don letts

We sit down with cultural icon Don Letts to talk about the influence of multi-culturalism on British youth, the cross over between reggae and punk and the synergies between music and fashion. 

Shall we start from the beginning and talk about the black influence on London that happened in your parents generation? 

When my parents came to the UK in the late fifties it was, by all accounts, a very grey, drab place, and certainly not very style driven. They came over with their hopes, their dreams, their precious record collections and certainly a lot of style. The white youth of the time picked up on all of this, and the truth of the matter is, the white working class kids from the fifties through to where we are today, have always looked to black culture for their fix of rebelliousness. I mean that’s nothing new, but I think what’s really new is that unlike the youth that grew up in the fifties that were influenced by American culture, white kids that I grew up with in the seventies were influenced by afro-Caribbean culture and it wasn’t something that was removed from their experience, you know. People like Paul Simonon, Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer grew up next door to people like me. The effect was a lot more direct, and you can hear that in their music. People have got to realise that The Stones, Led Zeppelin; they were listening to black music too but it was black American music and it was kind of this alien thing that was removed from them. By the time people like The Clash and the Pistols were listening to black music it was like a second language to them, so the effect was more direct. 

We’ve read you talking about your parents trying to fit in, was that in terms of the clothing they wore? What was the sort of style then? 

When my parents generation came over, they were part of what they call the ‘Windrush generation’. Funnily enough a lot of people don’t know this; they were actually asked to come here by a character called Enoch Powell, who was actually minister of health then. The idea was that they come and help rebuild the country after the Second World War. The way that they thought they could get by and assimilate is by Anglicizing themselves; by trying to be like their hosts. Obviously it didn’t work because they were getting fucked – they did the menial jobs and they couldn’t get any houses. People might remember signs that were up – “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish”, and that was a reality. 

I’m first generation British born black, I was born in ’56, I’m as old as rock and roll! So by the time I’m in my formative years in the early ‘70s, I’m realising that really, my parents generation were getting fucked over, and this was compounded by the fact that I’m listening to music from America, I’m listening to James Brown singing ‘say it loud I’m black and I’m proud’, I’m seeing images of the Black Panthers and basically said fuck you to Anglicizing myself. I realised that I really had to make my own way of fitting into this society. It wasn’t by trying to be like my white mates. 

Right. Was that a black culture thing?

Absolutely. I think, you know, my parents came over with the whole promise of this multi-cultural thing. We realised that my parents were getting screwed, and realised we needed to forge our own way forward and we took lessons from black America, because the whole civil rights thing was going on. We got politicised. That compounded with a change of attitude in Jamaica, because this is post independence…you really wanna get into all this? I can go there, I can go there! Post independence Jamaica, I mean everyone’s aware of the whole Ska thing, and Ska came out of this kind of feeling of euphoria like ok, we’re free, we’re liberated and we’re gonna get some now! As it turned out, they didn’t get some, and that was reflected in music, and that’s when Ska changed to reggae, which was a lot more politicised, a lot more militant. So I’m listening to Black Panthers, James Brown and people like Big Youth and reggae artists like that. We became empowered and politicised and that would manifest itself with things like the 1975 riots in Notting Hill, which over time has kind of been interpreted as a race riot but it wasn’t a race riot; it wasn’t even a black on white thing, it was a wrong and right thing. We were as mad as hell and we weren’t gonna take it anymore. 

One of the things that we try to do as a shop, it’s interesting because I know you had a shop yourself, is talk about culture. All of us as a group of people are influenced by culture, and not by sort of, fashion trends. 

I tell you what I learnt very early on. For us to get on, it wasn’t by trying to be like my white mates, it was through a mutual respect of our different cultural backgrounds. It was through understanding our differences that brought us closer together. That was what the whole punky reggae thing was about, I wasn’t wearing a Mohawk and Joe Strummer didn’t have dreadlocks but somehow we kind of appreciated what each other brought to the party. Out of that cultural mix came this thing called the punky reggae party, which is very creative, you know. 

Do you think that punk as a movement was unique to Britain for the idea that ‘anything goes’?

