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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 7

Acme Attractions

I first met Jeannette Lee at one of the Monday soul nights at the Lyceum in early 1975. She used to go out dancing five nights a week. Before punk happened, black and white kids were also mixing at places like the Bird’s Nest, a chain of clubs in Waterloo, High Street Kensington and West Hampstead. The music played was James Brown, the Ohio Players, Staple Singers - mostly funk, but not Northern Soul. This was pre-dreadlocks; I was wearing three earrings, kohl on my eyes and a see-thru plastic mac with winkle pickers. This was Spring ’75 and a few weeks later Acme the stall moved to a basement beneath the antiques market and we started working together. Basically offering her a job was my lame way of asking her out. It was the basement version of Acme Attractions in Antiquarius that became famous. By famous, I mean as a shop/club. There was a three-piece suite in there complete with a TV. In the middle  of the shop floor was a scooter; the same model as the one featured in Rebel Without a Cause. The jukebox played a bass heavy mix of dub reggae. I guess you could say Acme was very personalised,  a clash of popular subculture  juxtaposed together and for whatever reason, it all seemed to have a common thread. Acme was the place to hang out, much more so than SEX.

Don Jeanette

The clothes they sold were more expensive and it could be intimidating going in the shop. In Acme you could get a pair of trousers for fifteen quid, in SEX they were fifty quid. I guess our clothes were more user-friendly.  Malcolm and Vivienne’s shop stocked fashion as art. Now Acme couldn’t claim that as far as the clothes were concerned, but as far as reflecting London’s multicultural tribal mix, it was the place to be. I remember reading journalist Robert Elms’ description of his first visit to Acme looking for a mohair jumper. He wrote “indeed there was a definite retro feel to Acme, with lots of Forties, Fifties and Sixties bits, old demob suits, scarlet swinging London hipsters, James Dean leather jackets, put together so that it felt terrifyingly modern, way out, confrontational and new.” The different tribes were checking out Acme and SEX. There were the sixties revivalists in leather ties and Chelsea boots. There were kids in demob suits and trilbies, Bowie boys and the Americana lot in their fleck suits and Hawaiian shirts, the SEX bondage crowd, as well as the soul boys in their jelly sandals, see-thru macs, mohair jumpers and peg trousers. Favoured items in Acme were winkle picker shoes and peg trousers that came in colours like shocking pink and electric blue.

Don Acme

The soul boys were working class white kids from the rural and suburban parts of London. They were more interested in buying hard to get hold of dance and soul imports from record shops like Contempo than getting into any band-based scene, although most of them would admit to being Bowie fans. They used to come into Acme and then go up the road to SEX to check out the competition. Some of the early punk look was built on the outside edge of that soul boy look. Those guys all used to shop at Acme, as did Chris Sullivan and his Welsh posse. But Acme did not just outfit the soul elite, it also catered for youth whose radars were tuned into anything that was not part of the establishment or the mainstream and who were inventing their own fashion rules. We had kids from Glasgow, Huddersfield and Newcastle visiting the shop to buy Acme clothes for their nights out. But Acme was more than just a clothes shop. It was like our private members’ club, where people could meet and hang out and find out what was going on.  What drew people into the basement was the dub reggae soundtrack, the clothes and Jeannette but not necessarily in that order. She like a lot of white working class youth pre-punk rock, had aligned herself with black music. If it was not soul, then it was reggae. John Beverly, before he became Sid Vicious, used to come into the shop to hang on Jeannette’s every word. He wasn’t the monster that the press would later make him out to be. I remember him as being shy and quiet, gullible even. One time we sold Keith Moon’s jacket to Sid and told him it used to be Elvis Presley’s. In reality Keith Moon had worn it in the film Stardust.

