Don Letts Interview.
Acme Attraction, Roxy DJ, Punk Rock Film Maker, Slits manager, Clash cohort, BAD member, Screaming Target & so much more: Don Letts is a Punk Rock Legend. Jean Encoule caught up with him recently to shoot the shit about all of the above & anything else in between:
trakMARX - You began trading as Acme Attractions in 1975 with Jeannette Lee. How did the two of you meet?
The Don: We met at a soul night at the Lyceum in the early part of the '70's. She was easy on the eyes, I was light on my feet! We became an 'item' soon after.
trakMARX - When Acme Attractions opened, was the buzz that would become Punk Rock already audible?
The Don: At that time I managed Acme on my own (it was a stall upstairs in the Antiquarius on the Kings Rd, Chelsea. Then Jeannette and I ran it together when we moved operations into the basement (I was playing reggae on a jukebox and the other stall holders kept complaining about the noise, hence the move). This is around '76 and different factions of young people would hang out in either our shop or McClaren/Westwoods place down the road. Our place was more user friendly and we had the best soundtrack! Heavy dub reggae. It was the best club in town filled with people looking for a scene of their own.
trakMARX - What was the concept behind your stocking policy in those early days?
The Don: We had a mixture of what could best described as 20th century antiques (juke-boxes/pinball machines etc) and clothes. The clothes were to become the focal point. We're talking things like peg-legged trousers in shocking pink, electric blue zoot suits, Marlow crepe soled shoes, girls stilettos, wrap-around shades, American shark-skin suits etc. This is just before punk came in.
trakMARX - Which of your early customers would become players on the nascent Punk scene?
The Don: People that passed through - too many to mention, all the major and bit players on the punk scene (and I mean all). Then there'd be Chris Sullivan's Welsh posse, Robert Elms, Ian Drury, Patti Smith, Bob Marley, Chrissie Hynde, the list is endless.........
trakMARX - What were your most popular selling items in those early days?
The Don: That would be the peg-legged trousers in a variety of lurid colours 'cause ours were about fifty quid cheaper than Malcolms.
trakMARX - You attribute many of your early insights into youth culture to advice given by McLaren & Westwood. How did you originally get involved with them?
The Don: Before Acme opened I'd hang out in Vivienne and Malcolm's place wich was an interesting insight into Euro-centric sub-culture. This is were I would of heard about things like the Situationists or 50's and 60's Americana. I nearly ended up working there when Malcolm went to New York to manage the Dolls.
trakMARX - Is it true Vivienne never spoke to you again after you plumped for Acme Attractions over Sex?
The Don: Vivienne demanded loyalty! When I started managing Acme she banned me from her shop. But I'd still get stuff from Jordan when she wasn't there.Before our 'falling out' we got on quite well, I remember going to see Lou Reed with her and she was the coolest looking girl in the joint (it could have been her opaque rubber cat suit!)
trakMARX - Bernie Rhodes stall in the Antiquarians was also a major attraction in 1975. How did you hook up with Bernie?
The Don: Bernie had a stall in the Antiquarius before Acme, selling these shirts with silk screened Cadillacs all over then. But it was his collection of reggae albums that caught my attention. That was our point of contact/reference.
trakMARX - When Andy Czezowski asked you to spin a few sides at his new club, The Roxy, did you have any inkling the birth of a youth culture was just around the corner?
The Don: The punk rock explosion had begun just before the Roxy opened. That's why Andrew started it 'cause here was this scene with no where to go, nowhere for the emerging new punk bands to play. He asked me to DJ simply because of the vibe I created in Acme with my selection of tunes. It was all accidental really. When I started DJ'ing at the Roxy there simply were no punk records to play so I played what I was into. There was only one deck so you could hear/feel the atmosphere of the club in between the gaps of the tunes. I did throw in some Dolls, Iggy, MC5 and the like. It was the only stuff that had any connection with what was happening. I think it was Malcolm that really turned me on to that stuff.
trakMARX - You could buy ready rolled spliffs from the Roxy bar - was this an imported Dutch idea or a home grown development?
