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Don Letts Q&A: English Filmmaker/DJ/Legend on New Memoir, His Journey and Distinctive Worldview, the Clash and Beyond
Don Letts was at the epicenter of the punk rock explosion in late-1970s London, as the manager of the King’s Road shop Acme Attraction and as a DJ at the famed Roxy club. It was there where he turned the future members of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Pogues and others onto reggae and ska, and if those days were all his new memoir, Don Letts: There and Black Again, was about, it would be an absolutely cracking read.
But along a path in a life that, as Letts writes, tracks the rise of rock and roll, he sees The Who rehearsing Who’s Next, becomes Bob Marley’s London weed dealer, travels the world as part of the Clash’s entourage, filming them along the way, joins former-Clash guitarist Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite, helps define the MTV-era as one of the premiere music video makers of the period, an winds up one the most revered filmmakers chronicling the music of the late-20th century in the world.
Letts recalled it all — and so much more — in a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation about his life, career and distinctive worldview.
Rock Cellar: There’s a real Zelig quality to the way your life crashed into so many seminal pop culture moments of the late-20th Century. Bob Marley, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Paul McCartney and even Federico Fellini all pop along the way. It’s an amazing journey. For readers who don’t know you well — or may know you in only one of your many guises: DJ, filmmaker, member of Big Audio Dynamite — let’s start with your origin story and how you ended up in the London punk scene, as a DJ playing reggae at the Roxy.
Don Letts: Oh, man. All right, let me try. I think, ultimately, it was about taste. Luckily, I’ve got some. [Laughter] But seriously, at 14 years old, I was lucky enough to see the Who play a secret gig — it was a pre-production show for the Who’s Next album — in 1971. I was a schoolkid. It was the first live show I’d ever seen, and it blew my mind. It opened a door to this world that I knew I wanted to be part of, though I didn’t necessarily want to be in a band. I just wanted a part of whatever I saw that I could hear and that was unfolding visually in front of my eyes. You’ve got to understand, I’m as old as rock and roll. I’m a child of the vinyl generation.
I grew up at a time when, in the UK, music and style was all we had. So, we put those two things together and we made them into an art form. And then, obviously, I’m of Jamaican descent, so the whole style thing was integral to my identity.
Rock Cellar: Talk a little bit about that, because besides being a Beatles obsessive was your record collection up to that Who show pretty much Trojan Records and ska? Or were you more into pop music?
Don Letts: I’ll tell you what: My taste reflected the duality of my existence, which was Black and British. Because I’m listening to the stuff of my parents in one ear — and I’m talking about Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster, and U-Roy and things like that — and in the other ear, I’m listening to the sounds my white mates are digging, like the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and so on and so forth.
Because in 1968, when I was 12 years old, the world was exploding musically. On top of all that, the sounds coming from Jamaica were starting to percolate, because reggae was just starting to emerge. So, I was bombarded with these explosions of sound, and for a lot of the brothers, they were like, “Okay, I’m Black, I’m going with this.” But for me, I was like, “Yo, I’m digging that Led Zeppelin riff. I’m not going to deny it.” And I think that openness has informed my culture clash of a journey, because I’ve always been open to all the world has to offer.
Especially if it’s got a good bass line. [Laughter]
Rock Cellar: One of the things that I picked out from the book was — and that I related to — was that you never presented yourself a fan. You tried to be a part of whatever you were engaging in. You weren’t intimidated by talking to famous people.
Don Letts: Well, you know, that was something I learned along the way. But don’t get it twisted, because pretty early on I was a huge Beatles fan. So much so that, at one point in my life, I had acquired a ridiculous collection of Beatles memorabilia. So, I went through that, but quickly, like you say, it became something else. Because I remember being at a Marvin Gaye concert when I was 15 or 16, digging the dude, because I’m a big Marvin fan. But I’m thinking, “Okay, what is my role in this dynamic? Is it to be in this chair and give this dude my energy? What can I bring to the table?” But that thought never manifested itself into any kind of reality until the whole punk thing happened, with that whole DIY approach of do it yourself. Although, actually rewinding, I did blag my way into Bob Marley’s room after his 1975 London concert. So, put it this way: I wasn’t backwards in coming forwards, put it that way.
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Rock Cellar: And ended up selling him weed while he was in London, so there you go. That doesn’t happen to every kid. I think that comes from your creative nature, or your sense of self. Or maybe did that come from being an insider/outsider, that duality you were talking about?
Don Letts: No, you know where that comes from? Growing up in kind of, I’ve got to say, a racially biased society that basically was telling me I was nothing and I should be glad to be here, because my history dates back from the slavery, and that’s it. And through what was going on in ’68, with people like James Brown singing “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and the whole Black Panther thing, I’m picking up books and I’m educating myself. And I got hip to the fact that I had something to bring to the table. And between that and the rock and roll explosion and then the whole punk rock thing in the late seventies, I was tooled up, man.
I had lightning in my hands, and I was spoiling for a fight.
Rock Cellar: You sound like Muhammad Ali!
Don Letts: That’s the stuff, you got to dig it! That’s the shit I grew up on. I’m listening to Muhammad Ali, I’m reading Eldridge Cleaver and James Baldwin and it’s in the air, just like the white counterculture was happening. There was a Black one too.
Rock Cellar: And you were straddling both, which was interesting. So then we get to the punk scene, which you almost immediately become a really integral part of, even though you’re not in a band. It was a wide-open group of people, wasn’t it, in the London punk scene?
Don Letts: I think that was the beauty of it. It was this all-inclusive thing where the outsider could find like-minded people. And that kind of association, really, I’ve got to say, grew out of their interest in my culture, typified by Jamaican music, which at that time was reggae. That had become the chosen rebel soundtrack for the white working-class at the time, and for whatever reason, I was a conduit to it. Because I used to run a shop on the King’s Road Chelsea. And I used to play dub reggae down there all the time. And that drew in the likes of Johnny Rotten, as he was known then, and Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and then, later on, people like Patti Smith.
It was the music that was bringing us all together. It was by understanding our differences and not trying to be the same that we became closer.
Rock Cellar: Did you feel like sort of an ambassador, even though you were the same age?
Don Letts: No, all that stuff’s bullshit. I was just going with the flow and following my instinct and turning my white brothers on with my culture, and they were turning me on with their shit, too. They were turning me on with the whole DIY ethic, while I was giving them the bass lines and shit.
And you know, you’ve got to understand that the very creation of reggae itself is kind of Jamaican punk rock anyway. So, although the two musics are sonically miles apart, we were like-minded rebels, man.
Rock Cellar: And pretty soon, you find yourself with a camera in your hand. Talk a little bit about what drew you to filmmaking.
Don Letts: That’s easy. Because here’s the thing: In the early seventies, I’m a 15-year-old, and I see this film, The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s most famous film. And I thought, “Man, I wouldn’t mind expressing myself in that visual medium.” Because I was impressed by the way it informed, inspired, and entertained all at the same time. But for young Black men in the early seventies, that was a ridiculous idea. And then fast forward to the late seventies: punk rock explodes, and the whole DIY ethic, and I’m looking around me, and everyone’s picking up guitars, and such was the energy of punk that I wanted to pick up something too.
And so, inspired by seeing Harder They Come five years earlier, I picked up a Super 8 camera and literally reinvented myself as Don Letts the filmmaker. There was a lot of reinvention going on. I mean, that’s why people are still talking about this shit now. It wasn’t just the soundtrack. It was a complete subculture.
And, as everyone knows, the bands started to get big, and I pulled friendships with people like the Clash, John Lydon; and the first video I directed was “London Calling.”
That introduced me to the whole music video world, with me ending up doing about, I don’t know, probably about 350 videos.
