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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 20

Behind the Lens

I’ve made nearly 400 music videos to date, don’t make ‘em anymore but between the end of the seventies and the end of the nineties I directed video’s for a diverse range of acts including The Jungle Brothers, The Pretenders, Sly and Robbie, Elvis Costello, Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Slits, Big Audio Dynamite, The Pogues, S’Express, Beenie Man, Apache Indian, Yaz, Bob Marley and, of course The Clash. In 1982, fledgling UK reggae band Musical Youth decided to give me a shot at their debut single ‘Pass The Dutchie’. The song title was taken from a Mighty Diamonds’ track called ‘Pass the Kutchie’ as in a herb pipe. Obviously these little Brummie kids couldn’t be seen to be singing about weed. So they decided to find a word that rhymed with kutchie and decided on ‘dutchie’ (a Jamaican cooking pot). Since the lyrics were rendered non-sensical I decided to ignore them and came up with a vague story about them skipping school. But the most important thing was the location of their performance. At the start of the song one of the kids sing “this generation rules the nation with version” the camera pulls back and you see them playing in front of The House of Parliament! Just my way of showing a new face of London. During eighties I worked in Los Angeles for a while and ended up living in Hollywood for six months. The first video I shot there featured an up-and-coming youngster known to you as Ice-T.

Don Letts - Video Shoot, LA, 1982

Next up an American heavy metal band called Ratt. The video for their single ‘Round and Round’ came out when they were on tour supporting Mötley Crüe and  did so well that Mötley Crüe ended up supporting them! Cut to Venice Beach I’m shooting the Gap Bands ‘Party Train’. These guys were so out of it when they arrived all they could do was walk twenty yards along the beach and that was it. I made an asset out of my problem and the video smashed it. But there were changes afoot driven by MTV and soon it was all about the gloss of videos like Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’ which wasn’t really my speed. The last group I made a few videos for was Shaun Ryder’s Black Grape formed three years after Happy Mondays split up. We went to Jamaica to shoot the promo for ‘In the Name of the Father’ and needless to say Jamaica’s never been the same. In the current climate it’s hard to find people with any attitude at all and if you don’t look good and you can’t dance then you are a truly screwed. 

Don Letts - Video set Hawaii, 1984

The corporate politics of pop video making soon got the better of me so I opted out for documentaries. After my first film the admittedly rough and ready ‘Punk Rock Movie’ it was Chris Blackwell who really got me back into a more documentary style. I did several projects for Chris over the years including ‘Legend’ (Bob Marley) and also my first featuring film ‘Dancehall Queen’. Shot entirely in Jamaica it's the story of a humble street vendor who, through the world of dancehall, escapes to make her life better and features performances from Beenie Man and Lady Saw. The film went on to smash the Jamaican box office and although ‘The Harder They Come’ will always be the Jamaican film for my generation, for the new generation its Dancehall Queen…trust me.

Don Letts - Dancehall Queen

Shortly after that I got to direct ‘Planet Rock’ for the BBC. It focused on hip-hop and the effect of black music in the eighties. I returned to New York to film artists like Africa Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Chuck D, De La Soul, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Frankie Knuckles and the Detroit legend Derrick May. The premise of my episode was how black music gave new life to the dying carcass that was rock’n’ roll. No shit! Now The Clash had talked about doing a film over the years but never had the time or the inclination but in 2000 I got the call. You know as much as I’d love to take credit for making ‘Westway to The World’ I think you’d have to be a complete idiot to make a bad film about ‘the only band that mattered’. As it turned out I got a Grammy for it.

My next film “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was a piece I’m particularly proud of, as it was the last word from the one and only Gil Scott-Heron before he passed away in 2011. On the strength of that I got to do ‘Brother From Another Planet’ a documentary on Sun Ra. He is to jazz what Lee Perry is to reggae and broke new ground mixing electronic sounds with jazz, long before Miles Davis did. Funny, I just can’t escape punk rock, ‘cause as far as I am concerned, that is exactly what Sun-Ra was. I followed that with ‘Tales of Dr. Funkenstein’ the story of George Clinton. Once again here was someone that ticked all the required boxes to get me fired up. In 2004, some thirty years after the first stirrings of the UK Punk movement, I was approached to make ‘Punk: Attitude’. It occurred to me that the over-emphasis on the late ’70s punk incarnation undermined a bigger idea. What we’re really talking about here is counter-culture, which has a tradition and a heritage i.e. punk rock didn’t start and end in the late seventies. I wanted to show that punk was not something to look back on, but something to look forward to and if you are brave enough and you have a good idea you can be a part of it.

I directed the final part of a series called ‘Soul Britannia’ for the BBC called in 2007. Starting with the arrival of the Jamaican immigrants in the fifties, it looked at the impact of black music from that time till this and the social and cultural impact that has followed in its wake. It really drove home and touched on many of the themes running through my journey and our part in creating a new British identity. For my episode I roped in people like Jazzie B, Norman Jay, Daddy G (Massive Attack), Rebel MC, Amy Winehouse, Goldie, Roots Manuva, Mica Paris and Rodney P. These artists are all proof that the cultural exchange was very much a two-way street. They have had as much impact on Britain as Britain has on them.

Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

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.