Don Letts

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By Charlotte Robinson

The term “Renaissance man” could well have been invented for Don Letts. An integral player in the original British punk scene, Letts sold clothing at the punk boutiques Acme Attractions and Boy, introduced reggae to punk audiences as DJ at the Roxy club, managed the Slits, and documented the scene in his first film, The Punk Rock Movie. He went on to play music with former Clash member Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite, direct music videos for everyone from Jimmy Cliff to S’Express, and make documentaries on Bob Marley (Legend), Lee “Scratch” Perry (Return of the Super Ape), and the Clash (Westway to the World). In 1997, he traveled to his family’s native Jamaica to direct his first feature film, Dancehall Queen, and he oversaw last year’s release of a reggae compilation called Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown that provided an idea of how a typical night at the Roxy sounded. Still based in London, Letts took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for PopMatters by e-mail.

PopMatters:

You have family in Jamaica, but you didn’t travel there until your trip with John Lydon in the late ‘70s. Were you born and raised in London?

Don Letts:

Born and raised in London (1956), first generation Black British. I’m as old as rock and roll.

PM:

How did you end up running Acme Attractions, and what was that experience like?

DL:

Acme started as a funky shop selling jukeboxes and pinball machines (20th century antiques) in Brixton. I became friendly with the owner, John Krevine, who decided to venture into clothing with a guy called Steph Raynor. Acme Attractions initially opened as a stall on the Kings Road, Chelsea in a place called the Antiquarius (1974). We later had to move to the basement, as the rest of the stall holders weren’t crazy on the dub reggae I pumped all day long. It was the best club in town, more user-friendly than Vivienne [Westwood] and Malcolm [McLaren]‘s place down the road (and the clothes were cheaper!). It reflected the multi-cultural way that London was heading. All tribes were represented and I was the Don.

PM:

What was your affiliation with Boy?

DL:

John and Steph closed Acme Attractions to create Boy. It was the bastard child of Acme, created to capitalize on the “tabloid punk” and although I opened and ran the joint it just weren’t my speed. I quit to manage the Slits and headed off on the White Riot tour with the Clash.

PM:

How did you get involved with the punks, in particular John Lydon and the Clash?

DL:

Back in ‘76 the punk scene was in its infancy. It was a movement with nowhere to go so they started to hang out in Malcolm’s shop and Acme. Acme’s accountant decided to start a club (the Roxy) and since the punks came to Acme to listen to the sounds as well as buy clothes he asked me to DJ. The Pistols, the Clash, the Slits—in fact all the major players (and bit actors)—passed through Acme. As for my relationship with John and the Clash, this was fueled mostly by our mutual interest in each other’s culture which manifest itself in music.

PM:

How did you end up managing the Slits? What was the nature of your involvement and how long did it last?

DL:

I started to manage the Slits when I quit Boy and went on the White Riot tour. We were friends before that. I remember taking Ari [Up] (and John [Lydon] and Joe [Strummer]) to various reggae clubs and they’d be the only white people in the dance. Whilst on the White Riot tour I decided that management weren’t for me, and continued to shoot material for The Punk Rock Movie. I did go on to direct a short for the girls called Slits Pictures. We’re still in touch, as I am with John and the Clash; I guess it’s ‘cause we have so much shared history.

PM:

Any thoughts on punk’s legacy 25 years later?

DL:

It’s hard to go forward if you’re continually looking back. Nevertheless, punk remains a blueprint for how a youth-based movement can effect real change in music and art. Punk unfortunately remains the last complete subculture in the U.K.—complete in that it produced not only music but also writers, photographers, poets, journalists, fashion designers, and filmmakers. The spirit of punk rock remains as a rite of passage for the youth; it’s just called something else these days (and probably has nothing to do with the pop charts). Every generation needs its own soundtrack!

PM:

You ended up becoming a DJ and a filmmaker almost by accident. How did you become a musician with Big Audio Dynamite?

DL:

Don’t call me a musician. Mick [Jones] got me involved ‘cause my ideas were strictly non-musical. I took a cinematic approach to songwriting, hence the script-type lyrics and samples, which was my department. When we played live my keyboard had colored stickers on the keys to show me what to do (that’s punk rock!).

PM:

What are some of the music videos you’ve shot?

DL:

All the Clash videos, most of Big Audio Dynamite, the Slits, Public Image, Black Uhuru, Funboy 3, Elvis Costello, Bob Marley, the Pretenders, Jimmy Cliff, Ratt, Beenie Man, the Pogues, Eddie Grant, Musical Youth, Deep Forest, the Jungle Brothers, Black Grape, Sly and Robbie, S’Express, etc.

PM:

How did Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown come about?

DL:

Two friends Sam and Nils (ex-manager of [Siouxsie and] the Banshees) suggested the idea and introduced me to Jeff Barrett (Heavenly Records). They figured it was the missing link in the punk story.

PM:

By 1997 you were comfortable enough in Jamaica to shoot Dancehall Queen there with a Jamaican cast. How has your relationship with Jamaican culture evolved since the ‘70s?

DL:

It’s funny that Johnny Rotten was the first person to take me to Jamaica and it was with the inspiration of punk’s DIY ethic that I picked up a Super-8 camera and reinvented myself a filmmaker. With all that I’d learned and experienced from the late ‘70s to date I felt well equipped, armed, and prepared to stand on the set of Dancehall Queen in Kingston, Jamaica shouting “action” in 1997.

PM:

Westway to the World and Dancehall Queen were both shot on digital video. What are your thoughts on how this new medium is affecting filmmaking?

DL:

It puts the means of production in the hands of the people, but you still got to have a good idea. The down side of affordable technology is mediocrity.

PM:

What projects are you working on now?

DL:

I’m supposed to be directing my second feature film later this year; several projects in development (as they say). The truth is that most of my time is taken up juggling various projects (which is a drag seeing as I’ve served my apprenticeship). Orson Welles said that filmmaking is 90% hustling and 10% filmmaking. Go figure….

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/letts-don-020712/