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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 8

Soul Shake Down Party

During the mid seventies I often went to places like the Q Club on Praed Street, Columbos, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, The Trafalgar, Union Tavern and the Lacy Lady in Ilford. In those days you only ever ventured on to the dance floor if you had style and the right moves. The way you looked and your dance moves were the currency of the day—and what you got with that currency was girls. But the soul scene began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It had started to develop its own prejudice. People started to look down on those who didn’t dress the same; the scene had become elitist and I wasn't  really comfortable with that. Just listening to the music and emulating the black American blueprint wasn’t working for me. It didn’t exactly translate to my life, which was something of a dilemma. Luckily around the same time I began to discover Rastafari through reggae and sound-systems like Jah Shaka, Moa Ambassa and Coxsone. Sound-system was a way of imparting information; spiritually, politically and culturally. Up until the early seventies singers like John Holt, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs ruled in Jamaica, but then reggae began to change. ‘Deejay’ music—a rapping style created for the sound-systems developed led by the mighty three I-Roy, U-Roy and Big Youth. When Bob Marley’s album Catch a Fire hit town in 1973 that was a major revelation. It explored a more radical and political side of reggae and was definitely more of an album than a collection of singles. Even the packaging, with the Zippo Lighter sleeve, was also something different. Up to that time most of the reggae sleeves looked like cheap Jamaican postcards.

Don Chapter 8 1

Dub really came into its own during the early 1970s. On the B-sides of Jamaican Rocksteady singles the word ‘Version’ began appearing—describing an instrumental remix of the A-side that had begun as a test for sound levels (and for somewhat obvious economic reasons was pressed on the B-side as it saved recording another song). Dub was the next logical step, essentially born from a studio technique where drum and bass took centre stage. Utilising two-track, and sometimes four-track set-ups, people like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb and echo delay to shape the sound and took the giant step of using the mixing desk as an instrument in itself. Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) was an engineer at Duke Reid’s studio and began to cut dub plates of tunes with bits of the vocal left out to play on his sound system. He originally did this to offer his audience different versions of their favourite tracks. These fragments of vocals were ‘flashed in’ either from the A-side or a deejay would do an intro and  just ‘ride the riddim’. They created a sound that was then pressed onto dub plates (one-off acetates) and played by the local sound systems via valve amps and towering bass bins live and direct to the people. Then there was Big Youth, a former cab driver in Jamaica, who served his apprenticeship with sound systems around Kingston before becoming known as the ‘master deejay’. Big Youth (Manley Augustus Buchanan) was one of the first to include Rasta chants with his militant deejay lyrics. His first recording with Keith Hudson as producer, “Ace Ninety Skank”, was a number one hit in Jamaica. It was his album Screaming Target from ’73 that caught my attention. Little did I know, people like Paul Simonon and John Lydon were also listening to that album. Shortly our own two cultures would clash.

Don Chapter 8 2

I went to Bob Marley’s legendary gig at the Lyceum in ’75 which was released as a live album. It was the closest I have ever got to a religious experience and the single most exciting music moment of my life. The full impact and reality of what we had heard on his records all came together in that show. It was no longer an abstract thing that you could interpret one way or another. Here was the man onstage delivering it live and direct. It gave me the confidence to be myself. Bob Marley brought the politic to the forefront of reggae with a militant Rasta rebel vibe. After the gig I followed Bob Marley in my car back to his hotel in Harrington Gardens, off Gloucester Road. I don’t know what possessed me, I marched into the hotel with all the other Rasta brethren. Everyone was sitting down and I found a little spot in the corner. Bob was holding court in his room and was smoking and ‘reasoning’ with all the Rasta elders. Finally, it was three or four in the morning and Bob had out-reasoned and out-smoked everybody. He looked around the room and saw me with my baby dreads and my pathetic little bag of smoke. I was called to the table and ‘reasoned’ with him until sunrise. A few days later I went back to get a picture of Bob with myself before he returned to Jamaica. I had a Polaroid camera and all the band and Bob were like, “Bloodclaat instant picture”. Polaroid technology had not yet reached Jamaica. Everybody wanted a picture of themselves and Bob. Ten pictures down, I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Jeannette was there and she ran out to get some more film. Sure enough, another packet of Polaroids had gone and I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Finally, with the third packet of Polaroids I got my picture.

