Pick up a camera, and roll

“I threw the armadillo in to fuck with people’s heads” – Don Letts on turning punk into art with The Clash
By J.L. Sirisuk | Music | 19 May 2022

‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ The Clash, directed by Don Letts, 1982

“Punk is like the force in Star Wars. You can’t stop it, it’s out there somewhere. I ain’t talking about guitars and mohawks and safety pins. I’m talking about an attitude and a spirit that drives this thing forward,” declares the legendary Don Letts. The filmmaker, DJ, and musician is a cultural force who in the late 70s connecting the worlds of punk and reggae while DJing at The Roxy in London – injecting the space with a dub reggae soundtrack and punk rock attitude. It was also during this time he met the members of The Clash, a group he would form a unique and potent synergy with, leading him to direct nearly all of their music videos from London Calling to Should I Stay Or Should I Go. “The fundamental ingredients of The Clash that spoke to young people then hasn’t really changed. They looked good, sounded great, made songs that were about something, and oozed attitude. Those things ain’t really changed too much, and I don’t think anybody’s come along that’s done it better.”

In 1982, The Clash’s penultimate album Combat Rock was released and now comes a special 40th anniversary edition coupled with The People’s Hall, an additional twelve tracks by the group which includes unheard and rare recordings. The album reissue is a pathway to an inimitable time visualised and shaped by Letts’ creative prowess.

J.L. Sirisuk: I want to jump back in time for a second. What were your early creative roots – what steered your love of music?
Don Letts: I’m what you call first-generation British-born Black. My parents were from Jamaica, and I was born in 1956 in the UK, so I’m as old as rock ‘n’ roll. I fundamentally had Jamaican music coming in one ear and the stuff my white friends were listening to coming in the other, and that would have been the pop music of the time. We’re talking the Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks and it was a combination. My musical taste reflected the duality of my existence, which was Black and British.

JLS: And in terms of film?
DL: Growing up in the 60s and 70s as a first-generation British-born Black, we knew what we sounded like because we had the music coming from Jamaica. We had a soundtrack, but there was no visual accompaniment other than cheap postcards of some dude riding a donkey on a beach in Jamaica, or somebody limbo dancing. That all changed with the advent of two things: the arrival of Bob Marley and Jamaica’s most famous film The Harder They Come. I remember seeing this film when I was fourteen in 1971 and being struck by the power of cinema. I daydreamed about expressing myself in some kind of visual medium, but in the early 70s for a young Black man it was a ridiculous idea because it was like an old white boy’s network. If you fast-forward five or six years, the whole punk rock scene explodes with its DIY ethos. My white mates are picking up guitars, and such was the energy, I wanted to pick up something too. So I picked up a Super-8 camera and reinvented myself as Don Letts the filmmaker. I started filming the bands I liked and from there progressed to making videos. I probably made about 350 videos up to date and about 20 or 30 documentaries, a couple of feature films. But my favourite mode of expression is film.

“I was born in 1956, so I’m as old as rock ‘n’ roll.”

‘London Calling’ The Clash, directed by Don Letts, 1980

JLS: Can you take me back to when you started meeting personalities from the punk scene?
DL: I’m going to take you back to around 1975, a period of serious social discontent – politically and economically. Luckily, I had a soundtrack to ease my pain. I had reggae. The popular music of the time was a million miles from the feeling on the street, so these young white dudes and women started to create a soundtrack that was relevant to their situation: this was punk rock. This started from ‘76 to ‘77 and I guess we became friends through our mutual love of Jamaican music. It was part of my culture, but for whatever reason it was that time-honored tradition of young white kids getting their rebellious fix from Black music. By the mid-70s, the Black music they were exposed to was from Jamaica. It was through our mutual love of Jamaican music that I became friends with these crazy white kids, and that led to the whole punk reggae thing, that cultural combination that happened.

JLS: And how did you meet The Clash?
DL: Back in the late 70s I’d be hanging out in these Jamaican blues dances in the basements of Ladbroke Grove because they wouldn’t let us into the clubs, and these are strictly black places. I remember one day being in a basement and seeing these two white guys – it was Joe [Strummer] and Paul [Simonon] and they were the only two white faces in the dance. They stood out because they had the spikey hair thing going on, and the skinny jeans and leather jackets. You had to give them respect because you had to have some balls to walk into those places back then. I remember eyeing them and them eyeing me, but we didn’t really speak. Back then I was running a shop on King’s Road, Chelsea called Acme Attractions and they wandered in, drawn by the music I was playing – which was dub heavy reggae and that’s where our friendship began. Then they opened what was the very first live punk rock venue in the UK, the Roxy, on January 1st 1977 in London. I was the DJ there, and this is so early in the scene. There weren’t any UK punk records to play, so I’m playing what I like. I’m playing the hardcore dub reggae in between these fast and furious punk sets, and bands were formed, friendships were made. We were turning each other on through our respective cultures. We became closer by understanding our differences, not trying to be the same. 

JLS: And it was a real time for social change.
DL: This was a period of social decline in the UK, very similar social conditions to what was going on in New York as well. These two movements happened simultaneously – the only difference was that the New York punk rockers were older than the UK kids. The UK kids were like 15, 16, 17 and the New Yorkers would have been in their early 20s. Big difference in that period of your life and also the Americas were a bit more literate. UK guys were reading comics, the American guys were reading Kerouac and things like that. 

