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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 14

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.

Don Letts Carnival 1

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.

Don Letts Carnival 2

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.

Don Letts Carnival 3

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

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 13

Malice in Ganja Land

By January 1978 the Sex Pistols had split up and John decided to go to Jamaica to help Richard Branson set up the Front Line reggae label for Virgin Records. It was also a way for him to escape the media frenzy around the bands demise.  So in February I get a phone call from John asking me if I’d like to go to Jamaica. He’s figures I’m black and a mate so I must know what’s what. Truth is I’d never been to Jamaica in my life, the closest I’d been was seeing The Harder They Come in my local cinema. Never-the-less I turned up at John’s house with my passport, a plastic bag and one pair of underpants. When we checked into the Sheraton Hotel we found out that Branson had booked the whole floor. Over the next two weeks it was like exodus movement of musicians, everybody who was anybody came by to try to get a deal with the exception of Bob Marley (R.I.P), Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh (R.I.P) and Burning Spear. Many an afternoon was spent pool-side hanging out with the likes of Prince Far I (R.I.P), I-Roy (R.I.P), The Gladiators, U-Roy, Big Youth and the Abyssinians to name a few. All the mystical names that John and I had admired for years were now blagging food and drinks from us.

Don Letts John Lydon

Punk had no impact in Jamaica other than the odd article in The Gleaner about a strange English phenomenon. But that didn’t stop anyone being more than appreciative of “the whiteman who sell ’nuff record, gold disc an’ ’ting”. One afternoon we ended up with Lee Perry in his studio where the assembled reggae artists had been hired to do reggae versions of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Holiday in the Sun”. I can remember sitting in the smoke-filled control room listening to the cheesy reggae versions that Scratch’s bunch of hired session men were banging out. Since the project was money-led it wasn’t so much Dread at the Control, more like Bread at the Control. It was on this same trip that I made the most embarrassing comment of my life. John and myself found ourselves around Joni Mitchell’s house in Jamaica –don’t ask! We’re partaking in the local produce, as one does, when I burst out with, “What is this shit we’re listening to? Take it off!” Joni calmly replies, “It’s my new album, actually.” Back-pedaling furiously (coolly disguised by the perennial shades) I foolishly reply, “Well it’s not ‘Carrie’.” Pathetic—but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a better comeback.

Don Letts & Joni Mitchell

Hanging with Joni

John did not want to go back to London with a suntan, so he walked around in Jamaica’s summer heat dressed in heavy black motorbike boots, black hat and heavy black woolen overcoat. He looked like Lee Van Cleef. One day Tappa Zukie took me and John to Rema, the heaviest part of Kingston—they used to call it “Jungle” and it was a no-go area for the police. I was thinking, “What is the big deal, where are all the guns?” This guy said, “yu want see a gun?” and reached into his back pocket and whipped out this massive gun. Suddenly there were loads of guns waving in the air. Me and John were shitting ourselves. Three days later, the guy that had drawn the first gun was dead. As gun crime was so prevalent in Jamaica back then, Prime minister Michael Manley had this place built called Gun Court which was essentially a big fortress; a Stalag-type place. If you were caught with a gun or even a bullet, you were sent to Gun Court for indefinite detention. He had the building painted red, because he thought “red is dread” inspired by the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter where he has the town painted red. Jamaica was a country into Westerns like no other, and consequently there were recording artists called Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Dirty Harry. Jamaicans loved Westerns and Kung Fu—there was even an artist called Bruce Lee! There was a period when the gun thing got so out of hand, the rude boys would shoot at the screens in cinemas when certain movies were showing. The solution? They put up concrete screens.

Don Chapter 13 3

For me that trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life; reggae had got me into the punks and the punks got me closer to the reggae acts. Consequently, I became very friendly with Prince Far I, Tappa Zukie, I-Roy U-Roy and Big Youth. But the whole trip was a bit of an eye-opener for Virgin Records who went to Jamaica thinking that they would be dealing with clean-cut artists like the soul boys from America. Musicians like Prince Far-I and Keith Hudson (R.I.P) could be very scary if you caught them on a bad day and they definitely had a different way of settling business. Now I’d played Prince Far-I’s album ‘Under Heavy Manners’ at the Roxy. His voice sounded like he gargled with bleach, which sounded great on record, but him merely saying, “Good morning,” in a heavy Jamaican dialect to the staff at the record company could really sound intimidating. Prince Far I eventually fell out with Branson and would later release a track on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label called “Virgin” which included the words “Branson is a pickle with no place on my plate”. Talk about culture differences!

Just before we were due to return to the UK we decided to experience a sound-system in the Jamaican countryside. U-Roy took us out with his “Stur-Gav” sound system, a gargantuan mobile disco Jamaican-style, piled onto the back of two massive trucks. The numerous sound boys were hanging onto the equipment for dear life, because they all knew you could ‘drop a bwoy but yu can’t drop a box’. We finally reached our destination after weaving our way through some truly glorious countryside, where John and I decided to burn some herb while the sound system was being strung up. The next thing I remember is John and I being woken up and somebody saying, “We’re ready.” “Ready for what?” I mumbled. “Dance done,” was the reply. John and I had smoked and crashed out where we we’d been sitting, and that was six hours earlier!