Advert Acme

Acme was all about multiculturalism, Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop was more exclusive and to a degree Eurocentric. They were not into that whole reggae thing that brought a lot of working class kids into Acme. When Jeannette and I started dating I was still living in the house where my brother Desmond and his family lived Brixton. In my room I had an original limited Warhol print on the wall a lava lamp that was as tall as Jeannette; a pinball machine, a one armed bandit and an 8-track music player and  of course my precious collection of vinyl records which ran into thousands. Jeannette described it as my version of a Playboy pad and it wasn’t what she had expected to find in Brixton. I remember when she first came round asking her to think of any record she’d like to hear. So she asked me if I had ‘Chalice Blaze’ the new album by Jamaica’s Jah Woosh. It blew her mind that I had it…it blew my mind that she’d thought of it.

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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.

Dad

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?

To find out how you could be part of a unique Don Letts documentary, click HERE

Don Letts - Culture Clash

“There weren’t that many black punks around during the late seventies. I used to dream of being a DJ like Don Letts. I loved the way that he integrated reggae into the punk scene" - Daddy G, Massive Attack

Over the next few weeks we're honoured to have writer, musician, director and social commentator Don Letts acting as a Guest Blogger on the site. Contributing extracts from his book 'Culture Clash', Don will tell his story first-hand.

Don Letts Intro

Don Letts

Culture Clash summarises a man whose life has found him continually balanced between two poles: the predominantly white world of art/fashion and film-making in the UK on one side, and the black sensibility of Jamaican reggae, hip-hop and black politics on the other. Few artists have so successfully managed to unite these disparate elements as has Don Letts. Referring to himself as a first-generation British born black, it is this upbringing that has given him his unique viewpoint. Just picture the sight of a dreadlocked black man DJ-ing in a club full of thrashing white punks, playing dub reggae and rolling spliffs for punters. But Letts is quick to point out "the assimilation of Jamaican culture within the ranks of white youth had actually begun years earlier through their discovery of Ska and Blue Beat.  Letts was the reggae expert to the major players on the punk scene and was instrumental in introducing dub reggae to suburban kids via the Roxy Club and the fashion shop he managed called Acme Attractions in the mid to late seventies. For their part, the punks taught Letts an important lesson in DIY. As Letts puts it, “what I learned from the punks—besides the fact that we became closer by understanding our differences, and not by trying to be the same—was to make my problems my assets, and that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. Punk wasn’t just a soundtrack or a uniform that you’d wear for a day it's a frame of mind, an attitude that informs how you do what you do."

Following his departure from the Clash, Mick Jones asked Letts to join his new band, Big Audio Dynamite. B.A.D  combined reggae bass-lines from Jamaica, hip-hop beats from New York and a very British rock n’roll guitar sound courtesy of Mr. Jones. Over nearly four decades Letts’ work has spanned black and white, film and music and when not behind a camera he can still be found DJ’ing his dub-reggae soundtrack nationally and internationally. He currently hosts his on show on BBC 6 Music called unsurprisingly 'Culture Clash Radio' show. In this first extract, Don sets the scene by introducing us to his childhood as a British-born Jamaican in London.

 Funky London Childhood

My earliest memories go back to Brixton where I lived with my parents and my brothers Norman, Desmond and Derrick. I was born in London on the 10th January 1956 the same year Elvis Presley entered the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel” and Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ was showing at the cinema. My parents had to become Anglicised to get by. It is what that generation tried to do and as first-generation British born blacks we saw that it was not really working out for them. My father worked for London Transport driving a Route-master bus, progressing to being a chauffeur for the New Zealand High Commissioner in later years. My mother was a dressmaker. Now in my parents’ eyes, certain things were just not done. For instance you could not speak disrespectfully - like saying ‘no’ in the wrong tone, or giving them bad ‘looks’, and you definitely couldn’t ‘kiss’ your teeth.

