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Thursday, 23rd Aug 2012
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.
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.
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.
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
Monday, 18th Jun 2012
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
Tuesday, 29th May 2012
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.
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.
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.
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