The Clash: Don Letts

Don Letts

Don Letts

Documentary filmmaker Don Letts moved in the same circles as the Clash and helped introduce London’s punk-rock crowd to reggae. He shot a lot of footage, which appeared on such films as Westway to the World, Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer documentary The Future Is Unwritten and the live Clash release, Revolution Rock. After the Clash broke up, Letts and Clash veteran Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite.

Among his many current activities is this groovy BBC radio show, which you can stream. I also recommend his brilliantly curated reggae album, Don Letts Presents: The Mighty Trojan Sound.

Here is a heavily condensed edit of the interview Don and I did in 2008 for Revolution Rock.


HOW WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CLASH? YOU WERE LIKE THEIR BOSWELL OR ALICE B. TOKLAS? THE FAITHFUL SIDEKICK?

“Faithful sidekick?” You make me sound like a dog! No, I’d like to think of it as a period where we both kinda turned each other on through our respective cultures. I was getting off on their whole punk rock DIY anti-establishment thing. But don’t forget, I’m coming from a reggae background and it was Jamaican punk rock. So I’ve got my heavy bass lines. Joe (Strummer) particularly picked up on the musical reportage aspect of the songs, the fact that you could sing about things that affected your daily life – like, How are we gonna live? And how we gonna do it together? Those are really things that Joe picked up on from reggae. Paul (Simonon) loved the bass lines. There was the obvious anti-establishment stance of both musics (sic), and they didn’t mind the marijuana either. It has to be said. But joking aside, what was beautiful about all that stuff was it was through understanding our differences that kinda made us closer, not by trying to be the same. And that was a beautiful thing to see happen. Culture has that power, y’know?

WE CAN ATTRIBUTE THE REGGAE SOUND OF THE CLASH TO YOU?

I mean, well, history books would have it that I started Punky Reggae Party (his DJ sets at the Roxy). In London back in those days there were a lot of West Indian communities, and some people were aware of that. Strummer, Simonon, John Lydon, they were really tapped into that vibe already before Don Letts came on the scene. But then there were all those other white people that didn’t live next door to black people that would be coming down to the Roxy, and it was really those people that I turned on to reggae and created this so-called Punky Reggae Party.

PEOPLE LIKE CHRISSIE HYNDE, SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES?

Chrissie, absolutely. Chrissie actually lived in my house for a while … I was like the cultural gatekeeper, man. Whatever names you got, I’ll wear ’em.

WHAT’S THE EXTENT OF YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH THE GUYS NOW?

It never stops. Joe stopped for obvious reasons. We grew up at a very seminal point in our lives. What are we 30 years later, and this punk rock thing has left an indelible mark on pop culture, I don’t think any other movement has had a lasting legacy. Even rock ‘n’ roll has become an embarrassment that a lot of people want to disassociate themselves from because of the whole corporate association, and I think that’s why people still in a way hang on to the idea of punk as the antithesis of all of that, corporate rock ‘n’ roll. I’m losing my train of thought here. But me and the guys grew up on music that helps you to be all you can be, and I think we’re all very much still of that school. None of us are working for the man yet. Yet! Joe went on to do the Mescaleros and all that stuff. Mick (Jones) and I actually ended up in a band together called Big Audio Dynamite that I’m immensely proud of because a lot of the cultural experiments that were happening in that band are now part of the fabric of pop music, of pop culture.

THAT’S PART OF THE REASON I’M DOING THIS INTERVIEW. I WAS SUCH A HUGE, HUGE FAN OF B.A.D.-

-Me too, man. I ain’t joking. I really am. That marriage of rock ‘n’ roll with Jamaican bass lines and pop beats. The whole sampling thing. That’s all basic ingredients of interesting music these days. Something like Beck seems to have tapped into the fact that it’s all there to be used, man.

SO WHEN YOU DID “C’MON EVERY BEATBOX” OR “E=MC²,” IN WHICH YOU SAMPLED THE MOVIE PERFORMANCE, THAT HAD NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE?

Not to my knowledge. As far as I know we were the first group to have hits with samples and dialogue. In “Medicine Show” there’s almost 60 seconds out of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was all so new. Nobody touched us. We weren’t approached by any record companies, any lawyers. But then as the years progressed, obviously it became more and more difficult to do that.

YOU COULDN’T DO THAT FIRST RECORD THIS IS BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE (PICTURED AT LEFT) NOW, COULD YOU?

No, it’s impossible. It’s impossible. As people like De La Soul would later find out (when the Turtles successfully sued them for sampling “You Showed Me,” setting a legal precedent).

I KNOW YOU WEREN’T A MUSICIAN, BUT YOUR MAIN CONTRIBUTION TO B.A.D. WAS FINDING THE CINEMATIC REFERENCES?

Yeah, when the boys were in there laying down all their musical parts, I famously couldn’t play anything. In fact, when I was on stage I had colored stickers on my keyboard. And when I was really getting excited, I’d hold up my keyboard and show people, “Look, punk rock in action!” But joking aside, I was responsible primarily for the samples and dialogue. But if you look at the credits of that stuff, all those songs you mention, I actually co-wrote them with Mick. And that’s not as a favor. I wrote lyrics, and I approached them in the same way as writing little treatments for films. That’s why the songs, to me, have a cinematic quality. But ain’t I supposed to be selling the Clash DVD?

THAT’S TRUE! ARE THERE PARTICULAR VIDEOS THAT STAND OUT AS CINEMATIC TIMEPIECES?

If you saw a Clash gig it was like somebody lit a match and threw it in a box of fireworks. When they started, they started off at a hundred miles an hour and then just kept going. I think I’ve managed to capture that same vibe with the Revolution Rock DVD. To separate it out, man, they all have special moments for me. Speaking on a personal level, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” one of the Clash’s most famous songs, I actually took Joe Strummer to that reggae show that night, the night he was inspired to write that song. That’s a special moment for me. It’s funny because I have such a close relationship with not only the band, but actually with a lot of these performances. I physically remember being in Shea Stadium the night I directed “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” with the Who backstage and Andy Warhol and things like that. So I’m the wrong person to ask because obviously I’m going to say, “Yeah, this thing is great.” But it is great because it does capture a moment in time, which I think all good music films should do. It definitely does that. It’s all good, man, from top to bottom.

WHAT WAS THE CONTRIBUTION FROM YOUR OWN ARCHIVE TO REVOLUTION ROCK?

The things that I physically directed, “Train in Vain,” “Clampdown,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Career Opportunities.” The “London Calling” thing from Bonds (International Casino), that’s mine. I think that’s it, of things I physically directed myself. It wasn’t about me putting in my archive. It was about finding great performances that really charted the career of a really charismatic live band.

IS THERE PARTICULAR FOOTAGE THAT YOU KNOW EXISTS, BUT HAS DISAPPEARED OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH?

Yeah, but I shot it! Famously, I covered the whole Clash on Broadway, the Bonds fiasco. And when Topper (Headon) got kicked out of the band, the negatives went into the vaults, and they were left there because then soon after Mick left. And basically what happened is the bill wasn’t paid for at the lab, and they destroyed the negs.

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2008, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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