Don Letts is to 1970s punk what Cleopatra was to Ancient Rome. Aged 60, he continues telling us what happened in such a brief period of time through documentaries and DJ sessions. He worked as a selector in London’s legendary Club Roxy during the first punk wave and mixed it with reggae as there were not enough punk songs during the first years of the movement, this promoting genre fusion. Over time, Letts became one of the founders of Big Audio Dynamite, the band Mick Jones founded after The Clash. A film director and Dj, as well as a wonderful music selector in the Culture Clash Radio BBC show on Sundays from 10pm to midnight, he visited Barcelona during In-Edit Beefeater, devoted to punk this year, to present the film Punk: Attitude.
You’re not new to the festival. In fact, in 2008, when I still didn’t know your work, you presented your documentary Punk: Attitude and then you played in a party a very reggae-y set, which surprised me pleasantly. I guess I was hoping to hear The Clash and The Ramones. Do you think you had anything to do with the collision of reggae and punk in London in the late 1970s?
Yes, I suppose it’s largely my fault that people associate reggae with punk. But many don’t understand why. In England, before the punk-reggae parties, there was a tradition of middle-class white kids listening to Jamaican music: the skinheads. I mean the original skinheads, not their fascist version. That distinction is very important because, in the 20th century, being a skinhead meant something completely different. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a mixture of black and white culture. In fact, the skinhead was the first multicultural movement in the UK before punk rock. I arrived after that. There were many kids like Joe Strummer, Paul Zimmerman or Johnny Rotten who already knew reggae before I showed up. What is certain is that in the mid-1970s there were many white young people who didn’t live near black people and didn’t know black people. And these are the people I turned into Jamaican music lovers when they came to the Roxy. So, yes, it’s my fault.
There were many kids like Joe Strummer, Paul Zimmerman or Johnny Rotten who already knew reggae before I showed up
You started making videos for The Clash. How does someone initially connected to reggae go out with punks and realize that his job is to videotape and document everything?
Well, my parents are from Jamaica but I was born in England. I guess as I grew older I realized music was the only alternative form of expression. There was no social media or video games. It was the only way out to an alternative world. The ’70s were difficult times, but reggae made me feel better. My white friends, on the other hand, had nothing to turn to. Popular music back than was rubbish, it didn’t relate at all with what was going on in the streets. So they decided to create their own soundtrack, which was punk rock. And that’s how I started to mingle with friends like Joe Strummer or the Pistols, and that’s they picked up their guitars. And then I thought, “I want that too!”
At that time you were also a manager in Acme. How can a store become the scenario of an underground scene? What role did it play in punk and reggae?
True. Back then, I worked at a store on King’s Road in Chelsea called Acme Attractions. In those days only two stores were in fashion: Acme and Let it Rock, run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm, which was 200 meters away. The early ’70s were filled with disaffected white children looking for an alternative where there was none. They came to hang out at our stores, and here punk rock began to evolve. They liked the reggae that played. Our mutual love for Jamaican music brought us closer, but then they began to create their own music. And I think that’s the most interesting thing about punk: some people took a guitar; others took cameras, or scissors to become fashion designers… I took a video camera.
How would you define punk rock knowingly today?
Punk rock was a very complete subculture, not just a soundtrack. There were punk rock filmmakers, graphic designers, poets, all kinds of creators. And I think that’s why we keep talking about it today, because of its tremendous legacy. I insist it wasn’t just music. Acme was a breeding ground for creative people with a common bond, and they encouraged each other. We became closer, we understood our differences. There was no big plan –we were just doing our thing and things evolved. I didn’t know 40 years later we would be talking about it. In fact, this is a big problem because something new should have already happened.
The celebration of punk in England has become a marketing exercise and punk rock is not about this, but about empowerment and individuality
Why do you think it’s wrong to keep talking about it?
The celebration of punk in England has become a marketing exercise and punk rock is not about this, but about empowerment and individuality. I don’t see that anywhere. So the big question we should ask ourselves is: where is today’s punk rock?
You have mentioned Vivienne Westwood, another punk icon. Were you friends?
Yes. I used to spend a lot of time with Vivienne and Malcolm in the store. We watched movies together. I remember once she took me to see Lou Reed and it’s hard to say now, but in those times – I with my dreadlocks and my electric blue suit and she with her blond hair – it seemed like we’d come from Mars. At that time I didn’t think about, but whenever I do today… There’s no that kind of individuality anymore.
How did you feel when Acme closed?
I’ll tell you what makes me sad: gentrification. In all cities, gentrification means only large companies can afford to rent and therefore the centers of all cities are exactly the same. It has a sterilizing effect. When I come to Barcelona I want to feel that I am in Barcelona. It’s a shame how corporations are killing individuality.
Why do you think individuality is lost? Perhaps because of globalization?
For many reasons… One of them is the economy. I think it is so difficult for young people to live, that they can’t afford to think about being creative because they are trying to pay rent and eat. Things were complicated in the past, but there were ways to circulate around problems, such as squatting. Today you can’t do that. In England people live with their parents until their 30s. If you do that, can you become rebellious? I think the economic situation has a lot to say about general creativity in the West. Because it seems to me that punk rock never happened. In fact, we have a generation of young people who are more conservative than their parents. When we grew up we used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. Now I think: “I don’t trust anyone under 30”.
I think the rave phenomenon was the beginning of the end because the raves weren’t about escapism, they were not political. And from there, we went downhill
When do you think punk died?
After punk rock there came 2 Tone, which was influenced by punk rock and Jamaican music. And the great thing about this genre is that it was very political, very social. They were very intelligent because they did it with music that you could dance to. They knew they could not bore young people. They had to captivate them and that’s why they made that kind of music and saying relevant things at the same time. After the 2 Tone, I think the rave phenomenon was the beginning of the end because the raves weren’t about escapism, they were not political. And from there, we went downhill. The last big scene I remember in the UK was Brit pop, but it was pre-made, it wasn’t even a subculture. It was more naive. It was already the beginning of all this nostalgia that has invaded England in the last 60 years…
Has there ever been anything so great as punk ever since?
No. We’ve had different styles, music and genres, but nothing so complete. If there had been one, we would be celebrating the anniversary of that, and we are not. This is a big, big problem. When you look back it is easy to identify punk. Sun Ra, George Clinton, Public Enemy… Everything old is punk!
Sun Ra is not punk…
Yes it is, it’s punk jazz. You have to understand that punk rock is not only made with guitars. It even goes beyond music. Buñuel’s films have a punk spirit, Marcel Duchamp’s art is punk rock. It is very important that people understand that because then they will realize that maybe they could be a punk doctor, a punk teacher or even a punk politician. The world needs that kind of thing more than it needs musicians. We have too many musicians. The stage is full. We need something more.
What about Gil Scott-Heron, is he punk rock too?
I have also made a documentary about him. For me he is 100% punk. I believe that everything that interests me has that spirit.
I tried to manage The Slits for a year, but they were too crazy, they were unmanageable
You were manager of The Slits. What made you trust them and what did they do for you stop working with them?
I tried to manage The Slits for a year, but they were too crazy, they were unmanageable. I adored them but that was not a role for Don Letts. I didn’t want to be the manager of other people’s ideas, I wanted to have my own idea. The Slits were very important for the empowerment of women in England. Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Specs … All of them inspired women from the north to the south of the country. Because, before punk rock, women made the choirs for ‘cock’ rockers and suddenly they went ahead, hand in hand with men.
Your favourite hotspot is…
Portobello Road in Brixton, where I grew up, and West London, where I live now.
You never thought you’d end up…
Making movies! I’m 60 years old and it may seem normal now, but a black man getting into film in the 70’s was kind of ridiculous. My parents wanted me to study to become a postman or a bus driver. Believe me, the idea of a black person doing something creative in the media in a white England was not on the radar. We were supposed to be cleaning the whites’ offices, so back then I would never have thought I’d end up in New York receiving a Grammy, for example.
A song you can’t stop listening to?
“Do you realize” by Flaming Lips. It is stimulating and devastating at the same time.