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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 17

Clash City Rockers - Part 1

Out of The Clash guys, I got to know Paul Simonon first through our mutual love of reggae. We’d swap mix tapes, which was our way of communicating and serious currency back in the day. I had tapes of Mikey Dread’s late night radio show in Jamaica called Dread at the Controls, which I lent to Paul. The show played reggae exclusively and whenever it was on in Jamaica the crime rate went down! Mikey’s knowledge, approach and experience of making reggae music was invaluable to the Clash during the Sandinista sessions, and the end results of his contributions were stunning, with tracks like “Bankrobber” and “One More Time”. People make quite a big deal out of the punky/reggae connection, but what were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones listening to? It was black music. It’s just that to the uninitiated it wasn’t that obvious within their music, but with the Clash it was right up front. It was in their lyrics, in their bass-lines and their subject matter. Not only did the Clash cover Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time”, Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, they name checked Prince Far-I on “Clash City Rockers”, Dr Alimantado on “Rudy Can’t Fail”, the Abyssinians “Sattamassaganna” on “Jimmy Jazz” and Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson on “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”. It made me immensely proud that my culture was being represented by these guys instead of being lost within self-interpretation. With the Clash it was not white reggae; it was punk and reggae. Their songs brought some of their culture to my culture. Reggae spoke in a language the punks could identify with. It was the anti-fashion fashion, the rebel stance, and importantly the fact that reggae was a kind of musical reportage, talking about things that mattered. Songs like “Money in My Pocket”, “I Need a Roof” and “Chant Down Babylon” struck an obvious chord with “the youth”.

Don Letts Chapter 17 1

I think one of the advantages that I had when I started making the music videos was that none of the bands that I worked with had aspirations of becoming actors or film-makers, of which the Clash were the best example. They just made music and let me get on with my job as filmmaker. They were obviously aware of my work with The Punk Rock Movie and the PiL video and chose me to be the man for their debut single ‘London Calling’. Now the punk look was supposed to be about individuality but after the Bill Grundy episode with the Pistols it soon became a uniform. The Clash were smart enough to see it was painting them into a corner. Punk was supposed to be about freedom and liberation, and all of a sudden you had the ‘punk police’ saying, “you can’t wear this, you can’t do that, you should sound like this.” The sound of ‘London Calling’ was the first real challenge to those punk shackles, throwing soul, reggae and rockabilly into the equation. It was cool seeing them break out of the restrictions that punk had very quickly developed. The Clash had also changed their look to an East End gangster style. They were always image-conscious rather than fashion conscious.

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                                                                    Mikey Dread, R.I.P

For “London Calling” I decided to shoot the video on a pier in Battersea on the River Thames in the afternoon and wanted cameras on a boat to get the right angles. Now I didn’t know anything about tides and when we got there to set up it was out and the cameras were fifteen feet too low. Then there was the current. After setting each shot up we found that we were moving further and further away from the pier. By the time we had sorted out all these problems, it started to piss down with rain and it was nighttime. After about three takes I just wanted to get out of there. I am now told that the “London Calling” video is a classic. It was a textbook punk situation, turning your problems into assets. Around this time the Clash had decided against playing large venues and were due to play at the Lewisham Odeon in South East London. I took the opportunity to shoot the “Bankrobber” video in the afternoon before the gig. Prompted by the title I decided to quickly get some shots of Johnny Green and Topper’s drum roadie Baker running out of a bank on Lewisham High Street with bags of money dressed as villains. This was intercut with the Clash playing “Bankrobber” live at the Odeon with Mikey Dread at the controls. As I was filming the last shots of Baker and Green running to the back door of the Odeon, two police cars came round the corner with their sirens blazing. Armed police jumped out and had Baker, Green and myself pinned against the wall. Johnny Green told them that we were art students working on a project. For the “Call Up”, a song about dodging the draft, we originally wanted to shoot the video in a cemetery but the local council refused permission and at the very last minute we ended up shooting at former sixties pop star Chris Farlowe’s warehouse—which was full of military memorabilia and equipment as he was a renowned collector. The song was about registration for the draft in America—a subject dear to Mick Jones since he had attended a draft demonstration in New York. The setting for the video shoot was just perfect—another example of turning problems into assets.

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In the aftermath of the initial punk explosion it looked like the major record companies had regained control and were having it all their own way. The Pistols had imploded, the Clash had finally signed to CBS after months of negotiations and I had reinvented myself as a filmmaker. So it was a period of death and re-birth for all, and everyone looked to the Clash to take things to another level.