That attitude, because what we’re talking about here isn’t a Mohawk and loud, fast guitars, it’s an attitude. It’s how you do what you do. But the English have this thing where they combined music and style, you know, it’s hard to separate them. So that particular punk movement was very, very British. It didn’t happen anywhere else and I’m a product of all of that. The whole DIY ethic came out of that, I mean I re-invented myself. When my white mates were picking up guitars I wanted to pick up something too. I picked up a Super-8 camera and reinvented myself as Don Letts the film maker. It was a very special time, this kind of cultural exchange. We were, on the face of it, very unlikely bed fellows. But, we were like-minded rebels, because by that time in the mid ‘70s I was already alienated because I was black, but society had managed to alienate its own white youth as well. So that kind of forced us together, you know. 

Moving onto Acme Attractions (shop on King's Road in the 70s), what was that like? 

Magical times man. If I could go back and do anything again it would probably be Acme Attractions. God how do you explain it. We’re talking 1975, ’76, Kings Road, Chelsea, and the popular music of the time didn’t really reflect the mood of the streets. All these disaffected youth were looking for somewhere to go, and the clubs in the West End wouldn’t let ‘em in because they had dress codes and all kinds of shit like that and the music they were playing didn’t reflect how we felt. So young people, these like minded rebels, hung out in one of two places; my shop, Acme Attractions, or Vivienne [Westwood] and Malcolm [McLaren’s] shop, which at that time was called Sex. These people would move between the two shops. I had more people in my shop for two reasons; in my shop you could get a pair of trousers for twenty quid, in Vivienne’s they were sixty quid. Having said that I don’t want to be disparaging about Malcolm and Vivienne’s stuff because their clothes were clothes as art. But the shop was a lot more Eurocentric in its inspiration. Acme Attractions signposted the mutli-cultural way that London was headed, and my soundtrack was heavy dub reggae, which resonated with white working class youth. I don’t want to claim that I was responsible for any of that because the truth of the matter is, long before the whole punky reggae thing there was a tradition of white working class kids listening to the Trojan catalogue, you know. Skinheads, and I’m talking about the fashion version not the fascist version, grew up listening to Jamaican music that was primarily on the Trojan label. By the time I’m playing reggae in The Roxy, which was the very first punk rock venue in the UK, I guess the difference was again that you had a bunch of white kids that had now grown up with people like me. 

I guess you were there for the birth of punk? 

Oh yeah. I was at the centre of the punk rock universe, absolutely. 

Acme Attractions was there too; what sort of stuff were you selling in the store? 

Fluffy mohair sweaters, fluorescent blue, green, pink peg trousers, jelly sandals, winklepickers. There was a lot of ‘50s influenced stuff. We also sold juke boxes and pinball machines. So it was kind of retro, in a way. But what’s interesting is if you’re young and you’re fifteen and you haven’t seen any of this stuff, it’s the future, it’s brand new, you know. 

And where did it come from, all that stuff?

I didn’t own the shop, I ran it and I was the face of the shop, a guy called John Krevine and Steph Rayner actually owned it. We had a lot of stuff made up, and funnily enough the tailor who made up a lot of our stuff also made stuff for Vivienne and Malcolm. So some stuff was made and other stuff they used to go up on excursions, up North in their Volkswagen van, and find old warehouses with old stock. I remember these elasticated blouson shirts and things were kind of popular. Eventually we started making a lot of things ourselves. A good seller was the electric coloured zoot suits. Ah man they were excellent. It was a trip, those days those two shops were like clubs, which is hard to imagine now. The Kings Road was obviously a very different place to what it is now. It’s been sterilized. Gentrification has ruined the nation – it happens everywhere man. 

What sort of people would frequent the store? 

Anybody who was anybody in the punk rock scene passed through my shop, and they were kind of drawn by one of two things. Partially the clothes, but primarily the music I was playing. Because, you know, the reggae at that time was this more militant and politicized stuff, songs that resonated with these young white kids. They loved the bass and they loved the anti-establishment vibe. They loved the weed too! It can’t be denied. So it found an obvious home with them. Popular music of that time was, you know, fucking Hotel California and we couldn’t afford a hotel; we didn’t even know where California was man. What’s interesting as well is Bob Marley would come into the shop, Patti Smith, Blondie. I remember selling weed to Peter O’Toole. I used to sell weed under the counter as well! Don’t do that anymore – I was a young lad [laughing]. A lot of the punks often didn’t have any money and I’d give the shit away, because there was this kind of cultural exchange going on where we were turning each other on. They were giving me this whole DIY ideology and I gave them the clothes. Later on, Acme Attractions actually morphed into BOY, at which point they started to cater to what I call the tabloid punk. That’s actually when I left, because I could no longer hold my head up as it seemed to be following as opposed to leading. But Acme Attractions was a very special place. 

