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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

Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 2

Last week we introduced the multi-talented Don Letts as Guest Blogger on the site. Don has been joining the counter-cultural dots for decades and will be sharing extracts from his book Culture Clash over the next few months. In Part 1, Don set set the scene by introducing to his parents and a Funky London Childhood. In Part 2, Don introduces us to his brothers Derrick, Desmond and Norman and their lives growing up in 60s London.

What's Happening Brother?

I really don’t remember much about my eldest brother Derrick as he was from a previous relationship on my father’s side. If my memory serves me well, he came over from Jamaica not long after my parents settled. He was already into his troublesome teens and the inevitable generation clash occurred. Since we were considerably younger there was little interaction between Derrick and the rest of us. This situation was further polarised by the ‘isms’ and ‘schism’s’ of being a black teenager in an alien culture. All I remember about Derrick was the grief he got from our parents as he went through a kind of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll rights-of-passage—or at least the sixties black equivalent. He was the first one to introduce me to the concept of “style”; part of his ‘rebellion’ was his adoption of the fashion statements of the time; mohair suits, white roll-necks, dark glasses, all backed by an Otis Redding soundtrack. I guess he was a kind of black mod as he looked like one of the few black guys you’ see in the audience whilst watching Ready Steady Go. It wasn’t long before he became a regular at the Ram Jam club on Brixton Road. It was the place to be, Geno Washington and the Ram-Jam Band was the resident entertainment. Derrick also introduced me to the delights of international cuisine. To a working-class kid chow mien from the local Chinese take-away was pure exotica back then.

Derrick 1

Derrick

Now Derrick hung out with the other local teenagers many of whom were white mods all of whom looked equally undesirable to the prudish Jamaican parents who were careful to tow the line in their new homeland. My parents had framed pictures of the Queen in our living room for Christ sake. My generation was better educated and had a more worldly view, and there was no way we could follow them down that path. We thought, “Hang on, we have got f*ck all to be grateful for.” Perhaps they were a little envious of a new black British generation who were trying to find their own place in the world and create their own reality. Consequently late-night shouting matches with Derrick about clubbing, or about the ‘type’ of girls he was hanging with were the first signs. Locking him out when he missed a curfew soon led to, “If you think you’re a man now you can find somewhere else to live”. At eighteen years of age Derrick did. My father used that line two more times in his life.

Me And Des

Me & Des

Desmond—now there’s a character. He was from a previous relationship on my mother’s side and like Derrick he too was brought to the promised land to suffer a very similar fate. But since Desmond was much closer in age to Norman, and me we consequently spent more time together as he was frequently put in charge of ‘looking after us’. He soon worked out how to turn this burden into an advantage.  For example he’d take Norman and me to the local comic shop to liberate the latest DC comics, and guess who carried the bags? When Desmond was about fourteen he got into some trouble for shoplifting with some friends in the West End. Since they were all juveniles, the police let them off with a scolding. My parents were so incensed by the fact that Desmond had caused the unbearable shame of the police knocking on our front door—and in front of the neighbours too - that she told the police she didn’t want him back. Desmond was shipped off to a home and my parents didn’t speak to him for about five years. However before he was exiled he had plenty of time to abuse and use us two ‘stooges’ with a charm that was to serve him well in later years.

Norman The Tree House Without A Tree

Norman and the House without a Tree

 He used to lock Norman and me in a cupboard when we pissed him off. Since he was the oldest and had to look after us while my parents worked Norman and I spent a lot of time in that cupboard. In those days us boys all shared one room, the toilet was outdoors and seemed miles away, especially in the winter. To relieve ourselves, we had a communal piss-pot, which became dangerously full by morning. Since Norman and I were the smallest, the deadly task of emptying the chamber pot was left to the more responsible Derrick and Desmond. The task was bad enough when Derrick was around (more people, more piss), but since he’d gone it was Des’s duty to negotiate the two flights of stairs each morning. It was only a matter of time. It was the loose carpet on the stairs. I doubt Desmond will ever forget being drenched in urine that had been left to brew overnight.  We had no indoor bath so in summer Norman and I would wash in an old zinc bath in the garden. This was a source of great entertainment to the ‘Greeks’ ugly daughters and even greater embarrassment to us. Now I come to think of it, I never saw my parents in that old zinc bath. Later on it became Desmond’s duty to escort us to the public bathhouse in Camberwell every Friday night. A peculiar place, the very thought of which makes me shudder to this day. You had to holler, “more hot in number four,” when you needed more water. Of course Des decided it was more economic if Norman and I shared. But anything was better than hearing the sniggering of the ugly Greek girls.
 

Times had changed and so had the soundtrack! Desmond’s was Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic. Des had got a job in a Carnaby Street record shop, which in those days was a gateway to a world most people could only read about. And the sign above the door read: SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK’N’ROLL in great big letters. Des had a foot in the door, and I was his brother.

Tune in for Chapter 3 'Old School' in the first week of March. Don is currently working on a unique documentary film celebrating 60 years of subculture. To find out how your footage could feature, read more HERE