As the limousine door swung open and Johnny Rotten’s motorcycle boot hit the dust, a pall descended over the calm of the Jamaican village. He and Don Letts approached the designated shack, to be confronted by a woman Letts could only assume was his grandmother. On being informed of their relationship, Lett’s grandma could only manage a petrified gawp; Letts saw this as a bad sign, and drove out of that village never to return.
Don Letts has always had a rather dislocated attitude towards his West Indian heritage. He had travelled to Jamaica that winter in 1978 as a taste-maker and talent scout – he was accompanied by Richard Branson and a bag full of cash to sign up local artists to Virgin. By that time he had left his Brixton reggae roots behind him to embark on an alliance with punk; a relationship which would later earn him a Grammy and collaborations with all the leading figures of the pogo generation. Earlier he had vied with Vivienne Westwood in the King’s Road punk fashion scene, before filming self-mutilation and speed-jacking in his cult documentary The Punk Rock Movie and playing in front of 100,000 with Big Audio Dynamite alongside The Clash’s Mick Jones.
Pulling on a dog-eared joint in the recesses of his west London garden, Don Letts is not soothed. “How old are you mate?” he roars, when I confess I do not know what bondage trousers look like – the anecdote in question is when Bob Marley laughed at Letts for looking like a “bloodclaat mountaineer” in his punk rock clobber. Letts frequently got much worse from his south London community, and proceeded to hold his corner with Marley. Some months later Marley got the idea, and recorded his Punky Reggae Party track.
The year before, Letts was involved in the racial upheaval of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots. The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were there throwing bricks, and immortalized a photo of Letts against the police lines on their subsequent album cover, Blackmarket Clash.
“As first generation British born blacks, we copped it the worst. But we came up with a good soundtrack. Tell you what!” says Letts, brightening: “They’d better come up with a good soundtrack, these eastern Europeans – that’ll help ‘em!”
Letts would roam the Carnival with Marley, entering the melee as Marley, ever the ladies’ man, relished some alone time with Letts’s wife. Back then, Carnival stretched deep into the night, one that 54 year-old Letts remembers fondly: “Aswad at at Meanwhile Gardens…God! Go out and find the song Warrior Charge – and if you can hear that and imagine what that would mean to someone listening to that song then, there.”
Letts would hang out with Malcom McLaren in his shop on the King’s road as a teen: “He showed me how to join the counter-cultural dots – made me understand that this thing that I was involved in, counter-culture, there was a tradition and a lineage, it didn’t come out of a void, it had a continuity and he made me understand that if you were brave enough and you had an idea you could be part of this thing…and this is before punk. Malcom did a lot of f***ed up things and people call him a c**t, and you know what? It’s probably all true. At this stage in life I kind of realize – nice people don’t have great ideas.”
The counter-cultural recipe of the late 1970s included the vital ingredient of a recently arrived immigrant wave, says Letts – and the same characteristic that produced punk in the UK produced hip hop, arguably also fuelled by West Indian immigration, in the US: “It was the immigrants, those got the s*******t end of the stick that reacted culturally. In New York with the hip hop scene there were similar social situations as here. But they didn’t pick up bricks – US cops got guns. What did they do? They picked up two turntables and a microphone and created a soundtrack that was relevant to their situation and a new movement was born.
“Right now it feels like punk never happened. All the things that helped create punk rock, racism, recession, strikes – other than power cuts – all the things we had in the late seventies are happening again today. What’s happening about it? I don’t know. All I know is that all the interesting ideas are coming from the amateur and the naive, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anyone who meets those criteria in the west.”
Letts was never shy of stoking the fires of the racial and sexual prejudice of his era – like when he took hellraising white Ari Up from punk group The Slits to a Twelve Tribes Rastafarian meeting in Kennington, south London in the early 80s. “She was Ari, for a start, which was enough. I remember I was going to pass her the weed chalice, and they were like [imitates gruff Jamaican accent] ‘You can’t do that – she woman’ – you couldn’t pass the pipe to a woman under their beliefs. I just thought ‘this isn’t for me’ and I walked. Woman Is the ni**er of the world, as Yoko said.” A more well-worn story of this kind is of when he took Joe Strummer to the Hammersmith Palais for a reggae night, which inspired him to write The Clash’s White Man in the Hammersmith Palais.
Perhaps Letts’s most exciting period was at the cradle of punk, The Roxy, a club opened in Covent Garden in early 1977. Letts describes it to me as “a scene out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting”, where he would film bands like Slaughter and the Dogs that appeared covered in talcum powder, and another called Eater, including a 12 year-old dummer called Dee Generate, who Letts filmed hacking up a pig’s head onstage.
Letts’ role at the club [and now, on BBC Radio 6] was as a DJ. He would give the punks their first taste of Jamaica, spinning heavy dub and reggae like Prince Far I’s Under Heavy Manners and Tappa Zukie’s MPLA Dub. He was equally famous for his compilation tapes, which he would give to the Clash, The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. What’s the secret to selection? I ask Letts. “The secret?” he asks, sitting up and looking at me. “Let me break it down like this. It’s all about taste. Lucky I got some.”
- Don Letts’ documentary on Notting Hill Carnival, ‘Carnival’ is on Channel Blighty at 8.00pm Saturday August 28.
- A film about his life ‘Superstonic Sound, The Rebel Dread’, shows at the ICA on 6th, 9th and 10th October