Part two of 'Clash City Rockers' will be available to read soon. 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 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 12

The Punk Rock Movie

It has been said that when people saw the Pistols or the Clash play, half of them formed a band the next day, which is partially true. But many people, myself included, left those gigs and took the inspiration and the attitude to inform whatever we did, or were going to do. Inspired by this ethic, a lot of people did pick up guitars and the stage soon became full. I wanted to pick up something too, so I picked up a Super-8 camera. I’d always wanted to express myself visually after seeing The Harder They Come in the early seventies but could never see a way forward- until punk came along.

Soon I began filming the punks for practice and while filming the Clash playing at Harlesden, a journalist must have seen me. The following week I read in the NME that Don Letts is making a film about punk rock and I thought: “that’s a good idea, I’ll call it a film.” Before long people were asking me when it was going to come out!

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Straight away I began documenting all the events I thought were either interesting or ridiculous. I approached the movie in the same way that punk rock had evolved, saying, “Screw the rest of you, I am doing this the way I want to.” I was in the right place at the right time, and looking back, I had a knack for filming what was important, rather than tabloid punks trying to grab some screen time.

The whole thing had a life of its own—even the title—it became 'The Punk Rock Movie' because that’s what everybody was calling it. After the shows at the Roxy, Chrissie Hynde, some of the Slits, the Clash, Generation X and the Pistols would hang out in Forest Hill, often all at the same time. One reason was that they did not want the night to stop; they also wanted to check their moves on stage and get their shit together. With Super-8 film you only had three-minute cassettes, so it was really fortunate for me that the punk bands seemed to cram everything into about 2½ minutes. As the Roxy crowd knew and trusted me, I managed to film what the TV cameras couldn’t get; the real background, the real truth. Every time someone announced that London Weekend Television were coming down to film, all the guys that were really important stayed away. The other kids stuck on some more safety pins and some more make-up and jumped around in front of the cameras—so it was a really distorted view of the whole thing. Journalists like Vivienne Goldman, Tony Parsons, Caroline Coon, Janet Street Porter and John Ingham were really influential in helping to break the punk rock movement—and they were also massive reggae fans. Richard Williams of Time Out did a big write up on The Punk Rock Movie and put me on the cover.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London then caught wind of the Time Out article and asked to show my film. The Punk Rock Movie ended up running at the ICA for six weeks breaking all box office records. As I was using Super 8, there were no negatives, so I was showing the original in the cinema. It did not have any titles, it was just the raw film stuck together, a bit like the Fred Flintstone school of film-making. On any given night, the film would break or the bulb would blow. On several occasions I had to say, “Hold on everybody” and run up to Piccadilly to get a new bulb for the projector to start running the film again.

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Eventually the film was blown up to 35mm and titles were added. I cringe when I see it now, as the techniques for blowing up film in those days were pretty primitive. The end result blew it out of the context of punk rock. I filmed the Sex Pistols at Screen on the Green and The Clash on their White Riot Tour. The film also included Johnny Thunders, X Ray Spex, Generation X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, Jayne County and Shane MacGowan pogoing in his Union Jack jacket. There is no narrative, just pure punk mayhem. There was always plenty to shoot at the Roxy; characters like Johnny Moped who looked like an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Buzzcocks, The Adverts who featured the female bass player Gaye Advert, dressed in black leather she was easy on the eyes. There’s also footage of Eater (who had a twelve year-old drummer called Dee Generate) the night they decided to bring a pig’s head on stage and proceed to hack it to pieces. Kids eh!

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I remember I had to get Sid Vicious to sign a form to give me permission to use footage of him in the film. Sid arrived with Nancy, and as usual they were pretty much out of it. He had a huge knife that he was prodding Nancy with. I told him to “chill with it” as someone was going to get hurt. Anyway, he signed the form and they left. Two weeks later, Nancy was dead.

Later on, when Malcolm released 'The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle' he slapped an injunction on me preventing showing The Punk Rock Movie. Strangely I was not that bothered, because looking back I have never liked The Punk Rock Movie that much, as I could see how rough it was compared to the vision of what I felt I could do. Malcolm did me a kind of favour as I no longer had to show a film that technically made me cringe. It also gave the film a cult status. It’s a bit like when I finally got to see the Stones’ cult film 'Cocksucker Blues' that never got released. Sometimes the myth is better than the reality.

Click HERE for all guest blog posts by Don Letts.