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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 13

Malice in Ganja Land

By January 1978 the Sex Pistols had split up and John decided to go to Jamaica to help Richard Branson set up the Front Line reggae label for Virgin Records. It was also a way for him to escape the media frenzy around the bands demise.  So in February I get a phone call from John asking me if I’d like to go to Jamaica. He’s figures I’m black and a mate so I must know what’s what. Truth is I’d never been to Jamaica in my life, the closest I’d been was seeing The Harder They Come in my local cinema. Never-the-less I turned up at John’s house with my passport, a plastic bag and one pair of underpants. When we checked into the Sheraton Hotel we found out that Branson had booked the whole floor. Over the next two weeks it was like exodus movement of musicians, everybody who was anybody came by to try to get a deal with the exception of Bob Marley (R.I.P), Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh (R.I.P) and Burning Spear. Many an afternoon was spent pool-side hanging out with the likes of Prince Far I (R.I.P), I-Roy (R.I.P), The Gladiators, U-Roy, Big Youth and the Abyssinians to name a few. All the mystical names that John and I had admired for years were now blagging food and drinks from us.

Don Letts John Lydon

Punk had no impact in Jamaica other than the odd article in The Gleaner about a strange English phenomenon. But that didn’t stop anyone being more than appreciative of “the whiteman who sell ’nuff record, gold disc an’ ’ting”. One afternoon we ended up with Lee Perry in his studio where the assembled reggae artists had been hired to do reggae versions of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Holiday in the Sun”. I can remember sitting in the smoke-filled control room listening to the cheesy reggae versions that Scratch’s bunch of hired session men were banging out. Since the project was money-led it wasn’t so much Dread at the Control, more like Bread at the Control. It was on this same trip that I made the most embarrassing comment of my life. John and myself found ourselves around Joni Mitchell’s house in Jamaica –don’t ask! We’re partaking in the local produce, as one does, when I burst out with, “What is this shit we’re listening to? Take it off!” Joni calmly replies, “It’s my new album, actually.” Back-pedaling furiously (coolly disguised by the perennial shades) I foolishly reply, “Well it’s not ‘Carrie’.” Pathetic—but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a better comeback.

Don Letts & Joni Mitchell

Hanging with Joni

John did not want to go back to London with a suntan, so he walked around in Jamaica’s summer heat dressed in heavy black motorbike boots, black hat and heavy black woolen overcoat. He looked like Lee Van Cleef. One day Tappa Zukie took me and John to Rema, the heaviest part of Kingston—they used to call it “Jungle” and it was a no-go area for the police. I was thinking, “What is the big deal, where are all the guns?” This guy said, “yu want see a gun?” and reached into his back pocket and whipped out this massive gun. Suddenly there were loads of guns waving in the air. Me and John were shitting ourselves. Three days later, the guy that had drawn the first gun was dead. As gun crime was so prevalent in Jamaica back then, Prime minister Michael Manley had this place built called Gun Court which was essentially a big fortress; a Stalag-type place. If you were caught with a gun or even a bullet, you were sent to Gun Court for indefinite detention. He had the building painted red, because he thought “red is dread” inspired by the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter where he has the town painted red. Jamaica was a country into Westerns like no other, and consequently there were recording artists called Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Dirty Harry. Jamaicans loved Westerns and Kung Fu—there was even an artist called Bruce Lee! There was a period when the gun thing got so out of hand, the rude boys would shoot at the screens in cinemas when certain movies were showing. The solution? They put up concrete screens.

Don Chapter 13 3

For me that trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life; reggae had got me into the punks and the punks got me closer to the reggae acts. Consequently, I became very friendly with Prince Far I, Tappa Zukie, I-Roy U-Roy and Big Youth. But the whole trip was a bit of an eye-opener for Virgin Records who went to Jamaica thinking that they would be dealing with clean-cut artists like the soul boys from America. Musicians like Prince Far-I and Keith Hudson (R.I.P) could be very scary if you caught them on a bad day and they definitely had a different way of settling business. Now I’d played Prince Far-I’s album ‘Under Heavy Manners’ at the Roxy. His voice sounded like he gargled with bleach, which sounded great on record, but him merely saying, “Good morning,” in a heavy Jamaican dialect to the staff at the record company could really sound intimidating. Prince Far I eventually fell out with Branson and would later release a track on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label called “Virgin” which included the words “Branson is a pickle with no place on my plate”. Talk about culture differences!

Just before we were due to return to the UK we decided to experience a sound-system in the Jamaican countryside. U-Roy took us out with his “Stur-Gav” sound system, a gargantuan mobile disco Jamaican-style, piled onto the back of two massive trucks. The numerous sound boys were hanging onto the equipment for dear life, because they all knew you could ‘drop a bwoy but yu can’t drop a box’. We finally reached our destination after weaving our way through some truly glorious countryside, where John and I decided to burn some herb while the sound system was being strung up. The next thing I remember is John and I being woken up and somebody saying, “We’re ready.” “Ready for what?” I mumbled. “Dance done,” was the reply. John and I had smoked and crashed out where we we’d been sitting, and that was six hours earlier!

Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE

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!

Don Chapter 12 1

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.

Don Chapter 12 2

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!

Don Chapter 12 3

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.

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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 11

Typical Girls

In Spring 1977, John Krevine and Steph Raynor decided to close Acme Attractions and leave the basement that had become a hive of cultural exchange. They started a shop called Boy, which was located halfway between Sloane Square and World’s End on the King’s Road. Boy sold T-shirts with mock-up death images of Gary Gilmore on them and jewellery made from hypodermic syringes. On the walls were framed newspaper pages with the headline ‘Boy’ on each page. Krevine told the Evening News that the clothes were about “survival in London in 1977”.

After the Grundy TV interview with the Pistols, the whole country thought they knew about punk and it heralded the start of the tabloid punk movement. I ran Boy with Jeannette and when the shop first opened John and Steph decided to generate some controversy with a window display that had forensic sculptures of a burnt foot and hand made by artist Peter Christopherson. Two nurses swore blind that the body parts were real and called the police. I was taken to court and charged under some Napoleonic law about exhibiting war wounds for financial gain. I was prosecuted for indecent exhibition—which made me sound like a flasher!

Don Slits 1

As Boy opened, punk had reached its peak—there were even tabloid-fuelled Teddy Boy versus Punk battles on the King’s Road. We were right in the middle of the King’s Road and the fights would be happening from Sloane Square, past Boy, all the way up to World’s End where Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop was. The Teds were forty and fifty year-old geezers who arrived with their ten year-old kids dressed up in drape jackets. Many a time I saw a bunch of Teds chasing a lone punk and I would run out of the shop cussing heavily in Jamaican to deflate the situation. But at the same time if I saw a Ted being chased by a load of punks, I’d do the same thing.

I got fed up working at Boy, so I went off to try and manage The Slits, try being the operative word. The crucial four were Ari Up (who was just 15 at the time), Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollit and Palmolive.  I remember seeing them play one of their first gigs at the Roxy Harlesden (not to be confused with the legendary Roxy Club in Covent Garden). They were on the bill with Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and The Clash: a punk line-up made in heaven. The Slits sound erupted as a stumbling rhythm packed with maximum energy and determination: Palmolive destroying the drums, Tessa’s heavyweight bass with Viv’s choppy guitar chords delivered like broken glass; on top of this raucous rhythm was Ari’s signature screeching vocal style.

Don Slits 2

They were rough, rugged and they rocked. These girls came with an attitude unlike anything I’d ever seen before, male or female! They soon gained a reputation for being unpredictable, chaotic and downright scary. But what intimidated the A&R men, inspired and empowered legions of young girls up and down the country who were fed up with the options open to them at that time. The Clash were impressed enough to take them on the White Riot tour (Mick Jones would have to tune their guitars for them!). It was at this point I realised that I was trying to manage the unmanageable. Bands fighting each other was one thing (and not unheard of) but The Slits would be fighting on stage, off stage, and all points in between. The thing about The Slits was they were The Slits twenty-four seven, not just while they were on stage performing. It wasn’t an act. I remember trying to check the girls into a hotel one time, but before I’d even signed them in, we were being thrown out. Ari had decided to start wrecking the joint while we were still in reception. Such was the chaos that was the Slits.

But it wasn’t all outrage and chaos; these girls were breaking new ground without really trying. Musically, lyrically, stylistically everything was different. They were the last of the first wave of punk bands to get signed such was their reputation. Their debut album ‘Cut’ was produced by the dub master himself Dennis Bovell (Matumbi/Janet Kay). Its sleeve featured the girls naked and covered in mud and the music inside was a sonic delight. Bored by what punk had become, The Slits were one of the first bands to embrace reggae and later African rhythms. It was their love of reggae in particular that brought us together as friends. When we went to reggae clubs every eye in the house would be focused on Ari who’d be whipping up a storm on the dance-floor.

Don Slits 3

By the late seventies, punk had become trapped by its own definition and post-punk bands like the Pop Group and PiL were actually far more liberating than what punk had become—a shambles of safety pins and bin-liner bands. As for The Slits, a new deal with CBS produced the Return of the Giant Slits album in 1981 and not long after, they announced their final gig at the Hammersmith Palais.

When I first met Ari she was fifteen, feisty and confrontational and she remained that way her whole life. The last time I saw her was at Metropolis Studios in West London and James Brown happened to be recording there. We went to the canteen to get some food and it had all gone. James Brown and his crew had eaten it all. Arianna went straight up to James Brown and said, “Oi you, you have eaten all my bloodclaat food.” James just grunted, turned and looked at her somewhat surprised.

Sadly on October 20th 2010 Ari Up passed away and although never commercially successful, through sheer emotion and desire, The Slits created some great music and remain one of the most significant female punk-rock bands of the late 1970s. Madonna bow down, Courtney Love step back and as for Spice Girls—don’t make me laugh. Whatever you think they’ve done, The Slits did it before…

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE