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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

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.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, Don & John

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!

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16, John & Jeanette

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.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 16

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

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 15

Dread with a Camera

What I picked up most from mixing with the punks was a new way of approaching things—the DIY ethic. I came to realise that a good idea attempted was better than a bad idea perfected. So with the birth of Punk Rock I literally reinvented myself as “Don Letts the film-maker”. My next effort was another rough n’ ready venture called Rankin’ Movie. It featured Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Congos, Culture, Big Youth and many others. I filmed Prince Far I playing at Dingwalls with his Chelsea FC bag that he claimed was filled with ganja, and Dr Alimantado bursting into a full performance of “Born For A Purpose” in the middle of Daddy Kool’s reggae shop. There was no narrative to Rankin’ Movie it was held it together with performances juxtaposed with footage of things like Jamaican police shaking down a car load of Rastas in Kingston with footage of the Notting Hill riots in London.

There were scenes of U-Roy smoking his massive chalice and Tappa Zukie with a gun-toting brother who was shot dead a couple of weeks later. Most of the material was filmed on my first trip to Jamaica with John Lydon. Rankin’ Movie generated a lot of publicity for me which helped when I later approached Michael White with a script I’d written called Dread at the Controls. It was directly inspired by radical poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Five Nights of Bleeding” which he recorded under the pseudonym of Poet & Roots. Released in 1977 it really summed up life as a young black man growing up in the decaying and violent inner cities. As it turned out my film was never got made, as around the same time Franco Rosso had just made ‘Babylon’. It was about a South London sound system in late-seventies Britain called Ital Lion Sound System, and the people who passionately ran it against all the odds. Brinsley Forde, Aswad’s singer and child actor was the lead and there’s some great footage of Jah Shaka in session. Dennis Bovell put the soundtrack together utilising tracks like Aswad’s mighty “Warrior Charge”. Even though it’s a good film, Babylon didn’t make much money, so Dread was shelved.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 15, Dread with a Camera

It was The Harder They Come that made me want to express myself visually and I’d always wanted to make a movie that reflected the London that I knew. Ironically my first feature film Dancehall Queen, directly inspired by The Harder They Come was shot in Kingston Jamaica in 1997 and made possible by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. Blackwell was the also the man behind The Harder They Come. Perry Henzell (R.I.P) did a great job of directing a brutally honest depiction of ghetto life in Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff, the star of the film, was not a trained actor, so that also added an element of realism.

Cliff plays a character called Ivan, who comes to Kingston looking for work. He finds it impossible to get a job, so he decides to make music. He quickly realises that the recording industry is just as corrupt as the world outside of it and finds himself becoming a Jesse James-type hero. When Ivan first comes to Kingston he goes to the cinema and gets caught up in the on-screen drama; but the local wide-boy, Jose, tells him that the hero cannot die until the last reel. Ivan goes and lives the movie for real and dies in a shoot out in the last reel. It is a great scene that parallels the whole movie. When Jose is run out of town by Ivan, all through the altercation between them “Pressure Drop” by the Maytals is simmering underneath. The way Henzell interweaves the music within the storyline is remarkable. The marriage of the soundtrack and narrative in The Harder They Come left an impression on me that has inspired my life and work. It was telling how closely I could relate to The Harder They Come, even though it was far removed from my experience as a black youth in the UK. I liked the idea that The Harder They Come raised awareness of Jamaican culture and entertained at the same time. It must have had the same impact on me as Rebel Without a Cause must have had on young white kids in the fifties.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 15, Dread with a Camera

Now growing up in the UK not only was I exposed to the obvious American influences but I was also totally captivated by the films of European film makers like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also influenced and inspired Martin Scorsese. They made films that had an element of fantasy to them but were misunderstood at the time by film critics and audiences alike. Winston Churchill even tried to ban their film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. For the most part it was crafted storytelling, the technical aspects of their films were so intricate, unless you are tuned into that stuff it is hard to notice (check The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). The abrupt end of Powell’s career can be pinned down to one film, Peeping Tom. An uncompromising portrait of madness, it is the story of a young man who murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror. Powell cleverly makes a sober study of sexual violence, as well as a meditation on voyeurism set in twilight landscape of backstreet London. The film opened to scathing reviews in April 1960. Years later, Scorsese heralded the film as an English classic that said all there is to say about directing.

 

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 15, Dread with a Camera

They say the true sign of genius is inconsistency and this could well apply to another of my favourite directors—Nic Roeg. Watching  ‘Walkabout’ made me acutely aware of different ways of telling a story. Sure you might need a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order!  There’s some great examples of this in his film Don’t Look Now and the Roeg classic Performance. It’s a visually compelling and disturbing look at two diverse sides of 1960s London; the criminal underworld and hippie culture. Robert Fox plays a gangster fugitive who takes refuge in the Notting Hill home of Turner (played by Mick Jagger) a semi-retired bisexual rock musician. Turner becomes infatuated with Chas’ violent charisma and his “vital energy” he himself feels he has lost. As the title suggests, the film is all about performances and role reversal. Full of Roeg’s visual flourishes it’s still my favourite London movie and features one of the best soundtracks ever. Roeg continued challenging the industry with The Man Who Fell to Earth, with the inspired choice of David Bowie playing an alien visiting earth, telling a tale of how the American dream had been hijacked by consumerism, and had a deeper message than your usual sci-fi rubbish.

