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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 12

The Punk Rock Movie

It has been said that when people saw the Pistols or the Clash play, half of them formed a band the next day, which is partially true. But many people, myself included, left those gigs and took the inspiration and the attitude to inform whatever we did, or were going to do. Inspired by this ethic, a lot of people did pick up guitars and the stage soon became full. I wanted to pick up something too, so I picked up a Super-8 camera. I’d always wanted to express myself visually after seeing The Harder They Come in the early seventies but could never see a way forward- until punk came along.

Soon I began filming the punks for practice and while filming the Clash playing at Harlesden, a journalist must have seen me. The following week I read in the NME that Don Letts is making a film about punk rock and I thought: “that’s a good idea, I’ll call it a film.” Before long people were asking me when it was going to come out!

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Straight away I began documenting all the events I thought were either interesting or ridiculous. I approached the movie in the same way that punk rock had evolved, saying, “Screw the rest of you, I am doing this the way I want to.” I was in the right place at the right time, and looking back, I had a knack for filming what was important, rather than tabloid punks trying to grab some screen time.

The whole thing had a life of its own—even the title—it became 'The Punk Rock Movie' because that’s what everybody was calling it. After the shows at the Roxy, Chrissie Hynde, some of the Slits, the Clash, Generation X and the Pistols would hang out in Forest Hill, often all at the same time. One reason was that they did not want the night to stop; they also wanted to check their moves on stage and get their shit together. With Super-8 film you only had three-minute cassettes, so it was really fortunate for me that the punk bands seemed to cram everything into about 2½ minutes. As the Roxy crowd knew and trusted me, I managed to film what the TV cameras couldn’t get; the real background, the real truth. Every time someone announced that London Weekend Television were coming down to film, all the guys that were really important stayed away. The other kids stuck on some more safety pins and some more make-up and jumped around in front of the cameras—so it was a really distorted view of the whole thing. Journalists like Vivienne Goldman, Tony Parsons, Caroline Coon, Janet Street Porter and John Ingham were really influential in helping to break the punk rock movement—and they were also massive reggae fans. Richard Williams of Time Out did a big write up on The Punk Rock Movie and put me on the cover.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London then caught wind of the Time Out article and asked to show my film. The Punk Rock Movie ended up running at the ICA for six weeks breaking all box office records. As I was using Super 8, there were no negatives, so I was showing the original in the cinema. It did not have any titles, it was just the raw film stuck together, a bit like the Fred Flintstone school of film-making. On any given night, the film would break or the bulb would blow. On several occasions I had to say, “Hold on everybody” and run up to Piccadilly to get a new bulb for the projector to start running the film again.

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Eventually the film was blown up to 35mm and titles were added. I cringe when I see it now, as the techniques for blowing up film in those days were pretty primitive. The end result blew it out of the context of punk rock. I filmed the Sex Pistols at Screen on the Green and The Clash on their White Riot Tour. The film also included Johnny Thunders, X Ray Spex, Generation X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, Jayne County and Shane MacGowan pogoing in his Union Jack jacket. There is no narrative, just pure punk mayhem. There was always plenty to shoot at the Roxy; characters like Johnny Moped who looked like an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Buzzcocks, The Adverts who featured the female bass player Gaye Advert, dressed in black leather she was easy on the eyes. There’s also footage of Eater (who had a twelve year-old drummer called Dee Generate) the night they decided to bring a pig’s head on stage and proceed to hack it to pieces. Kids eh!

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I remember I had to get Sid Vicious to sign a form to give me permission to use footage of him in the film. Sid arrived with Nancy, and as usual they were pretty much out of it. He had a huge knife that he was prodding Nancy with. I told him to “chill with it” as someone was going to get hurt. Anyway, he signed the form and they left. Two weeks later, Nancy was dead.

Later on, when Malcolm released 'The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle' he slapped an injunction on me preventing showing The Punk Rock Movie. Strangely I was not that bothered, because looking back I have never liked The Punk Rock Movie that much, as I could see how rough it was compared to the vision of what I felt I could do. Malcolm did me a kind of favour as I no longer had to show a film that technically made me cringe. It also gave the film a cult status. It’s a bit like when I finally got to see the Stones’ cult film 'Cocksucker Blues' that never got released. Sometimes the myth is better than the reality.

Click HERE for all guest blog posts by Don Letts.

DON LETTS - CULTURE CLASH, CHAPTER 10

One Hundred Nights at The Roxy

The Roxy Club was started by Andrew Czezowski as a direct response to an emerging scene that already had a new soundtrack and a new attitude, but no place to play. Andrew was aware of the buzz created by the music I was playing in the shop, so he asked me to DJ there on a regular basis, and I hesitantly took the job. It meant I was perfectly placed to witness the most exciting and inspiring period of my life. There were no UK punk records to play as none had been made yet. So in between the fast and furious punk sets I played some serious dub reggae, although I did spin some MC5, Stooges, Ramones and New York Dolls. Most of the upcoming punk bands owned the first two Dolls’ albums and many actually learned to play by listening to the Ramones’ debut album. Speed was usually the drug of choice whilst listening to the Detroit garage bands, but once that heavy bass dropped on a Prince Far I track like “Under Heavy Manners”, spliffs were definitely the order of the day. There was only one deck working at the Roxy, and I never played requests. The Roxy opened in what had been an old gay club called Chagaramas in Covent Garden. It had a small upstairs reception room with a bar, and downstairs was a stage and dance-floor surrounded by bench seats and mirrored walls. It completed the third essential ingredient of any serious musical movement; the bands, a set of characters and an HQ or a base where these elements could feed off each other. I went back to Forest Hill and when I told my brethren I’d got the gig DJ’ing at the Roxy they burst out laughing. I mentioned Andrew was looking for staff, and they basically told me to take a hike. But eventually I got them to come down to the Roxy, and they saw an untapped herb market and the girls. A week later all my Rasta mates from Forest Hill were working at the Roxy.

                

The punks couldn’t roll their own spliffs, so the guys swiftly decided to sell ready-rolled ones behind the bar. I can remember Shane McGowan coming up and saying, “Give me a spliff and two beers please,” and after a moment’s hesitation, “No make that two spliffs and one beer!” There was some serious cultural exchange going on in the Roxy. I played my dub reggae sounds in between sets by The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Slits and Generation X and to name just a few. And for a brief moment in time there was indeed a punky reggae party. Inspired by the punk DIY ethic (and seeing the Pistols), punk bands started springing up all over the UK and the Roxy was where many got their first break. All the hardcore dub stuff I was playing was the antithesis of punk, which was speedy. I came to realise that it was really a welcome break having these dub interludes between the punk bands cause it has to be said that 70% of them were shit, real rubbish in amongst moments of genius. Of course this was around the time that the ‘pogo’ phenomenon erupted on the dance floor (some say courtesy of Sid Vicious) along with that other strange punk habit: ‘gobbing’—basically the audience spitting at the bands while they performed. I have to stress that during ‘our’ period at the Roxy, nobody gobbed at anybody. Partially because the scene hadn’t deteriorated into the post-Grundy tabloid-punk circus it became, but mostly because of Big Joe (one of my Rasta bredrin), who was effectively a bouncer who stood in front of the stage while the bands performed.

                       

The Clash played at the Roxy on January 1st 1977. I couldn’t understand a word they were singing, but the energy was like being hit over the head with a plank. You couldn’t just be a fan, you wanted to be part of it, you wanted to get involved. Watching the Clash or the Pistols on stage was like somebody dropping a match into a box of fireworks. I already had Bob Marley, dub and roots reggae, and added the Clash and the Sex Pistols—it was like having lightning in one hand and thunder in the other. Even though I had my own anti-establishment thing going with reggae, seeing the Pistols and the Clash live for the first time was a cultural year l zero. I was lucky enough to see The Pistols play live at Brunel University, the Nashville and at the Screen on the Green, which I filmed and formed part of what would later become The Punk Rock Movie. Sometimes after the Roxy finished I take John Lydon, Joe Strummer or Arianna from the Slits to the Four Aces reggae club in Dalston. It was the heaviest reggae club in the country and Lydon, Strummer and Arianna would be the only white faces in the dance. They got a lot of respect, mainly because they had the balls to walk in the club in the first place.

                       

One time I took Joe to the Hammersmith Palais, a night that would inspire him to write “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”. He had gone down there to see this roots rockers ghetto kind of show, not realising that the brothers back home were not reveling in a ghetto lifestyle. The ghetto is something that you get out of, not into, and Joe had a romanticised idea of what ghetto life was about. So what Joe describes in the song was getting something quite glam and glitzy and being taken by that. The Clash and Johnny Rotten understood and aligned themselves with reggae’s revolutionary stance and ruthless hate of the establishment. All this energy came out in such a short space of time. During the days I’d be working at Acme, before leaving for my evening stint at the Roxy. In between spinning my tunes I’d watch the bands I liked, or laugh at the ones I didn’t. The original Roxy only lasted for 100 days and during that period it was like going on tour without moving such was the turnover of live acts on a nightly basis. At the end of March 1977 the landlords ousted Andy with a view to taking the club over so my bredrin and me’ walked as a show of solidarity.

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 9

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.

Sid Jeanette

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.

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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.

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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