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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!

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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.