St Letts

My Father, St. Ledger Letts

Any of these transgressions were dealt with swiftly. My mother would hit us with anything that was within easy reach. I still bear a scar on my hand from a bread knife! My mother’s expertise lay in a swift and deadly execution of punishment—how just, was another matter. My father added mental as well as physical punishment to his armory. If we committed an offence the torture would be signposted with; “Wait till your dad gets home”. Depending on what time of day it was, this could really mess with your head—not to mention your underpants. But I must make it clear that the memories of my upbringing are not that of abuse or anything of the kind in fact quite the contrary. My parent’s generation made many sacrifices during their life so that we could have a better one. 

Valerie Letts

My Mother, Valerie Letts

For bigger crimes, like those spawned by the long summer holidays, either a switch from a tree which grew in the next-door neighbours’ garden, or dad’s belt swung into action. Norman, as the youngest, got it worse ’cause we were older and could lie more convincingly. When we broke the bed by using it as a trampoline—although I was the fattest, and Desmond was bigger than both of us—of course it was little Norman that got blamed. When Desmond broke the kitchen window, we three swore blind that a stone thrown by the ‘Greeks’ some ten houses away had caused the damage. My mother was like Mike Tyson in a skirt when she was angry—ask the ‘Greeks’. For example, I remember that I was on the receiving end of grief from some skinheads and had to make a tactical retreat home. My mother heard them shouting “nigger” this, and “wog” that in the street and stepped boldly outside, trusty bread knife in hand. The gang did the right thing.

Don Letts Child

A Young Don at the Wheel

The long summer holidays were an ideal time for the committing of childhood misdemeanors; not that us boys needed much excuse. For example, the time we decided to get rid of the tree that supplied the branches to which our young skin was so familiar come punishment time. Inches into the trunk with a tiny hacksaw we realised that the tree would be missed if we managed to hack it down. “OK, let’s make some tree poison,” we conspired. A brew of ingredients was picked from the kitchen (which, as all young boys know, is really a science laboratory). Bleach, soap powder, vinegar—anything we could get our hands on - were mixed to a very precise recipe in a large bucket. But just before we poured it onto the tree’s roots we realised that if the tree died, questions would be asked, licks would be delivered, tears would roll. So we swiftly aborted the plan and disposed of the poison by throwing it over the wall into next-door’s garden, and in the process over a bed of sunflowers. After dinner we heard the wailing of Miss Harris, the gentle old granny-type who was our next-door neighbour. The whole Letts tribe ran into the garden to see what was up. She looked like her world had collapsed and in a way it had. The once towering sunflowers no longer reached for the sky but lay flat against the soil: dead. We, like everyone else, threw our hands up in utter disbelief. After all, we believed our poison was made specifically for trees, not sunflowers. The episode proved to be a double-disaster for us boys, as the sunflowers supplied the bumblebees around which we used to tie a length of thread and then fly like little kites. When we got bored with that, we’d let them go, only to watch them fly off into the overhead telephone cables where they flew around and around in decreasing circles to eventually die trapped by the pieces of thread.

Father And Son

              Letts the Father, Letts the son

Two other incidents from my early childhood were to leave a deep impact on me. One for more obvious reasons than the other. During yet another school summer holiday Desmond, Norman and myself decided to play Batman. Now if there was ever a really stupid thing to do Norman was usually first in line as the youngest. But on this occasion it was somehow decided that I would be the one to jump out of our third story bedroom window. Unfortunately Fatman couldn’t hold on to the rope that was too thin in the first place. I must have hit the ground at 60 m.p.h with severe rope burns to both hands. The other was the time me, Norman and ‘Cherry Nose’ (a neighbourhood friend) went swimming at the local open-air pool. An innocent enough idea, except none of us could swim. We’re daring each other to see who can jump in the pool the furthest and make it back to the edge. Must have been that extra weight! Once again it’s me that’s watching my life flash before me as I’m flailing around out of my depth and drowning, quite literally. The next thing I remember is having my chest pumped by a white guy on the edge of the pool. How I survived those summer holidays I’ll never know.

To find out how you could be part of a unique Don Letts documentary celebrating 60 Years of Subculture, click HERE