You mentioned the media version of punk there – what was the difference between those two? 

Yeah, well the media portrayed punk as kind of this negative, nihilistic thing but it was never about that. It was about individuality, empowerment and freedom. That all kind of went pear shaped when the pistols appeared on the Bill Grundy show. The next day everyone thought that’s what it’s all about, you know, gobbing and fuck you. The thing is anybody can say fuck you, but then what? You’ve got to offer some kind of idea, or replacement, to fuck you, that’s not enough on its own, anybody can do that. After the Bill Grundy thing, all of the A-listers started to disassociate themselves with that first wave of punk. That’s when the whole post punk thing happened, which was a lot more interesting. By that time punk had kind of painted itself into a corner. You give yourself a label and then that’s kind of all you can be. Labels are very dangerous things, to be avoided at all costs. You need to remain open to ideas, and not blinkered. You can’t start saying this is punk and that isn’t, you know. 

“There's got to be a reason why London swings
the way it does.”

What was interesting about post punk, to you? 

That it threw away those labels, that punk is supposed to be this and you can’t do that, and it’s about three chords and loud guitars. All of a sudden the music got a lot more interesting. If you listen to the difference between The Clash’s first album and London Calling, and the difference between the Pistols’ first album and Public Image’s first album, musically it’s a lot more liberating, and not trapped by these definitions. That’s not to say that the first wave wasn’t an important part of the dynamic, but once you’ve said fuck you what happens is some people get stuck on that first rung of the ladder. The rest of us kept climbing. 

When I think about PiL (Public Image Limited), they’ve got quite a defined style in terms of fashion. Where were you at that point? 

I was at the birth of all of that stuff because after the Pistols broke up, John went to Jamaica to escape the paparazzi media frenzy. He’d always had a love for Krautrock and bands like Can, he’s an intelligent dude. That cartoon punk thing was never going to work for him, it was always too limiting. Between his Krautrock influences and the dub music that he liked from people like Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby, that’s what PIL was all about, really. I was there when they came up with the name and like I said, that trip to Jamaica, where he took me because I was black and his mate, and I guess he thought I knew all about Jamaica but the closest I’d ever been was seeing The Harder They Come in Brixton. I went with him and Richard Branson, and because of this kind of punky, reggae connection, Branson wanted to start a label in the same way that Chris Blackwell had a label. We checked into the Sheridan hotel as it was called then, and over the next four weeks it was like the jungle drums were beating; rich, white man signing up reggae artists. Because for the next four weeks there was an exodus of musicians, trying to get a deal from Branson. So I’d be sitting there and there’s Big Youth, I-Roy, U-Roy, Tappa Zukie, Burning Spear, Gladiators, all around me, these were names that were like, legendary people that I’d only seen on the back of 45 record covers. All of a sudden there’s all these people trying to get a deal from Branson! I met everybody on that trip except for Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Everybody came to Branson trying to get a deal. Magical time. 

Why were they going there to get a deal?

Because they were all fucking broke and Richard Branson had a lot of money! If a producer said here’s five dollars, make a record, you did it! In fact, if a producer said give me five dollars and you can make a record, you’d give him it because you just wanted to be a part of that whole thing so badly and make music. Half of rock and roll is born out of that same shit. People just dying to express themselves through music. 

The trip to Jamaica…was it successful? 

Absolutely. There’s a label, Frontline, that caught the last golden age of reggae, to my mind anyway. They got some brilliant artists. I-Roy, Gladiators, Keith Hudson, Heptones. I don’t want to sell anything but that Frontline box set that came out last year, that John and I both wrote forewords for, is an excellent introduction into reggae. The idea of John being there, like I said, was to escape the paparazzi and also give Branson some guidance, because Branson didn’t know anything about reggae but John was very passionate about it. 

Thinking about clothes and style, were you all just vibing off each other? 

I’m black, man, so style is in my DNA. I guess we were but it wasn’t a pre-meditated thing, you weren’t thinking about it, it was organic. 

When I think about the punk aesthetic being led by these shops, what kind of things was post punk feeding off (shops etc.)? 