I learned the technical aspects of film-making from seeing the beauty of Powell and Pressburger’s work or watching the Ealing films like Passport to Pimlico along side the American classics. But it was with the inspiration of The Harder They Come combined with a punk attitude that I became - Don Letts the film director.

Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 14

No Don’t Stop the Carnival

London’s first Caribbean Carnival was held in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The idea stemmed from a meeting at the Brixton office of the West Indian Gazette a few months earlier. Claudia Jones, who worked for the paper, wanted to do something to improve the morale of the West Indian Community in Notting Hill. Race Riots had spread from Nottingham to Notting Hill during 1958 when locals waged their racial war on the newly settled West Indian community. Held at the Town Hall, the Carnival went well, with dancing, lots of curried goat, rice n’ peas. It was not until 1965 that it moved to Notting Hill after Rhaune Laslett, a local resident, spoke to the police about holding a carnival there. She wanted to involve all of the community; Irish, Spanish, Caribbeans, Africans and Portuguese to name a few. Notting Hill at that time was a piss-poor area, but it had a real multicultural vibe to it. Laslett ran the Carnival for several years and the attendance grew to about 10,000 people. The event was a great success and blurred the lines between participant and spectator and quickly became a symbol of freedom.

Don Letts Carnival 1

By 1976 Carnival had become a predominantly Caribbean event built on Jones’ racial offensive and Laslett’s cooperative activism. For my parents’ generation the Carnival was a reminder of life back home but for my generation it was statement about duality of our existence which was black and British. Tensions had been building through that year and it came to a head when police tried to arrest someone close to Portobello Road. Several black youths went to help the guy and it escalated into a riot. The police had to grab dustbin lids to protect themselves from the bricks and debris raining down on them. To this day people think that there was a racial theme to the riot in 1976, but it was not a black or white thing. It was a wrong or right thing. Working class people being harassed by the police. Hence the Clash song “White Riot”, with the words “Black man gotta lotta problems/but they don’t mind throwing a brick.” The Clash were saying, “look our black brethren have had enough and they have done something about it.” Ironically it was misunderstood by some as being a right-wing song.

During the Notting Hill riot I was wandering around with my Super-8 camera, torn between getting the shot and throwing a brick. The infamous picture of me that ended up on the front of the ‘Black Market Clash’ album was taken at this time. It looks like I am fronting the cops off, but I am actually crossing the road.

Don Letts Carnival 2

Behind me are 500 brothers all armed with bottles and bricks and the police lines were right in front of me. It was best that I moved out of the way. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were also caught up in it. They were throwing bricks. The white youth were right in there alongside the black youth, including myself, all sick to death of the SUS law. The SUS law was a stop-and-search policy based upon Sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, which made it illegal for a suspected person to loiter in a public place. SUS was routinely abused, usually to the detriment of black youth. If I went to the cinema I had to schedule an extra half hour, because I knew that I would probably get pulled up and miss the start of the film. When I saw a police car behind me, I’d pull over before they could pull me over. I’d walk up to the cops and say, “Look, what do you want? You make me really nervous and you’re going to make me crash so let’s get it over with.”

I remember one particular time they pulled me up somewhere off the King’s Road, Chelsea. I got out of the car and jumped up onto the bonnet and I was like, “Yo, what are you guys trying to do, crucify me?” and all of a sudden passers-by were watching me. From that point on, every time I got pulled up on the street I would stand with my legs spread-eagled and my arms in the air, sort of American stylee. The cops would be shocked and say, “Look young man, there is no need for that.” I’d simply reply, “It’s OK officer, I feel a lot more comfortable like this, and you can’t say I have done anything wrong.” The minute you did that on the street everybody was looking. I flipped the script on them. I even remember being pulled up in various places and I’d start taking my clothes off and walking around in my underpants. It was my way of taking control of the situation. However if you were pulled up in the middle of the night with no witnesses, you were screwed.

Don Letts Carnival 3

Nowadays the Notting Hill Carnival has grown to be the biggest ‘street’ festival in Europe. Over a million pleasure-seekers every year cause a roadblock in the heart of London, oblivious to the Carnival’s political, social and historical background. In its early days, it was controlled by the first Trinidadian settlers of Ladbroke Grove, but it was not long before all the Islands found a voice at Carnival. It was nearly hi-jacked by the Jamaican sound systems in the seventies and that’s where I came in, listening to sounds with names like ‘Shaka’ and ‘Coxsone Sound’. After an initial sound clash, a balance was struck. Reggae and Calypso provided a running commentary on current events. Journalism set to music. And if you can resist the smell of the various foods on sale then you are a slimmer man than I. 

Today regular fixtures like Norman Jay’s ‘Good Times Sound-System’ and Gaz’s ‘Rockin Blues’ really capture the evolution of the carnival sound. One of my favourite spots used to be on the junction of All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road; sound systems piled stories high on every corner, just as the steel band pulls in. Calypso, Soca, Soul, Ragga, Reggae and Hip-Hop. The tree-lined harmony of west London gets slapped upside the head. Ladbroke Grove—Ladbroke groove—dub town. By my logic 2009 was the 50th anniversary of Carnival and that same year I was moved to make a documentary celebrating that fact as it continues to be a kind of a cultural barometer for the times, charting and reflecting the journey of multi-cultural Britain. 

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE