"Once You Saw Them Live, You Were Hooked Forever": An Interview With Don Letts
With the 30th Anniversary release of the seminal Clash documentary Revolution Rock, director Don Letts reflects on the sheer power of seeing the Only Band That Mattered in a live setting, the possibility of a Big Audio Dynamite reissue, and his unabashed love... for Curb Your Enthusiasm.
There is no doubt that the Clash was one of the most uncompromising and energetic bands to ever kick out the jams in a live setting, as countless young punk fans of the late '70s/early '80s who were lucky enough to have seen them in concert can certainly attest. However, for those of us who were still in short pants when Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon closed down Times Square during their legendary two-week stand at Bond's International Casino or blew the Who off the stage at Shea Stadium, we can thank longtime Clash associate Don Letts for filming the band in action for future generations. As part of its continuing celebration of the band's 30th anniversary, Legacy Recordings has commissioned the DVD release of the PBS special Revolution Rock. It's a compilation of scorching live footage of the Clash meant to serve as a companion film to Westway to the World, Letts' Grammy Award-winning 1999 documentary on the group that is a must-own DVD for any self-respecting fan of Joe and the boys.
This 67-minute film features 13 previously unseen performances along with classic footage from such old school Clash film favorites as Clash on Broadway and Rude Boy in addition to bonus footage of the group's presence on American television during the early '80s on such programs as Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show, the short-lived ABC sketch comedy show Fridays, and NBC's Live at Five. PopMatters had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Letts about his years touring with the Clash with his camera in hand, the reason behind the creation of Revolution Rock, his love for Larry David and whether or not we will be seeing a reissue campaign of his critically acclaimed dance-punk supergroup with Mick Jones, the sorely-missed Big Audio Dynamite.
There's a lot of footage of [the] Clash shows from New York City on the Revolution Rock DVD. They sure seemed to love that town …
They loved that town. Joe found it really inspiring. Hey, it's my favorite city in the world, too. Other than winter time, I can't deal with the winter.
Yeah, it's a great city, even though developers are ruining a good majority of the cool clubs and shops that gave New York its grit. I mean, they got a haute couture men's fashion boutique where CBGB once stood. People are actually protesting outside what is now the John Varvatos store.
It's good to see that people are still motivated to do that sort of thing. That was terrible. I don't understand how they let that happen, but anyway ... it's happening here too (in London), where they are "gentrifying" the cool areas. They price all the interesting people out. It takes away the identity of these places. It's not cool.
I understand they closed down the Hammersmith Palais in London recently.
They did. It had just been squashed here for apartments. That really hurt me because that song "White Man in Hammersmith Palais", I actually took Joe to the reggae show on the night that inspired him to write that tune. That place was really close to my heart. They actually knocked it down about six months ago.
Well, let's talk more about that in a few and focus on Revolution Rock. What initially prompted you to create a sequel -- or a companion piece as it were -- to Westway to the World?
It was slightly prompted by the record company, I can't deny that. But I jumped at the opportunity because when I did Westway to the World; the only thing that really bugged me about it was that there wasn't enough music, which was just down to timing and budgets and things like that. Doing Revolution Rock really gave me an opportunity to re-address that balance, and I think the two films actually work quite well together by way of painting a complete picture of the Clash, because for many people seeing them live was the first point of contact. And once you saw them live, you were hooked forever. Well, I was.
It must have been something else to see these guys on stage in the live setting, especially in the early days.
Man, it was inspiring. I remember the first time I saw these guys. The sound was awful, but there was an undeniable energy. You just wanted to get involved. That's what was so great about the whole punk rock movement: it wasn't just about creating more fans, it was kind of saying, "Well, hey, if you got a good idea, you can have a big part of this thing as well." That's how I re-invented myself as a filmmaker.
Where did you see the Clash for the first time?
It was at a place called the Roxy, which is not the club in London, but a place called the Roxy in Harlesdon, which is in another area. They were billed with the Slits, the Buzzcocks and the Subway Sect. A toxic punk rock line-up, man.
How did you go about choosing which performances to include on Revolution Rock?
To be quite honest with you, it's not like I had thousands of different things to choose from. And then there are certain restrictions because of rights, once again. However, I think this compilation paints a pretty good chart of their career from '77 to '82 and covering that five-year period where they were at the top of their game.
The Sandinista-era performances are especially interesting, especially the TV appearances...
Oh yeah, those TV performances were particularly good. You know, the Tom Snyder thing, Joe knew that he was getting this tremendous platform to talk to America coast to coast and I don't think he wasted the opportunity. He wasn't stupid, and he valued airspace, Joe.
Tom Snyder might have seemed like a real stiff guy, but he invited more groundbreaking acts on his show than even Saturday Night Live at the time. I mean, the guy had Wendy O. Williams blowing up a car in his studio for crying out loud.