Ah man that’s a good question. You’re asking me to explain something that I did instinctively. That’s a bloody good question. It’s intuitive for some people, its an inherent thing. We don’t follow and it’s part of our DNA. For Vivienne and Malcolm it was more of an intellectual thing, where they were looking at books and culture for references, and I’m not knocking it by any means. I met Malcolm and Vivienne four or five years before punk exploded and they are a large part of who I am today I owe to them. It was Malcolm that explained to me that counter culture didn’t happen in isolation, it had a lineage, it had a tradition and if I was brave enough and if I had a good idea, I could be part of it too. It was probably one of the best lessons I ever had in my life. I was never content with just being a fan, I remember as a kid and going to see bands play and all the rest of it and thinking, ok, you’re up there doing your thing but what about me? What am I going to bring to the table? It was through Malcolm’s guidance that I realised that maybe I could be part of this tradition and lineage too. That isn’t what you asked me is it…

No but that idea of counter culture is quite interesting…

It’s a hard thing to find these days – the only counter culture in the 21st century is the over the counter culture! It was all character building stuff, you know, you’ve got to understand that we grew up on music that helped us be all that we can be. It wasn’t about turning you into a passive consumer, it was music that helped you change your mind. It wasn’t about changing your sneakers, and I’m a product of all of that. I’m listening to Bob Marley, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, and it was entertaining, but it was also music that was a tool for social change. It could change your life man. Some people say that music doesn’t effect change it only reflects change, but I’m here to tell you different. It has that potential. 

You were sort of credited with bringing the bass to punk music…

Well, you’ve got to take that with a pinch of salt. People like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, in that tradition of white working class kids gravitating to black music for a rebellious fix, they were already there. The people that I turned on were sort of, all the white people that didn’t live next to black people so to speak. In the mid 70s that was a lot of people. I was turning on people coming in from the fringes of London and the suburbs. I wouldn’t take responsibility for turning people like The Clash or John Lydon onto reggae; they were already on that road. But I certainly had more obscure dub records than they had, for sure! There was this cultural exchange going on, they were turning me onto people like The New York Dolls and Iggy Pop and MC5, which was very inspiring to me, very empowering. I’m first generation black British, which kind of rolls off the tongue now, but it took a long time for being black and British to mean something and in fact I don’t think it meant anything until Soul II Soul came along. It took that long. When I was growing up I was looking to America and Jamaica for that rebellious fix. I’m of Jamaica but I wasn’t Jamaican, it took a long time to be able to say yeah, I’m black and I’m British, which was something new, and to be empowered by the duality of my existence. 

This is a really untested theory I’ve got here, but if you take punk and then reggae, with the dub and the bassline, it kind of continued on into rave, drum & bass and so on…

Yeah; all of that stuff was informed by punk. 

So do you think that these things are uniquely British because of the punk movement that happened here? 

I think that the punk movement opened the doors and opened peoples ears to different influences. No longer was the evolution of music so Eurocentric, it wasn’t all about guitars. All of a sudden they’re taking ideas from Jamaica, specifically the bassline, and using the mixing desk as an instrument, and now those elements are part of the fabric of pop music. Listen to something like Lily Allen’s first record, there’s all kind of Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean things going on but for people that don’t know, that haven’t got the codebook so to speak, it’s over their head. 

It’s to do with the social development of this country, that whole multi-cultural thing with my parents. It’s getting a bit deep again but you know, Afro-Americans were dragged kicking and screaming to America, they went through the whole civil rights movement. So the social development of black American culture is very different to that in the UK. My parents bought a bloody ticket, for this whole multi-cultural thing. But what came out of that was a genuine multi-cultural mixture that makes London great. It’s the people that embrace multi-culturalism that will make Britain great again. That’s why London is such a creative place, it’s because it’s open to all of these different ideas. You mentioned New York earlier, and it’s funny because it’s actually quite polarised, they don’t have that kind of genuine multi-culture, there’s little bits of it, but nothing like what’s going on here. The social development of this country and the whole racial, social experiment doesn’t exist anywhere else like it does in the UK, because it started here in the 50s and continued to where we are in the 21st century, where we come up with all these great ideas that are different. Just like my white mates were digging the reggae stuff, I’m digging The Kinks and The Who and David Bowie, you know. People like Goldie and Jazzy B, that’s what makes these guys interesting. All of a sudden they’re open to what their white mates were bringing to the party. I’m not aware of that really existing like that anywhere else on the planet. There has to be a reason why London swings the way it does. I mean, I love this city!