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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Final Chapter

Last Word

At the beginning of 2006 I was off filming Franz Ferdinand in South America. They were supporting U2 and did their own shows in Rio, Chile and Argentina. My last few films had been very controlled stylistically so it was a great opportunity to return to my punk roots. Later that same year I was on the road again documenting the birth of The Good, The Bad and The Queen, a ‘Dickensian’ dub combo created by Damon Albarn and featuring Paul Simonon of The Clash and Tony Allen who was actually Fela Kuti’s drummer. The following year they released their debut album; shaped by this city it was a classic London record, subtly reflecting the mix that rocks our mutual boat with Damon’s voice putting a quintessential English stamp on it. It couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It was the perfect soundtrack to the movie that is London. Pure technicolor! In Spring 2007 I get a call from BBC 6 Music offering me a regular late night radio show. I’ve been hosting Culture Clash Radio on the station from that time till this and I got to tell you it’s one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. Now some would have you believe I’m at home listening to reggae 24/7 but that’s not the way I roll. The worlds a big and beautiful place and I embrace it all (although it helps if it’s got a wicked bass line). So my show crosses time space and genre and in my 5 years of broadcasting I’ve never played a record I don’t like.

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I get my bass fix d.j’ing both here and abroad playing a reggae based selection. We’re talking the history and legacy of Jamaican bass culture. It’s very much in the spirit of what I was doing during my days at the Roxy - using my culture to turn people on. I come from a generation whose soundtrack helped empower the listener, helped people to be all they could be and reveled in individuality. I’m living proof that music has that potential. When I was starting out, music was an anti-establishment thing, now it seems like a lot of people get into music to be part of the establishment. I mean how radical can you be if that's what you want? The future’s all about new values. We live in a cultural climate that feels like punk never happened and Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame has become a nightmare of people that can’t justify three. For the most part Western culture has become increasing conservative, if not darn right stagnant. Nevertheless I remain optimistic. The punk spirit is like the force in Star Wars—you can’t stop it. There’s always something going on, you just got to look in new places and like Joe Strummer said, ‘make sure your bullshit detector is finely tuned’. Look to the amateur and the naïve for the new ideas in the future, everyone else is reading from the same book. Personally a punk attitude still serves me on a day-to-day basis. As I’ve said all along, a good idea attempted is still better that a bad idea perfected and I’m still turning my problems into my assets.

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In 2011 I was presented with the opportunity of treading familiar ground. Big Audio Dynamite reformed for a 6 month tour and if nothing else it was a great way to deal with mid-life crisis (and much safer than riding a motor-bike!). We played some seriously high profile festivals around the globe as well as sell out gigs on our home turf – and yes I still had coloured stickers on my keyboards. For my part I had a great time, it was cool to me standing on stage with Mick Jones and the boys again. It some how felt like the third act of Big Audio Dynamite ‘the musical’ and I count myself as a very lucky man indeed for being presented with the opportunity.

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As it turns out I’m still hustling my way through the 21st century, o.k so it’s a creative hustle but a hustle never the less. Like many I survive by juggling several different things. So in that respect I’m ahead of the game cause I’ve spent my whole life doing that – and luckily I enjoy it, as for me it’s all part of a whole. And in my book if you can make a buck doing something you enjoy you're a winner. By the end of this year I will have seen fifty-six summers. I guess I should be both older and wiser, but I think I got screwed on the wiser part. What I have learnt is that the evolution of mankind is painfully slow. I know this by looking at myself. Now you might look around the bubble that you’re living in and think otherwise, then you turn on the news and it's a reality check. But when I think of what my parents achieved in their lifetime and the selfless sacrifices they made to set us up, I’m pleased with my part in the process. I’ve learned that for the most part we have to work towards goals we probably won't live to see. That kind of sucks, but the small changes I see in my bubble get me through the day. I still want to paint a new portrait of London on film—every city should have a great movie (as well as a great song). I want to celebrate the cultural mix, the juxtaposition of old and new, the very duality of my existence. I want to reflect on the input we as immigrants have made as I believe that it is this influx that has put the Great back in Britain. Hanging on to an island mentality ain't going anywhere. It’s the creativity that comes out of the multicultural mix that makes London swing.

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P.S As luck would have it at the beginning of 2012 I was approached by Fred Perry to create a film celebrating the labels heritage for its 60th anniversary. 'Subculture' traces the journey of British style driven youth movements from Teds n’ Rockers to Mods and Skinheads through Soul-Boys, Punk and Two Tone right up to Casuals, Rave and Britpop. I realized while making the film that in one way or another I’ve actually been touched by, or involved in, nearly every one of these tribes (yes I’m that old!). But most importantly it re-enforced the impact of my culture from the time of my parent’s arrival to this very day. Funnily enough I’ve been so busy being a part of it, I’d never really had time to think about it.

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.