“I threw the armadillo in to fuck with people’s heads”

‘Radio Clash’ The Clash, directed by Don Letts, 1988

JLS: And when did you start making videos with The Clash?
DL: With my Super-8 I’m filming the bands I like and I become friends with [The Clash]. As they became successful some of them asked me to have a go making their video. The first band I made a video for was Public Image, for their debut single, then The Clash asked me to do their video for London Calling and that worked out. Everyone was happy and I went on to do all their videos after that, except for Tommy Gun. From that right through to Should I Stay or Should I Go in Shea Stadium, I was their man and I thank them for that because they’d blown up very quickly and they could have had their pick of anybody. They stuck with Don Letts, so I owe them big time for that.

JLS: Where do you think that trust came from?
DL: We were all of the same age and our cultural references were all the same. We were of that generation where we only had music and clothes to express ourselves, we turned that shit into art and the only alternative form of information and inspiration was music. That was really crucial in our lives. Then the icing on the cake was the emerging cinema, whether that be spaghetti westerns, Kung-Fu movies or American experimental films. So cinema, music, and fashion were our weapons of choice.

“I picked up a Super-8 camera and reinvented myself as Don Letts the filmmaker.”

JLS: Can you talk me through the making of the Rock the Casbah video?
DL: The band wanted to have some sort of video where they wanted a Jewish team and an Arab team playing football, and between the record company and costs, that idea was vetoed as a bit too controversial. I was brought in to find some way that would please everybody, but mostly myself. My creativity is a very selfish thing. If it resonates with others, great, but ultimately, the buck stops with me. I came up with a scenario which is fundamentally about breaking taboos, and I threw the armadillo in to fuck with people’s heads. It was quite funny how many Texans had never seen a live armadillo, they’d only seen them as dead things, as ashtrays sitting on a bar or somebody’s handbag. The strength of that video came down to the guys’ performance. When they kicked off, they were like four sticks of dynamite and if you could afford four cameras back then, you could get this shit done in one take. A little bit of detail, in that video Mick [Jones] is wearing a mask over his face, he was pissed off about something that day, I can’t remember what it was, but he spent a lot of time pissed off about something. He decides by way of protest to come up with this mask and that’s how he performs for nearly 70 percent of the video. Eventually in the video, Joe pulls the mask and reveals Mick. It all looks choreographed but it wasn’t. If Joe hadn’t pulled the mask off, we would never have known it was Mick. I’m very proud of that video.

“Joe [Strummer] was a worldly man, he wasn’t small-minded. I miss the brother.”

‘Rock the Casbah’ The Clash, directed by Don Letts, 1982

“If you’re lucky in life, you get a window of opportunity and you should use it to the best of your ability, and then you should fuck off and let someone else have a go.”

JLS: Is there anything special you want to share about the making of Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
DL: I have mixed emotions about that. On the face of it, everything was coming together: The Clash were on the ascent – they’re supporting The Who, they’re gonna take it to the next base and that’s how it looks on the outside. But on the inside goddamn – you know things are falling apart as the fact it wasn’t Topper Headon playing drums, it was Terry Chimes because they’d lost Topper a few months before. It wasn’t just the Topper thing. Things were falling apart internally for various reasons, but it’s funny because I’ve been thinking about the whole dynamic of the individuals and I’ve come to realise that if they were all drinking cups of tea together and patting each other on the back and getting along really well, the music wouldn’t have that energy and chemistry it has. That angst was very much an integral part of the creative process.

JLS: When you look back at your body of work with The Clash, is there a special experience that comes to mind?
DL: I feel amazingly privileged to have worked with these guys. I’m a product of rock ‘n’ roll. I was born in 1956, the first live band I ever saw was The Who at fourteen years old – they opened this door and I stepped through. I kept on walking, and they took me to The Clash, and beyond. Just to be in their presence and be able to have a front-row seat to what was a very dynamic time.  If you’re lucky in life, you get a window of opportunity and you should use it to the best of your ability, and then you should fuck off and let someone else have a go. I don’t even think them imploding is a negative thing; I actually see it as a part of this creative ongoing process.

JLS: With the reissue of Combat Rock, do you think the songs have stood the test of time?
DL: Because of all the stuff that’s going on, I was obviously moved with a sense of professionalism to double-check my shit, and I listened back to the album and the thing that came to my mind was, “Damn. There’s still so much to uncover,” because Joe Strummer, lyrically, had more ideas in one verse than most people have on their whole album. That was the first thing that struck me, because I’m hearing things I hadn’t heard before. The other thing was how much of it resonates with what’s going on in the 21st century. They had a pretty good overview on the impact of American policies, especially in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and how that impacted what was happening in America and abroad. I’ve come to see that Joe uses America as a barometer for the human condition. His lyrics stand the test of time. I mean Know Your Rights, come on, does that resonate with the 21st century or what?  Joe was a worldly man, he wasn’t small-minded. I miss the brother.

JLS: If someone watches all the videos you directed for the group, what’s something you hope they take from the body of work?
DL: I hope they get an understanding that nothing comes out of a void. Just like me, a fourteen-year-old boy watching The Who do their thing, and me realising, “Maybe I can do something as well.” To understand, you don’t have to be just a fan, you can be a part of this ongoing process. All you need is an idea and the motivation. It’s not some privileged school for some sacred group of people. All these people came from nowhere and decided, “ I’m going to do this thing,” and they went for it. Understand this: punk rock is not a dead thing, it’s a living thing. It’s not something to look back on, its something to look forward to. All you need is a good idea and the motivation. It’s not a message, it’s the truth.

Combat Rock/The People’s Hall is now out via Sony Music.

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