Don Chapter 8 3

A year or so later, when Bob Marley was staying in Oakley Street off the King’s Road after he had been shot in Jamaica, I went round to his house to collect some money he owed me wearing my bondage trousers. He was to all intents and purposes in exile over here and we ended up having an argument about punk. On seeing my bondage trousers, he exclaimed, “What ya deal wid Don Letts dem nasty punk rockers, yu look like a bloodclaat mountaineer!” To which I replied, “Dem crazy baldheads are my mates Bob”—or words to that effect and took my leave. But y'know I always figured I got the last say because when Bob became more familiar with the real deal (as opposed to the Daily Mirror version of punk) during his UK stay, he was inspired to write and record the tune “Punky Reggae Party” a few months later.

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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 4

Trojan Explosion

My father ran a sound system called ‘Duke Letts Superstonic Sound’ - but it wasn’t the kind of sound system that people know today. It was a means for the immigrants to come together after church to exchange news and find out what was happening back home in Jamaica. For Jamaicans, music was an integral part of their day-to-day life, and not just something the kids did, as was horse racing. My father was named Saint Ledger after the famous horse race - only in Jamaica. One of his favourite records was an LP called Fire Corner by King Stitt released by Trojan in 1969. Trojan provided my first soundtrack and a musical map where I could trace my roots. British blacks—black British, easy to say now but in those days this was a confusing concept—trust me. The sounds of Trojan struck an understandable chord with a lost tribe growing up in England with a confused duality, and its impact was crucial. I was fourteen in 1970, a rude boy, well an Anglicised version of the Jamaican real deal and part of the first generation of British-born blacks. It was during the Sixties that the Jamaican recording scene became established and the post-colonial optimism in Jamaica reflected a new sound from the recording studios - Ska. I could probably fill the rest of this book with the names of all the people who have said that they invented Ska in ’59, ’60 or ’61. The most likely candidate was an employee of Clement Dodd called Cecil Campbell, better known to you and I as Prince Buster. It was Prince Buster who told his guitarist to accentuate the offbeat that created that unique ‘chug’ sound that powered the sound of Ska. It’s good time feel fitted in perfectly with the mood after Jamaica gained independence in 1962.


St.Ledger Letts Superstonic Sound-System

Ska was quickly embraced by the Jamaican immigrants in Britain. By 1963 it had leaked out of the Ladbroke Grove shebeens and was becoming one of the country’s most popular underground sounds. Back in Jamaica however, Ska had already dominated the culture for half a decade and by the mid sixties the people and musicians wanted something new. That change would be Rocksteady. One of the reasons that Ska evolved into the slower tempo of Rocksteady was due to the social climate, although it is said that a particularly hot summer was also partly responsible for slowing down the groove. At the start of the sixties there was a measurable increase in tension and violence in Kingston’s dancehalls. The rude boys were Jamaican youths who had come to Kingston after independence, hoping to better themselves and found nothing. Consequently they became outsiders and turned to crime to survive, whether on their own or with street gangs. The arrival of the rude boy came to play a part in this musical evolution. Rocksteady’s characteristic slower rhythm meant dance moves were slower and people were more rooted to the spot and therefore more aware of what was going on around them. The change in tempo also reflected the mood in Jamaica. Following independence in ’62, the party was now over and there was a political and social hangover to deal with.

Don Letts Trio

Kevin, Don & Collin at The Lansdowne Club, Stockwell, 1970

The mighty Trojan Records started out in July ’67. The Trojan name was taken from the trucks that Reid used for carrying his sound system. In those days it was strictly vinyl 45s, LPs were too risky. Albums would need to be all killer and no filler before punters would part with their hard-earned cash. Trojan was ghetto-wise and released the Tighten Up compilations  which I picked up on in 1970 at the age of fourteen—as did the skinheads. These compilations featured the best singles and Tighten Up Volume 2 came with that risqué artwork that pleased most male teenagers like myself. It’s extraordinary to think that this music ended up being the soundtrack to a particular period in British sub-culture. That was the thing about Trojan: the tunes dealt with themes that the youth on the street—both black and white—could identify with. Well, the youth on my street anyway. Trojan also provided a soundtrack for a new UK tribe, skinheads, predominantly white working class youth who weren’t down with the hippy thing. But they did latch onto Ska and the Trojan boom, snapping up the Tighten Up series and helping to propel the singles into the charts.

Don Letts Solo

A pose with the clothes 1971

Now you got to understand that there was a radical difference between the ‘fashion’ skinheads of the sixties and the overtly racist skinhead movement of the late seventies. Many of the late sixties skinheads were growing up within multicultural areas. Paul Simonon the bass player with The Clash was one of them. The relationship between skinheads and West Indians was a strange one. They aligned themselves with Trojan music, adopting it as their own and black culture was a definite influence on certain elements of their dress code, like the West Indian style of suits, narrow hitched-up trousers and Trilby hats. They combined these with Dr Marten boots and braces, which were strictly working-class attire and there was also an Americana influence with the penny loafers and Harrington jackets. I can still remember walking around the streets of London around 1970-71 in my Crombie coat; brogue shoes; Levi’s Sta-Prest and a slim cut shirt. By the close of 1968 a new wave of producers spearheaded by such luminaries as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee and King Tubby pioneered a new sound that would take the music world by storm. Reggae was slower than rocksteady and a product of multi-track tape machines coming into the equation. Trojan Records continued to import Jamaican tunes to the UK scoring hits with Ken Boothe, John Holt and a host of others. On the back of this some even dubbed Studio One as “Jamaica’s Motown” at that time. Who would have guessed that an island that itself was the product of colonialism would end up culturally colonising the world with this new sound and its attitude?

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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 3

Old School

Christchurch Primary was a mixed school where I passed from laddish indifference to girls, through to the first stirrings that these curious beings might actually serve some purpose beyond ‘kiss chase’. A predominately white, Church of England establishment, it was the better of two local schools; the other was Cowley where the roughnecks went. The neighbourhood I grew up in had a liberal sprinkling of Jamaicans, Irish, English and the aforementioned Greeks. As I remember it was about as harmonious as a bunch of displaced misfits could get. If there was any trouble it was of the type of drama reminiscent of cheap daytime soap operas. I never saw any direct racial trouble. Although when things erupted, as they inevitably would in this fragile ecosystem, people were quick to revert to basic colour-coded insults. We had the usual assortment of urban bit players and everyone knew who the major characters were, and who had bit parts. During the late sixties, I moved on to Archbishop Tennison’s School in Oval, south east London. I was truly dropped in the deep end being the only West Indian pupil at the school over a five-year period. My father was so proud when he found out that I’d been accepted by a Grammar School, he ran out and got me a shiny tan leather briefcase with my initials embossed in gold on the side. I hated that briefcase. We had to wear short trousers for the first year of Grammar School. On the very first day the school bully greeted us ‘first years’ by slashing our legs with his steel comb. When he made a move on me I smacked him in the mouth—simultaneously the bell for break rang, giving him no time to retaliate. Perfect timing. It wasn’t that I was particularly good at fighting, it was just that if I had gone home and told my parents that I’d let someone do that to me they would have beaten me! But by the same token if I went home and told my parents I’d got a beating from a teacher guess what, I’d also get a beating from them. Go figure.


Whilst at school, I can remember all too well Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that he made in 1968. He demanded an immediate lowering of the numbers of immigrants setting up life in the UK and wanted those that were already lIving here to be sent back home. That speech had a devastating effect at street level. One minute I’m playing with my mates in the playground the next it was fuck off you black bastard. Wog, nigger, Kit-E-Kat eater, Brillo bonce, coon, sunshine, chief, sambo—all these names and more were used to try to humiliate me. But whenever they called me a name, I’d just proudly reply, “That’s right.” It was like “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” as James Brown put it. This would piss them off no end and in the end they began to respect my stance. During this period I became close to a white guy called Roy Freeland or ‘Froggy’ as he came to be known and we became best of friends throughout secondary school. He was the one that got me hooked on the Beatles. I’d bought “Penny Lane” for seven shillings and six pence, a huge commitment in those days. It was Froggy that taught me the meaning of ‘obsession’. Luckily my steadily growing ego would save me from the one-way street of ‘fandom’, but not before I had acquired one of the largest collection of Beatles’ memorabilia in the U.K years later.

School Pic 2

At the age of twelve I had to decide which subjects to pursue to examination level. Simple, right? Wrong. My parents believed that a black person couldn’t possibly make a living as an artist. So in my best interests they decided that I should take up physics, chemistry and technical drawing. Years later when it came time to sit my exams, in a moment of rebellion, I wrote on my chemistry paper, “a chemist I was not to be, that I clearly state, ’cause I got a splitting headache and I cannot concentrate.” I drew a nude woman for my technical drawing examination with the caption: “curves are better than straight lines.” Anyway, we’d just discovered sex, drugs and rock’n’roll for Christ’s sake! God knows what a distraction that can be for a jaded adult, let alone those juveniles who considered they were boldly going were no man had been before.

Now in my formative years I was immersed in white culture. Through hanging with white guys like Froggy I got to hear bands like Led Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart, Cream and Pink Floyd. I had that coming in one ear, and in the other ear I was listening to black music. Being immersed in black and white cultures made me open-minded and was the beginning of me not wanting to be defined by my colour. I didn’t understand the attitude or school of thought that said, “If you are black, then you could only listen to black music and be immersed in black culture.” The juxtaposition of black and white cultures side-by-side just made for a more interesting ride.

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