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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 17

Clash City Rockers - Part 1

Out of The Clash guys, I got to know Paul Simonon first through our mutual love of reggae. We’d swap mix tapes, which was our way of communicating and serious currency back in the day. I had tapes of Mikey Dread’s late night radio show in Jamaica called Dread at the Controls, which I lent to Paul. The show played reggae exclusively and whenever it was on in Jamaica the crime rate went down! Mikey’s knowledge, approach and experience of making reggae music was invaluable to the Clash during the Sandinista sessions, and the end results of his contributions were stunning, with tracks like “Bankrobber” and “One More Time”. People make quite a big deal out of the punky/reggae connection, but what were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones listening to? It was black music. It’s just that to the uninitiated it wasn’t that obvious within their music, but with the Clash it was right up front. It was in their lyrics, in their bass-lines and their subject matter. Not only did the Clash cover Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, they name checked Prince Far-I on “Clash City Rockers”, Dr Alimantado on “Rudy Can’t Fail”, the Abyssinians “Sattamassaganna” on “Jimmy Jazz” and Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson on “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It made me immensely proud that my culture was being represented by these guys instead of being lost within self-interpretation. With the Clash it was not white reggae; it was punk and reggae. Their songs brought some of their culture to my culture. Reggae spoke in a language the punks could identify with. It was the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance, and importantly the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like “Money in My Pocket”, “I Need a Roof” and “Chant Down Babylon” struck an obvious chord with “the youth”.

Don Letts Chapter 17 1

I think one of the advantages that I had when I started making the music videos was that none of the bands that I worked with had aspirations of becoming actors or film-makers, of which the Clash were the best example. They just made music and let me get on with my job as filmmaker. They were obviously aware of my work with The Punk Rock Movie and the PiL video and chose me to be the man for their debut single ‘London Calling’. Now the punk look was supposed to be about individuality but after the Bill Grundy episode with the Pistols it soon became a uniform. The Clash were smart enough to see it was painting them into a corner. Punk was supposed to be about freedom and liberation, and all of a sudden you had the ‘punk police’ saying, “you can’t wear this, you can’t do that, you should sound like this.” The sound of ‘London Calling’ was the first real challenge to those punk shackles, throwing soul, reggae and rockabilly into the equation. It was cool seeing them break out of the restrictions that punk had very quickly developed. The Clash had also changed their look to an East End gangster style. They were always image-conscious rather than fashion conscious.

Don Letts Chapter 17 2

                                                                    Mikey Dread, R.I.P

For “London Calling” I decided to shoot the video on a pier in Battersea on the River Thames in the afternoon and wanted cameras on a boat to get the right angles. Now I didn’t know anything about tides and when we got there to set up it was out and the cameras were fifteen feet too low. Then there was the current. After setting each shot up we found that we were moving further and further away from the pier. By the time we had sorted out all these problems, it started to piss down with rain and it was nighttime. After about three takes I just wanted to get out of there. I am now told that the “London Calling” video is a classic. It was a textbook punk situation, turning your problems into assets. Around this time the Clash had decided against playing large venues and were due to play at the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I took the opportunity to shoot the “Bankrobber” video in the afternoon before the gig. Prompted by the title I decided to quickly get some shots of Johnny Green and Topper’s drum roadie Baker running out of a bank on Lewisham High Street with bags of money dressed as villains. This was intercut with the Clash playing “Bankrobber” live at the Odeon with Mikey Dread at the controls. As I was filming the last shots of Baker and Green running to the back door of the Odeon, two police cars came round the corner with their sirens blazing. Armed police jumped out and had Baker, Green and myself pinned against the wall. Johnny Green told them that we were art students working on a project. For the “Call Up”, a song about dodging the draft, we originally wanted to shoot the video in a cemetery but the local council refused permission and at the very last minute we ended up shooting at former sixties pop star Chris Farlowe’s warehouse—which was full of military memorabilia and equipment as he was a renowned collector. The song was about registration for the draft in America—a subject dear to Mick Jones since he had attended a draft demonstration in New York. The setting for the video shoot was just perfect—another example of turning problems into assets.

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In the aftermath of the initial punk explosion it looked like the major record companies had regained control and were having it all their own way. The Pistols had imploded, the Clash had finally signed to CBS after months of negotiations and I had reinvented myself as a filmmaker. So it was a period of death and re-birth for all, and everyone looked to the Clash to take things to another level.

Part two of 'Clash City Rockers' will be available to read soon. Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.

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