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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

DON LETTS - CULTURE CLASH, CHAPTER 10

One Hundred Nights at The Roxy

The Roxy Club was started by Andrew Czezowski as a direct response to an emerging scene that already had a new soundtrack and a new attitude, but no place to play. Andrew was aware of the buzz created by the music I was playing in the shop, so he asked me to DJ there on a regular basis, and I hesitantly took the job. It meant I was perfectly placed to witness the most exciting and inspiring period of my life. There were no UK punk records to play as none had been made yet. So in between the fast and furious punk sets I played some serious dub reggae, although I did spin some MC5, Stooges, Ramones and New York Dolls. Most of the upcoming punk bands owned the first two Dolls’ albums and many actually learned to play by listening to the Ramones’ debut album. Speed was usually the drug of choice whilst listening to the Detroit garage bands, but once that heavy bass dropped on a Prince Far I track like “Under Heavy Manners”, spliffs were definitely the order of the day. There was only one deck working at the Roxy, and I never played requests. The Roxy opened in what had been an old gay club called Chagaramas in Covent Garden. It had a small upstairs reception room with a bar, and downstairs was a stage and dance-floor surrounded by bench seats and mirrored walls. It completed the third essential ingredient of any serious musical movement; the bands, a set of characters and an HQ or a base where these elements could feed off each other. I went back to Forest Hill and when I told my brethren I’d got the gig DJ’ing at the Roxy they burst out laughing. I mentioned Andrew was looking for staff, and they basically told me to take a hike. But eventually I got them to come down to the Roxy, and they saw an untapped herb market and the girls. A week later all my Rasta mates from Forest Hill were working at the Roxy.

                

The punks couldn’t roll their own spliffs, so the guys swiftly decided to sell ready-rolled ones behind the bar. I can remember Shane McGowan coming up and saying, “Give me a spliff and two beers please,” and after a moment’s hesitation, “No make that two spliffs and one beer!” There was some serious cultural exchange going on in the Roxy. I played my dub reggae sounds in between sets by The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Slits and Generation X and to name just a few. And for a brief moment in time there was indeed a punky reggae party. Inspired by the punk DIY ethic (and seeing the Pistols), punk bands started springing up all over the UK and the Roxy was where many got their first break. All the hardcore dub stuff I was playing was the antithesis of punk, which was speedy. I came to realise that it was really a welcome break having these dub interludes between the punk bands cause it has to be said that 70% of them were shit, real rubbish in amongst moments of genius. Of course this was around the time that the ‘pogo’ phenomenon erupted on the dance floor (some say courtesy of Sid Vicious) along with that other strange punk habit: ‘gobbing’—basically the audience spitting at the bands while they performed. I have to stress that during ‘our’ period at the Roxy, nobody gobbed at anybody. Partially because the scene hadn’t deteriorated into the post-Grundy tabloid-punk circus it became, but mostly because of Big Joe (one of my Rasta bredrin), who was effectively a bouncer who stood in front of the stage while the bands performed.

                       

The Clash played at the Roxy on January 1st 1977. I couldn’t understand a word they were singing, but the energy was like being hit over the head with a plank. You couldn’t just be a fan, you wanted to be part of it, you wanted to get involved. Watching the Clash or the Pistols on stage was like somebody dropping a match into a box of fireworks. I already had Bob Marley, dub and roots reggae, and added the Clash and the Sex Pistols—it was like having lightning in one hand and thunder in the other. Even though I had my own anti-establishment thing going with reggae, seeing the Pistols and the Clash live for the first time was a cultural year l zero. I was lucky enough to see The Pistols play live at Brunel University, the Nashville and at the Screen on the Green, which I filmed and formed part of what would later become The Punk Rock Movie. Sometimes after the Roxy finished I take John Lydon, Joe Strummer or Arianna from the Slits to the Four Aces reggae club in Dalston. It was the heaviest reggae club in the country and Lydon, Strummer and Arianna would be the only white faces in the dance. They got a lot of respect, mainly because they had the balls to walk in the club in the first place.

                       

One time I took Joe to the Hammersmith Palais, a night that would inspire him to write “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”. He had gone down there to see this roots rockers ghetto kind of show, not realising that the brothers back home were not reveling in a ghetto lifestyle. The ghetto is something that you get out of, not into, and Joe had a romanticised idea of what ghetto life was about. So what Joe describes in the song was getting something quite glam and glitzy and being taken by that. The Clash and Johnny Rotten understood and aligned themselves with reggae’s revolutionary stance and ruthless hate of the establishment. All this energy came out in such a short space of time. During the days I’d be working at Acme, before leaving for my evening stint at the Roxy. In between spinning my tunes I’d watch the bands I liked, or laugh at the ones I didn’t. The original Roxy only lasted for 100 days and during that period it was like going on tour without moving such was the turnover of live acts on a nightly basis. At the end of March 1977 the landlords ousted Andy with a view to taking the club over so my bredrin and me’ walked as a show of solidarity.

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE