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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 19

This was 
Big Audio Dynamite

In September 1983 Mick Jones was fired from The Clash. A year later I’m standing in a nightclub with him and my good friend and bass player Leo ‘E.Z Kill’ Williams. Mick looked to his left and there was Leo, to his right was me, and he said he thought we looked like a band. There and then Mick asked me to join what would become Big Audio Dynamite. When I told him I couldn’t play anything, he simply replied, “Paul couldn’t play bass when he joined The Clash.” We auditioned for a drummer in the NME and found Greg Roberts. Because I couldn’t play anything I threw myself into writing lyrics, which I approached in the same way as writing a script for a video. Prompted by Mick I also started sourcing samples and dialogue which I ‘stole’ from a whole host of classic movies. Big Audio Dynamite had a wide-screen approach, our sound was a blend of New York beats, Jamaican bass-lines and English rock’n’roll guitar. I took care of the samples and dialogue, which became an integral part of the B.A.D sound.  Dan Donovan who joined later brought in more ideas when he became our keyboard player. He also put coloured stickers on my keyboard to show me what to do when we played live. Now that’s punk rock! Our first single “The Bottom Line” was released in 1985. It was remixed by Rick Rubin for release on his Def Jam label - quite a coup back in the day. Soon after we finished recording our first album Joe Strummer turned up at Mick’s flat wanting to get The Clash back together but B.A.D were on a roll.

This Is B A D

“This is Big Audio Dynamite” was released in late 1985. Some say that floating within its grooves is the album The Clash should have followed ‘Combat Rock’ with. We had a hit single with “E=MC2” (the first lyrics I actually wrote with Mick) and ended up playing on Top of the Pops, which was a first for Mick Jones and definitely a first for your truly. For the lead track “Medicine Show” a humorous statement of intent, I sampled dialogue from A Fistful of Dollars, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Fistful of Dynamite, and of course The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The video featured cameo appearances from Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon and John Lydon. B.A.D was a huge success live and the gigs came thick and fast. We played three sell-out nights at the Brixton Academy in London, eleven nights at the Irving Plaza in New York and seven nights at the Roxy in LA. I remember when we came off stage after one of the Plaza night gigs; I looked around our dressing room to see David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Dave Stewart, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger and the Beastie Boys all in attendance. 

This Is B A D 2

A year later we’re in New York City recording our second album “No.10 Upping Street” when I bump into Joe Strummer in Times Square, so I invited him down to the studio to say hello. He ended up co-producing the album!  Strummer had this amazingly energy, so even if he didn’t want to take over a project, he just couldn’t help it. It was great to see Mick and Joe creatively fall in love again. Recording in New York took around three months and it wasn’t cheap. But money wasn’t the thing, well not at that point. We didn’t slog our guts out doing fifty gigs across America; we did residencies and spent the rest of the time hanging out in whichever city we were in. We used an old Clash trick; we announced a gig in a smallish venue and the demand became so great that we’d end up playing many nights in the same place. During the summer of 1987 we supported U2 on the second leg of their European tour. Now we’re playing in front of 100,000 people which didn’t faze Mick but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t rock my world especially since I still had coloured stickers on my keyboard. We struggled financially after “No.10 Upping Street” as we had spent the advance on recording the damn thing in Manhattan.  So Mick set up a studio in his basement and we began working on what would become ‘Tighten Up Volume ’88’. The Trojan Records ‘Tighten Up’ series had left a big impression on us all, so twenty years later Big Audio Dynamite named their album in honour of those reggae compilations. If there is an overall theme to “Tighten Up Volume ’88” it’s race.

This Is B A D 3

Unfortunately Mick became seriously ill with pneumonia during the tour for the album and nearly died. Thankfully he recovered but it took a long time and while B.A.D were inactive I carried on with my film work. Mick returned fired up and ready go and in 1989 he put the final touches to our fourth and final album with the original line-up: “Megatop Phoenix”. Megatop was far more psychedelic than the previous albums, it sounds like a trip. The second ‘Summer of Love’ had a huge influence on the record. But soon after its release the band started to implode. All the usual clichés and dramas, the creative and financial arguments that most bands go through, well, the bands that I like anyway. In the end I quit Big Audio Dynamite and started my own band, Screaming Target (named after the Big Youth album) with Greg and Leo. I just wanted to know what I could do on my own.  The record had more of a reggae and world sound than B.A.D and on reflection I guess it was more of an ego exercise than anything else. And even though we did get some blinding reviews it lacked the magic of Mick Jones and after a while I got fed up with being in a band altogether.  So, as I had continued making promos for other bands all the way through my time with B.A.D, after Screaming Target I took the decision to put all my time and energy into filmmaking.