Read all guest posts by Don Letts HERE

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 11

Typical Girls

In Spring 1977, John Krevine and Steph Raynor decided to close Acme Attractions and leave the basement that had become a hive of cultural exchange. They started a shop called Boy, which was located halfway between Sloane Square and World’s End on the King’s Road. Boy sold T-shirts with mock-up death images of Gary Gilmore on them and jewellery made from hypodermic syringes. On the walls were framed newspaper pages with the headline ‘Boy’ on each page. Krevine told the Evening News that the clothes were about “survival in London in 1977”.

After the Grundy TV interview with the Pistols, the whole country thought they knew about punk and it heralded the start of the tabloid punk movement. I ran Boy with Jeannette and when the shop first opened John and Steph decided to generate some controversy with a window display that had forensic sculptures of a burnt foot and hand made by artist Peter Christopherson. Two nurses swore blind that the body parts were real and called the police. I was taken to court and charged under some Napoleonic law about exhibiting war wounds for financial gain. I was prosecuted for indecent exhibition—which made me sound like a flasher!

Don Slits 1

As Boy opened, punk had reached its peak—there were even tabloid-fuelled Teddy Boy versus Punk battles on the King’s Road. We were right in the middle of the King’s Road and the fights would be happening from Sloane Square, past Boy, all the way up to World’s End where Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop was. The Teds were forty and fifty year-old geezers who arrived with their ten year-old kids dressed up in drape jackets. Many a time I saw a bunch of Teds chasing a lone punk and I would run out of the shop cussing heavily in Jamaican to deflate the situation. But at the same time if I saw a Ted being chased by a load of punks, I’d do the same thing.

I got fed up working at Boy, so I went off to try and manage The Slits, try being the operative word. The crucial four were Ari Up (who was just 15 at the time), Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollit and Palmolive.  I remember seeing them play one of their first gigs at the Roxy Harlesden (not to be confused with the legendary Roxy Club in Covent Garden). They were on the bill with Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and The Clash: a punk line-up made in heaven. The Slits sound erupted as a stumbling rhythm packed with maximum energy and determination: Palmolive destroying the drums, Tessa’s heavyweight bass with Viv’s choppy guitar chords delivered like broken glass; on top of this raucous rhythm was Ari’s signature screeching vocal style.

Don Slits 2

They were rough, rugged and they rocked. These girls came with an attitude unlike anything I’d ever seen before, male or female! They soon gained a reputation for being unpredictable, chaotic and downright scary. But what intimidated the A&R men, inspired and empowered legions of young girls up and down the country who were fed up with the options open to them at that time. The Clash were impressed enough to take them on the White Riot tour (Mick Jones would have to tune their guitars for them!). It was at this point I realised that I was trying to manage the unmanageable. Bands fighting each other was one thing (and not unheard of) but The Slits would be fighting on stage, off stage, and all points in between. The thing about The Slits was they were The Slits twenty-four seven, not just while they were on stage performing. It wasn’t an act. I remember trying to check the girls into a hotel one time, but before I’d even signed them in, we were being thrown out. Ari had decided to start wrecking the joint while we were still in reception. Such was the chaos that was the Slits.

But it wasn’t all outrage and chaos; these girls were breaking new ground without really trying. Musically, lyrically, stylistically everything was different. They were the last of the first wave of punk bands to get signed such was their reputation. Their debut album ‘Cut’ was produced by the dub master himself Dennis Bovell (Matumbi/Janet Kay). Its sleeve featured the girls naked and covered in mud and the music inside was a sonic delight. Bored by what punk had become, The Slits were one of the first bands to embrace reggae and later African rhythms. It was their love of reggae in particular that brought us together as friends. When we went to reggae clubs every eye in the house would be focused on Ari who’d be whipping up a storm on the dance-floor.

Don Slits 3

By the late seventies, punk had become trapped by its own definition and post-punk bands like the Pop Group and PiL were actually far more liberating than what punk had become—a shambles of safety pins and bin-liner bands. As for The Slits, a new deal with CBS produced the Return of the Giant Slits album in 1981 and not long after, they announced their final gig at the Hammersmith Palais.

When I first met Ari she was fifteen, feisty and confrontational and she remained that way her whole life. The last time I saw her was at Metropolis Studios in West London and James Brown happened to be recording there. We went to the canteen to get some food and it had all gone. James Brown and his crew had eaten it all. Arianna went straight up to James Brown and said, “Oi you, you have eaten all my bloodclaat food.” James just grunted, turned and looked at her somewhat surprised.

Sadly on October 20th 2010 Ari Up passed away and although never commercially successful, through sheer emotion and desire, The Slits created some great music and remain one of the most significant female punk-rock bands of the late 1970s. Madonna bow down, Courtney Love step back and as for Spice Girls—don’t make me laugh. Whatever you think they’ve done, The Slits did it before…

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE