It’s as if he was part of the family. Don Letts, the man who in the birth-year of London punk brought together punks and rastafarians with fat bass lines – the ones recorded on the dub and roots reggae 7” he played on the only record player in the Roxy club. He was also the first director to have had a tribute in In-Edit, in 2007. Many documentaries with his signature have rolled across our screens: Westway To The World (2000), on his old friends The Clash, George Clinton: Tales of Dr. Funkenstein (2006), Franz Ferdinand: Rock It To Rio (2006), Soul Britannia (2007), Carnival! (2009), and his choral essay Punk: Attitude (2005), film that due to the celebration of 40 years of punk is being brought to Barcelona again to hold a sort of master class. The following are his own explanations of key moments in his career.
EVERYTHING STARTED WITH JIMMY CLIFF
After seeing his film The Harder They Come, I decided I wanted to make movies. So I borrowed a Super 8 and filmed The Punk Rock Movie (1978). The movie I am most proud of is a fictional film, Dancehall Queen. It was hugely successful in Jamaica. In Jamaica, if you ask any young person what their favourite film is, they’ll probably say that one. But that’s only because The Harder They Come is so old. It’s still number one, but to even be mentioned in the same sentence as that film is a big honour for me.
ROXY’S RECORD PLAYER
Andrew Czezowski started the club The Roxy as a response to an emerging scene that already had their soundtrack and a new attitude but didn’t have anywhere to play. Andrew was aware of the buzz created by the music I was playing in the shop, so he asked me to DJ there on a regular basis and I hesitantly took the job. It meant I was perfectly placed to witness the most exciting and inspiring period of my life. There were no UK punk records because none had been made yet. So aside from some punk sets of MC5, The Ramones, The Stooges and The New York Dolls (the same records most of the up-and-coming British punk bands learned to play by listening to), I played dub reggae. Speed was the drug of choice in that scene, but when the heavy bass dropped on a Prince Far I track like “Under Heavy Manners”, spliffs were definitely the order of the day. I went back to Forest Hill and told my brethren that I’d got my gig and that they were looking for more staff, and they couldn’t stop laughing and taking the piss. I got them to come down to the Roxy and when they saw an untapped herb market in front of their eyes, a week or so later all my rasta friends were working there. Punks couldn’t roll their own spliffs, so they swiftly decided to sell ready-rolled ones from behind the bar. I remember Shane McGowan coming up and saying, “Give me a spliff and two beers please” and then after a moment’s hesitation, “No, make that two spliffs and one beer.” There was some serious cultural exchange going on. The Clash played there on January 1st 1977, and I couldn’t understand a fucking word they were singing, but the energy was like being hit over the head with a plank. You couldn’t just be a fan, you wanted to be part of it and be involved. Watching The Clash or The Sex Pistols on stage was like watching someone drop a match in to a box of fireworks.
ATTITUDE AND MOVEMENT
Westway to The World would be up there, but I think Punk: Attitude is my favourite simply because it viewed punk as an attitude and not a mohawk; it put it into the context of an on-going dynamic. I got tired of people relegating punk to being an anomaly that happened in the late 70s. Punk, although it has a lineage and a heritage, is an on-going thing. Punk is something to look forward to, not to look back on. If you understand that, it’s very liberating. So you’ve got a good idea you believe in? Be brave and pursue it. I learned that a long time ago and it still works for me.
THE PUNKY-REGGAE PARTY
You know, this 40 years of punk thing has been driving me nuts because it made me look back at all the archive footage from back then and it occurred to me that the only story that hasn’t already been told is the story of the punky-reggae party. I have so much Super 8 material of the first punk players, The Pistols, The Clash and also of reggae artists like Big Youth, Tappa Zukie, Prince Far-I… There’s also footage of me and John Lydon in Jamaica with Richard Branson (Virgin Records) to Kingston and he was just starting his label Front Line. So now that I’ve finished my film Skinhead, my next project is called Two Seven’s Clash and it’s an archive project that will look at the myth and the reality of the punky-reggae party.
MAKING MUSIC WITHOUT KNOWING HOW TO PLAY
The only thing I regret in this life is never having learned how to play an instrument. Even with that limitation, I have made music. The record with Keith Lavene (Steel Leg vs. the Electric Dread) was a bad experience basically because, without even letting me know, they used some mike tests I did in the bathroom trying out some lyrics. Big Audio Dynamite, that’s one that I am proud of. We mixed Jamaican bass lines, hip-hop beats from NY, disco and rock, and we did it well. In our own way, we were also bridging gaps between different communities. That always sounds nice but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bed of roses: I remember how Grandmaster Flash got hit in the face with beer bottles opening for The Clash. And when I mediated so The Clash and Lee Perry could collaborate…they didn’t get along. My dream in that case became a nightmare.
SUCCESS, WHAT SUCCESS
I don’t feel part of the establishment because I’m sat here broke, on my arse with only enough to get by and self-funding my own projects. I make films, I DJ, I have a radio program on the BBC, I have a Grammy at home [for Westway to the World, 2003] and some recognition in certain circles, but I do all these things because I have to, not because I’m looking for any kind of blessing from society. If you can survive doing something you enjoy, you’re onto a winner. If you get rich, then even better. Unfortunately that’s not the case with me.