Including Ratt’s “Round and Round,” people! If Americans want to connect to Don Letts, there’s the anomaly in my catalogue! [Laughter]
Rock Cellar: “London Calling” is such a seminal video for the Clash, but also a key moment in your career. You didn’t really know what you were doing, and yet, it’s this beautiful piece of filmmaking.
Don Letts: Yeah, don’t tell everybody that, Jeff. I’m joking, I’m cool with it. Because you’re right, up until that point, it was Don Letts with his little Super 8 camera, right?
So, I’m in control of my shit, because my shit was very small. Then, I get the opportunity to make this video for “London Calling,” and there was this union thing back in the day where you had to have a union crew to get the thing shown on TV. So, there I am sitting in a chair talking to, like, 12 white union guys, telling them what to do, when I really didn’t know what I was doing, to be honest.
And the idea was that the video was going to be shot in the daytime on this pier by the River Thames, and I wanted to put a camera in a boat — and this is all in the book — but basically, what was a series of disasters, in true punk rock style, really worked for me. Because by the time I got everything together, it was pissing with rain, it was nighttime, and that gave a serious production value to a piece.
Of course, the whole dynamic from that video comes from the Clash’s performance. They were like four sticks of dynamite. All you had to do was make sure the camera was in focus. They were so easy to work with, man. Plus, they looked cool, were all attitude, and they were singing about shit that meant something. So I’m so proud of that association.
Rock Cellar: So, you’re making videos, you’re doing your thing. You’ve become a proper filmmaker. You’ve even got Scorsese coming to screenings. You’re on a pretty amazing trajectory. And then the Clash split, and you end up in Big Audio Dynamite, which is, I think, a really fascinating pivot in the book.
Because you’re not a musician. You don’t really know what you’re doing. But you’re Mick’s friend, so now you’re around all these musicians and you’ve got to find your own way to express yourself.
Don Letts: Well, again, I mean, I think the whole reason that Mick got me in the band, was our friendship. Because, as you rightly point out, I can’t play shit. I still can’t play anything! I’ll always remember what I said to Mick was, “Could be a little bit of a problem.” He said, “Well, look. When Paul joined the Clash, we had to put stickers on his frets so he could learn to play the bass.” Of course, the difference between Paul Simonon and Don Letts is that when I play keyboards on the stage with Big Audio Dynamite — and we played a shit load of gigs — I never got rid of my stickers, man.
But what had happened was, because I couldn’t play anything, I had to come up with an idea to justify my space, and that’s where all that sampling and dialogue shit came in. Because while the guys are laying down their tracks, I’m watching TV in the green room trying to work out, “What the hell am I going to do?” And I come up with this idea, with Mick’s suggestion, it has to be said, of mixing bits out of cool movies and putting them in our tracks. And that became a large part of the identity of the band, though I quickly realized you don’t get paid for stealing other people’s shit.
So, then I threw myself — with Mick’s assistance, again — into lyric writing and to justify my space, and I ended up cowriting 50 percent of the shit with Mick. “E=MC2” were the first lyrics I ever wrote! So, it wasn’t just dark glasses and fancy movie quotes.
You’ve got to be able to justify your part in any equation, otherwise, you’re baggage!
Rock Cellar: But I remember seeing the band at the World in December ’85, the first time you guys were here in the States, and it felt like a band. You didn’t seem to me to not know what you were doing.
Don Letts: Hold up. Rewind that. If you got behind Mick Jones, how else could it be! I’m not being funny.
But we’re having to justify the space that belonged to Joe Strummer. We had him sitting on our shoulders. So, no, it was serious shit, man. We weren’t joking. We took that space, and when we tread the boards, to this day, you’ve got to represent, man. I believe in that tradition and that heritage.
It ain’t part of this nonsense celebrity culture that you take that shit for granted. I know that sounds stupid, but it actually meant something to me.
