff like Can’s Tago Mago, Curved Air and Tangerine Dream. All these elements came together in the early PiL tunes. I was particularly taken with the King Tubby mix style of their first album, Public Image and its follow-up, the hugely influential Metal Box.
Everyone in PiL was on ‘something’ different (hell we all were!) Some were up, some were down, and others were coming in sideways. The initial optimism they had soon turned dark and out of that chaos came moments of brilliance. Jeannette and I had been an item for a very important part of our lives, but around this time we split up. Girlfriend broke my heart. I’d introduced Jeannette to John, who then got her to manage the band. She’d go on to eventually become a part of PiL (that’s her on the cover of their Flowers of Romance album). When Jeannette got involved with PiL, I was off in a huff. Soon after, Keith Levene and Jah Wobble needed some money, so they ended up making a single for Virgin Records called The Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP. They got me down to the studio to work on some vocals, even though I had never sung in my life. I remember sitting on the stairs with a microphone trying to write some words. Eventually I said, “OK guys, I’ll go home and work out some proper lyrics.” I never heard back from them and the next thing I knew the record was out. They’d used my demo vocals and stuck them with a track they’d worked up. The picture on the cover featured someone with a bag over his head. Now I’d come up with the title “Haile Unlikely” and I was messing around with this idea of “OK, I’m black, but I don’t want to go back to Africa.” I was basically saying, “I’m a black British Dread and I ain’t going nowhere! Now truth be told the record’s crap and looking back I can laugh at the whole thing but what’ll always piss me off is the picture on the sleeve - I mean people thought it was me for Christ sakes!
PiL’s headquarters were in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where John Lydon lived. It was like the Addams Family house he even had a cat called Satan that he trained to fetch things for him. I once took reggae legend Dr Alimantado round to the flat to see John. After the physical and verbal abuse John was getting on the streets during the Pistols era, Alimantado became one of his heroes, and “Born for a Purpose” his anthem. “If you feel like you have no reason for living, don’t determine my life,” sang Dr Alimantado on the classic track which he penned after a near-fatal “accident”. In 1977, John Lydon, then Rotten, named it one of his top ten tunes of all time. The Clash would also later pay respect with the lyric “like the Doctor who’s born for a purpose” on “Rudie Can’t Fail” from London Calling. Joe Strummer once told me that Dr Alimantado’s “Poison Flour” was a tune that Paul Simonon played all the time, citing it as an example of how to sing about things that had an effect on daily lives. It was this reportage quality in the lyrics of 1970s reggae that captured the punks’ imagination (along with the bass lines and the weed!). So “Born for a Purpose” quickly became one of the few records to actually bridge the curious alliance that was punk and reggae during that period in the UK.
When you went round to Gunter Grove it was like a trial by fire. John would psychologically mess with you. If you had a weakness, he would find it. People would pop round John’s for a visit and leave psychological wrecks. It was only those that could stand there and take it that John would let back in. For Leo Williams’ birthday (Basement 5, B.A.D, Dreadzone) John decided to throw a party at Gunter Grove. The two tribes were on the floor with their Red Stripe, sensi and the heaviest dub reggae courtesy of the John Lydon Sound System. I can remember the bemused look on John’s face as he watched Althea and Donna, who were also in attendance, skank the night away. This was a “punky reggae party” before Bob Marley even penned the tune. One night there was a police raid. John freaked, all he knew was someone had entered the flat so he ran down the stairs with a huge sword someone had given him as a present. The police must have wondered what the hell was going on. Their sniffer dog chased Satan the cat, who climbed up onto a speaker in front of John’s teapot where his weed was stashed. The police thought the dog was barking at the cat, and didn’t think any more of it. Satan had saved the day! John was duly taken down the cop shop, bare-footed in his dressing gown and pyjamas and had to walk all the way back home dressed like that. He was seriously pissed off and moved to New York soon after.
Read all posts by Don Letts HERE