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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.

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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

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 9

Dread Meets 
Punk Rockers    

By 1976 the writing was on the wall. John Lydon and the other guys had taken a big swipe at the pompous stadium bands with their twenty-minute solos. A typical “event” was Rick Wakeman with his The Myths and Legends of King Arthur extravaganza at Wembley Arena—which was as far removed from reality as you could get. My white mates were totally disillusioned with this soundtrack. ELO, ELP and Rick Wakeman’s tunes said nothing about working class youth trying to survive in mid-seventies Britain. The popular music of the time no longer spoke for the people—well, none of my mates, anyway. We didn’t know where California was, never mind being able to check into a goddamn hotel. The British establishment had managed to alienate its own white youth; politically, musically, artistically and in just about every other way possible. As a first-generation British-born black of Jamaican descent, I was already well pissed off, so it was inevitable that we shared a sense of disillusionment. A lot has been made of the interaction between the punk and reggae scenes of the late 1970s. Popular music of the previous twenty years had been informed by black music—the difference was that the punks weren’t being inspired by an alien culture thousands of miles away. They were being turned on by the man next door — more River Thames than Mississippi Delta.

Sid Jeanette

As I was behind the counter every day at Acme with Tappa Zukie’s MPLA Dub booming out of the speakers, I started to notice the same white faces coming down to the basement. These guys were checking me out and I was checking them out. It was like some kind of macho stand off, like in a Peckinpah Western. The guys were John Lydon, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer. Initially we said nothing to each other and just observed. It was Jeannette that got to know them at first, and I was pretty pissed off as I did not want anyone to steal my thunder — or my girlfriend. Maybe, if it had not been for Jeannette, I would have stayed like that. Eventually everyone dropped their guard and we started talking about reggae and dub music whilst sharing a spliff in the basement. I quickly became friendly with Strummer and Simonon, but John Lydon caught my imagination in particular. John had an aura that attracted people to him, which I believe stemmed from the fact that he was very self-aware. Joe Strummer was smart too. Joe and John were the brains behind what was emerging. These guys were already into reggae and were seriously interested in the stuff I was pumping out. They were familiar with tracks like “Liquidator” and “The Return of Django”. Paul Simonon had grown up in Brixton and Notting Hill and was well informed about Jamaican culture and the music.

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I was coming in with King Tubby and Lee Perry’s heavy dub. I was also playing things like Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub, a set of records called African Dub Chapters 1,2 and 3, the Big Youth album Dreadlocks Dread and Tappa Zukie’s Man Ah Warrior album. King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown by Augustus Pablo was my theme tune. Lydon and the Clash guys liked the music that I was playing in the shop and we realised that we had a shared interest. They dug the bass lines, the rebel stance and the musical reportage aspect of the lyrics. In other words the tunes were about subjects and themes they could relate to. It has to be said they didn’t mind the weed either. Because of the position I was in at Acme, we gravitated towards each other. I can remember later hanging out with John Lydon after the Pistols’ gig at the Nashville. We went back to my house in Forest Hill and spent the whole night talking about reggae music and Jamaican culture. We also used to hang out at the Roebuck in Chelsea, which became the punk rock pub, so to speak. We also used to go to a restaurant called Up All Night on the Fulham Road after we’d been to the Roxy. Sid used to tag along with us. We’d be eating our food and he would be annoying the other customers by burping in their faces or trying to fart on them. Sid used to do things that would draw attention to him. It was sad to see him take on the Vicious person.

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Now I was the man when it came to compilation tapes. In those days they were cultural currency. People like Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, John Lydon, the Clash and the Slits would take them out on the road with them. Patti walked in to Acme one day with Lenny. They had found out I knew Tappa Zukie and they were crazy about his album Man Ah Warrior. Patti expressed an interest in meeting Tappa and invited us all to her sold out gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. So we’re standing in the wings watching the show when Patti pulls me on stage and hands me her guitar. We’re live in front of 3,000 people. I had never been on stage in my life and could not play guitar—worries! I decided to front it out and pretended to play. Dark glasses hid my terror. Tappa and Jeannette are laughing their heads off in the wing, so I grab Tappa and pull him onstage swiftly handing him the guitar! Breathing a sigh of relief I try and exit stage left, just as Patti decides to hand me her mike, BLOODCLAAT!!! She grabs another guitar and lies down on the floor at my feet. I break into my heaviest Jamaican accent so that no one could hear that I didn’t know what I was babbling about. Needless to say there was ’nuff “cramp and paralyze them and those who worship Babylon” type stuff to cover the bluff. I look to my right, Tappa is rocking pretending to play guitar, I look to my feet, Patti is writhing on the floor, I look at the audience and they’re loving it. Jah Rastafari!

Read all posts by Don Letts HERE.

Don has been working on a series of short films exploring 60 years of British subcultures and the music, styles and attitudes that surround them. The films will be shown on Channel 4 once a week from Thursday 31st May, at 12:30am (half past midnight). For more information, visit the Channel 4 website HERE