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.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 18

Clash City Rockers - Part 2

In 1981 the Clash left for New York to do seven shows, and took me along to document the event on film—which became ‘Clash on Broadway’—and that’s how this London-based Dread got to meet the B-Boys in downtown NYC. All seven shows were oversold, and the Clash ended up playing seventeen shows back-to-back to satisfy demand. The venue was smack bang in the middle of Manhattan, in a place called Bond’s, Times Square. Before the Clash had got to New York, their “Magnificent Dance”, a remix of “Magnificent Seven” was being played on the black radio station WBLS. Frankie Crocker from WBLS had mixed a version of “Magnificent Dance”, and over-dubbed bits of dialogue from the movie Dirty Harry with bits of Bugs Bunny samples. For the whole summer it seemed like WBLS rocked that tune and the B-Boys loved it. Mick Jones was responsible for bringing the whole New York hip-hop scene to the Clash. It was a genre The Clash took on board in the same way they had embraced reggae.

Don Letts on the Subway, NYC

In the beginning of the eighties there was a new sound breaking out of the badlands of the Bronx and Harlem, moving downtown via the New York trendies—and, it has to be said, with a little help from the Clash. They invited Grandmaster Flash, the Treacherous Three and the Sugarhill Gang to support them, aiming to turn downtown New York onto something that was going on in their own backyard. Initial reactions were not always favourable though; on one occasion the predominantly white audience threw bottles at Grandmaster Flash whilst they were on stage, little realising they were witnessing an embryonic scene that would soon dominate the world. There had been the “punky reggae” thing in London and now there was that “punky hip-hop” thing going on in NYC. I was particularly bemused as once again the hip-hop scene had roots in Jamaica, inspired by the rapping style of Jamaican toasters, which was ironic in itself, as the Jamaican DJs had been inspired by American jocks broadcasting out of Miami in the late fifties.

Like punk, hip-hop would become a complete sub-culture with its own dress code, film-makers, artists and photographers. The notoriety and popularity of the graff writers like Haze, Futura 2000, Dhondi, Zephyr and Fab 5 Freddy grew with the music. It was Fab Five Freddy that took Debbie Harry to hip-hop events, and Blondie’s “Rapture” was probably the first ‘rap’ the masses got to hear, whilst Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” video introduced the world to the look and moves of the scene. Africa Bambaataa had a vision of bridging punk and hip-hop, and the black youth thought he was crazy, which was a similar reaction I had from my Rasta brethren before going off to play reggae and dub at the Roxy a few years earlier. For most, funds were tight so they had no choice to do anything but mix-and-match to create their own unique style of dress. As with any burgeoning scene, the DIY ethic was evident right across hip-hop.

For the time that the Clash were in New York, it seemed to me that they basically ran the gaff. I mean people like Scorsese and De Niro were showing up at the gigs.  Not surprisingly, as the Clash were grabbing the headlines, people were falling themselves to show you what the city had to offer. And back then there was a lot on offer—why do you think they named it twice? It was like a real hip-hop-punk rock n ‘roll circus. As for the film, the bands manager Bernard Rhodes put it into a lab in NYC, didn’t pay the bill, and after a few years the lab destroyed the negatives. Luckily years later I managed to salvage sections of the film to create a DVD extra for my ‘Westway to the World’ documentary.

The Clash on the set of 'Rock the Casbah'

From NYC we moved on to Texas. I went there with the band to shoot the “Rock the Casbah” video and we came up with this half-baked idea of Jews and Arabs getting along, which I thought was a brave move for the Clash considering what could and couldn’t be shown on MTV back then. The plan was for the band to be filmed playing in front of an oil derry, and I was amazed when Mick walked onto the set wearing these red long johns and black DM boots apparently he was pissed off about something and it was his way of throwing a strop. I pulled him to one side and said, “Look Mick, you look like a matchstick, and don’t forget film lasts forever, so if you look stupid today, you’ll look stupid forever.” Mick got changed.

The Clash were like four sticks of dynamite. On the cue of “ACTION” these guys just went off. The armadillo was the mascot of Texas and was added for a bit of humour. Most people there had never seen a live one; only dead as ashtrays or handbags. The whole video was quite humorous; there is a scene where the Arab is driving the Cadillac and making the Jew pay for the oil. The video is a juxtaposition of ideas and thought-provoking scenes. The song itself was later used by the US military in the first Gulf War as a rallying cry. A prime example of left wing political statements being hijacked distorted and completely misunderstood.

Don Letts with Andy Warhol

In the summer of 1982, the Clash played Shea Stadium supporting The Who, which is where I filmed the video for “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. We were backstage and Andy Warhol was there. I remember jokingly telling Warhol that there was acid in the cake, and the poor guy completely flipped out. I felt really bad about that. The “Radio Clash” video was cut out of the Clash on Broadway footage and a few years later I got the chance to show it to Federico Fellini at a film festival. After the screening Fellini said that I “have the vision of a terrorist”. He was smiling at the time, so I guess it was a compliment. Sounded great in Italian!

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.

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.

Don Letts Chapter 17 3

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.