I think he was powerful enough in that if he wasn't into something, it wouldn't have been on there. But I think even though the man wore a suit, he was hip enough to recognize not only talent but a certain kind of talent that wasn't just regurgitating the same old stuff. People who were really trying to do something different.
It was a funny interview as well, with the whole teddy bear deal and whatnot. But Joe really hit a note towards the end when he was talking about property and gentrification, topics that actually resonate more today than they did back in 1980.
Joe had that knack of being able to go to different places around the world and really identify with the underdog. Joe wouldn't have been swatting around in some luxury hotel, he would invariably be down in some slum. That's where he felt most comfortable, with the real people. Hanging with the Clash was never a real glamorous affair, I can tell you firsthand; but it certainly was exciting. Wherever they went, Joe's first thing would be to tap into the culture that was going on before tapping into the A-list celebrity crowd. He wasn't interested in any of that. He was interested in the voice of the people.
The Sue Simmons interview with Joe and Paul is great too from that old NBC Live at Five broadcast, especially after watching her use the word "fuck" with such voracity on live television as she did just recently during a news teaser.
Yeah, she got their names wrong and everything. It was weird for both parties, it seems because remember... a few years before, the Clash were in some crazy little rehearsal room in London and all of the sudden they were on all these programs that were beaming coast to coast. So I think they were a little like fish out of water.
But the reason why Channel 4 was interviewing them in the first place was because of all the craziness that went down during their famous 1981 residency at Bond's International Casino in Times Square.
They stopped Times Square, dude. It was the first riot there since the Frank Sinatra bobby soxers thing at the Paramount Theater back in 1944, apparently. The two weeks that they played in New York, they ran the town. It was a total trip, literal riots in the streets.
I know the Bond's run was well-documented for your film Clash on Broadway. Do you have footage of the entire two-week run?
I filmed the first of the performances, but unfortunately all that stuff got destroyed. The only thing that remains literally is that clip in Revolution Rock, and there's also a 25-minute extra on Westway to the World, and that's only the stuff that survived.
So we'll never see a DVD release of the Clash on Broadway film that never made it to theaters?
Nah, not as far as I'm aware, man. Unless somebody has one of the early cuts from back in the day, I doubt it very much. But you know it's funny, putting this Revolution Rock together, it really feels to me like looking at one of those Bond's shows. You know, once the Clash start, they don't stop. There's not like a slow number in the middle where the band catches their breath. It was like four sticks of dynamite going off.
One thing that did disappoint me a little with the DVD, to be honest, was that I wish there was more of the Clash's dub material. I'm sure the dub stuff was amazing live ...
Well, that's one of the things that turned me on about the Clash, was that I could see the effects of my Jamaican bass culture on their music. And it wasn't just a blind interpretation; it was right up front and very obvious. Songs like "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" or "Police and Thieves", obviously, or even "Bankrobber". It was a beautiful thing to see how my culture could have such an impact on my white contemporaries and out of this interaction comes creativity. It's a beautiful thing to witness.
Were you there when the Clash played in Kingston, Jamaica?
I wasn't there, but they played at some world music festival. And if I remember rightly, Peter Tosh went on after them and some of his equipment wasn't working properly and he said, "Oh it was those white heathens, those barbarians ruined my equipment." [Laughs.]
It's funny to hear Peter Tosh would say that because he was boys with the Rolling Stones, wasn't he?
Yeah, but you have to remember what the Clash would have looked like to all those people. The Rolling Stones and that whole stadium rock thing was very much alive and the main staple of America. But for these white, scruffy urchins to come to Jamaica with their spiky hair and their ripped-up clothes must've freaked everyone out -- the white Americans and the Jamaicans both.
As a huge Seinfeld fan, it was great seeing that footage of the Clash performing "Guns of Brixton" on Fridays. You know Fridays was where Larry David and Michael Richards got their start on network television ...
Wait a minute, wait a minute, there's a connection between Larry David and the Fridays show? Get the hell out of here! I love Larry David, dude! I love him to death! I'm a big, big fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
What's your favorite episode of Curb?
Oh, man, where do you start? The pubic hair episode was a pretty good one... and the misspelling of the obituary, the "Beloved Aunt" episode. Man, Larry David, he's so funny.
Hey, one last question outside of the Clash and Revolution Rock. As a longtime fan of what you and Mick Jones did as Big Audio Dynamite, are there any plans to reissue the B.A.D. catalog anytime soon?
Hey, if the people want it, I would be so proud to do it. From my perspective, at least in the UK, I feel like we got written out of the story. When people talk about the '80s, its always like Culture Club and Duran Duran. I'm like, what happened to B.A.D.? [Laughs.] I think that the things we did back then are part of the current fabric of a lot of popular music right now. I would jump at the opportunity. In fact, before Mick left for America to tour the States with his new group Carbon/Silicon, we actually talked about putting together some kind of definitive package. So if Sony would let us do it and the people want it, it's definitely a possibility. I really hope we can get that together for later on this year or next year.