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 8

Soul Shake Down Party

During the mid seventies I often went to places like the Q Club on Praed Street, Columbos, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, The Trafalgar, Union Tavern and the Lacy Lady in Ilford. In those days you only ever ventured on to the dance floor if you had style and the right moves. The way you looked and your dance moves were the currency of the day—and what you got with that currency was girls. But the soul scene began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It had started to develop its own prejudice. People started to look down on those who didn’t dress the same; the scene had become elitist and I wasn't  really comfortable with that. Just listening to the music and emulating the black American blueprint wasn’t working for me. It didn’t exactly translate to my life, which was something of a dilemma. Luckily around the same time I began to discover Rastafari through reggae and sound-systems like Jah Shaka, Moa Ambassa and Coxsone. Sound-system was a way of imparting information; spiritually, politically and culturally. Up until the early seventies singers like John Holt, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs ruled in Jamaica, but then reggae began to change. ‘Deejay’ music—a rapping style created for the sound-systems developed led by the mighty three I-Roy, U-Roy and Big Youth. When Bob Marley’s album Catch a Fire hit town in 1973 that was a major revelation. It explored a more radical and political side of reggae and was definitely more of an album than a collection of singles. Even the packaging, with the Zippo Lighter sleeve, was also something different. Up to that time most of the reggae sleeves looked like cheap Jamaican postcards.

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Dub really came into its own during the early 1970s. On the B-sides of Jamaican Rocksteady singles the word ‘Version’ began appearing—describing an instrumental remix of the A-side that had begun as a test for sound levels (and for somewhat obvious economic reasons was pressed on the B-side as it saved recording another song). Dub was the next logical step, essentially born from a studio technique where drum and bass took centre stage. Utilising two-track, and sometimes four-track set-ups, people like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb and echo delay to shape the sound and took the giant step of using the mixing desk as an instrument in itself. Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) was an engineer at Duke Reid’s studio and began to cut dub plates of tunes with bits of the vocal left out to play on his sound system. He originally did this to offer his audience different versions of their favourite tracks. These fragments of vocals were ‘flashed in’ either from the A-side or a deejay would do an intro and  just ‘ride the riddim’. They created a sound that was then pressed onto dub plates (one-off acetates) and played by the local sound systems via valve amps and towering bass bins live and direct to the people. Then there was Big Youth, a former cab driver in Jamaica, who served his apprenticeship with sound systems around Kingston before becoming known as the ‘master deejay’. Big Youth (Manley Augustus Buchanan) was one of the first to include Rasta chants with his militant deejay lyrics. His first recording with Keith Hudson as producer, “Ace Ninety Skank”, was a number one hit in Jamaica. It was his album Screaming Target from ’73 that caught my attention. Little did I know, people like Paul Simonon and John Lydon were also listening to that album. Shortly our own two cultures would clash.

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I went to Bob Marley’s legendary gig at the Lyceum in ’75 which was released as a live album. It was the closest I have ever got to a religious experience and the single most exciting music moment of my life. The full impact and reality of what we had heard on his records all came together in that show. It was no longer an abstract thing that you could interpret one way or another. Here was the man onstage delivering it live and direct. It gave me the confidence to be myself. Bob Marley brought the politic to the forefront of reggae with a militant Rasta rebel vibe. After the gig I followed Bob Marley in my car back to his hotel in Harrington Gardens, off Gloucester Road. I don’t know what possessed me, I marched into the hotel with all the other Rasta brethren. Everyone was sitting down and I found a little spot in the corner. Bob was holding court in his room and was smoking and ‘reasoning’ with all the Rasta elders. Finally, it was three or four in the morning and Bob had out-reasoned and out-smoked everybody. He looked around the room and saw me with my baby dreads and my pathetic little bag of smoke. I was called to the table and ‘reasoned’ with him until sunrise. A few days later I went back to get a picture of Bob with myself before he returned to Jamaica. I had a Polaroid camera and all the band and Bob were like, “Bloodclaat instant picture”. Polaroid technology had not yet reached Jamaica. Everybody wanted a picture of themselves and Bob. Ten pictures down, I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Jeannette was there and she ran out to get some more film. Sure enough, another packet of Polaroids had gone and I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Finally, with the third packet of Polaroids I got my picture.

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A year or so later, when Bob Marley was staying in Oakley Street off the King’s Road after he had been shot in Jamaica, I went round to his house to collect some money he owed me wearing my bondage trousers. He was to all intents and purposes in exile over here and we ended up having an argument about punk. On seeing my bondage trousers, he exclaimed, “What ya deal wid Don Letts dem nasty punk rockers, yu look like a bloodclaat mountaineer!” To which I replied, “Dem crazy baldheads are my mates Bob”—or words to that effect and took my leave. But y'know I always figured I got the last say because when Bob became more familiar with the real deal (as opposed to the Daily Mirror version of punk) during his UK stay, he was inspired to write and record the tune “Punky Reggae Party” a few months later.

You can read all posts by Don Letts HERE

Be Part of a Fred Perry Documentary

2012 will mark 60 years of the Fred Perry brand, and to celebrate we've teamed up with multi-award winning film and documentary maker Don Letts to track the unique relationship we've developed with British Street Style and Subcultures. Don has been at the forefront of British street style for decades; notorious in the late 70s for running Acme Attractions clothing shop and introducing punks to reggae through his sets at The Roxy. More recently Don has reformed with former group Big Audio Dynamite, playing both Glastonbury and Lollapalooza festivals to rave reviews.

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Don has been commissioned to produce six short films; and following the incredible success of our Tell Us Your Story campaign we're inviting our followers to submit any unique video footage from the year 1952 onwards. We're looking for footage that captures an original British Subculture - which could include Mods, Original Skinheads, Suedeheads, Soul Boys, Punk, New Wave, Ska, Perry Boys/Casuals, Britpop, Indie and Electroclash etc. Every entrant will have the chance to win £5,000 plus VIP tickets to the premiere of the six films in London next year.

For more details on how to submit your footage along with terms and conditions, please click HERE.