Rock Cellar: Let’s jump ahead a little bit, because I don’t want to cover everything in the book — I want to leave something on the table for people. Your film career is significant. You won a Grammy for Westway to the World. I know you’re revisiting it now, but talk a little bit about why you wanted to make that film, and what you were trying to say as an artistic statement, from your point of view.
Don Letts: Well, in a way, I guess, us all being of the same age, their journey reflected a large part of mine, in that we were all children of the vinyl generation. We’d all grown up with this analog attitude. And for me, it was a blueprint of a way to go. And I guess it was about passing on that energy, that sort of DIY thing that stops you from becoming just an observer and might move you to being a participant.
I think every film I’ve ever made — and I’ve made films with Gil Scott-Heron, Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Paul McCartney — half the time I think, why am I doing this? And to a large degree, I’m trying to say my own thing through these artists, or express what I want to say through what they’re doing. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be making the films.
And I actually still believe in the power of music. I’m that naïve but I think I’m living proof. I know shit sounds naïve now in a world where a lot of music’s become a soundtrack for fucking classist consumerism, but I still believe in the shit. And I travel a bit, and I know a lot of other people do too.
Rock Cellar: There’s a really significant subtext in the book. It’s right there in the title, actually. [Laughter] You write very candidly about being Black within the times that you have lived through, and the book ends up where you’re talking to your cowriter about how not that much has changed. It’s 60 years later and the things that inspired you, what the James Baldwins and Eldridge Cleavers were writing about, all of that is still happening right now.
Don Letts: Yeah, that’s why the title is important. “There and Black Again.” Because there you are in this creative bubble, you’re doing all these things, and you’re seeing things improve slightly in your immediate environment, living in London, and you can kind of forget, you know, that 50 miles outside of London, it feels like the 1960s. It’s like, America is not New York or LA. There’s that chunk in the middle.
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And it was a major wakeup call — and it wasn’t just the whole BLM thing, or George Floyd, or recent events that kind of made me come up with that title — because this shit has been bubbling for the whole of the 21st century. And I’ll tell you what, I guess I was kind of pissed that, somehow, it’s still a major part of the argument.
Because that argument, if we can’t solve that, we ain’t going to ever solve anything else, never mind the environment and the goddamn wealth crisis. Don’t get me wrong, if we can’t get along, we ain’t going nowhere. We got to work it out. That’s the bottom line. And like I say, George Floyd and all these things recently, this shit’s been bubbling away right through the whole of the 21st century.
And that’s always been at the back of my mind: One step forward and 20 steps back. If you engage with the rest of the world, and you don’t live in a bubble, and I do try very much to do that and remain grounded as a man can, and follow the news every day, just to kind of see the cards that most people in this planet are dealt, it keeps me grounded.
Rock Cellar: This book can be read for great stories from someone who was at the epicenter of a lot of really important moments in pop culture over the past 50 years, of course, but when I got to the end, and you’re talking about BLM bringing down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, and how Black culture predated anything the people who hold up white culture as the paragon, and how it will live on, no matter what, I realized the book can be read on a whole other level. Because you had a front row seat, sure, but you also also experienced that as Black and British, as you said when we started, and that’s a really crucial part of the text, too.
Don Letts: As you’re talking to me, and you mention Black culture predating white culture, what my journey shows is it ain’t about who started what and when and where. What my journey shows is that if you put all that shit together it’s a beautiful ride. It’s actually the fact that I’ve been open to seeing all these things and that I remain open to all the world, regardless of who came up with what first.
I’ve never wanted to be defined by my color, man. If something speaks to me, I’m going to put my hand up and tell the truth. That attitude has made me the man I am today. And if I am an interesting person, it’s because of that. It’s not even about color. It’s just being open, man. As long as we’re not shitting on people and pretending — because unfortunately a lot of Caucasian history is a total rewrite — because I just want a level playing field.
Rock Cellar: Because, as you point out in the book, who tells the story matters.
Don Letts: Yeah. Exactly. There you go. I said that in the book? Great!
July 22, 2021