The Don: The ready rolled spliffs under the counter at the Roxy was really an 'economic' opportunity that presented itself 'cause the punks couldn't roll their own. My rasta bredrin' (that I'd got to help run the club) thought it was a good cultural exchange!
trakMARX - Do you think reggae's influence (minimalism, social realism/commentary & an eye for a natty slogan) on Punk Rock has been underplayed?
The Don: Between The Clash, The Slits, Patti Smith and John Lydon's love of reggae and me doing my bit, them that are supposed to know, know!
trakMARX - As the white boys started picking up guitars & invading any stages that would have them, you chose a Super 8 camera. What criteria did you use to decide whether a band was worth filming?
The Don: They had to be about something, making music with an agenda. Failing that they had to make me laugh.... My favourites were the Pistols, Clash, Slits, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect..
trakMARX - The material you filmed in these heady days eventually became known as "Punk Rock: The Movie". How did this concept originally develop?
The Don: I read an article in the N.M.E that said I was making a film and I thought that's a good idea I'll call it a movie! The Punk Rock Movie. Time Out then did a cover story on me and then it ran at the ICA for six weeks, breaking their box office record.
trakMARX - As Punk began to believe it's own press & the 1st wave caved in on itself, you cut loose for Jamaica with John Lydon & Richard Branson. Tell us a little about that trip.
The Don: John took me to J.A 'cause we were mates and he thought it'd be familiar to me. But the closest I'd ever been to J.A was watching The Harder They Come in my local cinema in Brixton. It was a trip! Hanging with the likes of I-Roy, U-Roy, Big Youth, Tapper Zukie and Lee Perry. I remember John and me having to sit in on a session (paid for by the record company)with Lee Perry doing a version of Anarchy and "Holidays in the Sun with a bunch of reggae session musicians! Smoking.....
trakMARX - As the talent slowly but surely started to pull itself from the wreckage of Punk, you started representing The Slits. How did that come about?
The Don: They loved reggae and we were good friends. I'd often take them to hardcore reggae clubs back in the day (I used to take Rotten and Strummer too). There was a time when they wanted to go on the 'White Riot' tour but had no money. So I gave them the money and effectively managed them for a while.
trakMARX - As a musician, what musical projects have you been involved in since?
The Don: I ain't no musician! Remember, your talking to the guy that had coloured stickers on his keyboards when playing live in B.A.D. I occasionally write lyrics for Dreadzone. Oh yeah, there was Screaming Target (Island Records) a band I started after I quit B.A.D. I just needed to know I could do it without Mick.
trakMARX - In 2001 Heavenly released the exemplary "Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown" collection - dubbed "the soundtrack to London's legendary Roxy Club" - & you have recently compiled a Trojan collection for Sanctuary. Are there any more DJ collections in the pipeline?
The Don: Heavenly are talking about "Dread Meets B-Boys Downtown" the soundtrack to New York's Roxy Club (early hip-hop). I was there shooting "Clash On Broadway" and it was a very special time 'cause for a brief moment we had a punky reggae hip-hop party!
trakMARX - What other music related projects are you currently involved in & when can we expect to access them?
The Don: Just finished co-directing a feature film starring one of Bob Marley's sons (Ky-mani), which premiered in Canne. Done some re-mixes as the Dub Cartel with Dan Donovan (Selects Cuts label). We also do DJ sets as the Dub Cartel (just did Lee Perry's Meltdown and Glastonbury). About to do some work on a Bob Marley DVD for Trojan.
trakMARX - In conclusion, what was the absolute highpoint of your involvement with Punk Rock?
The Don: For a lot of people Punk Rock is something that happened back in '77 but for me it still has daily application. So I hope my highpoint hasn't happened yet!(winning a Grammy for 'Westway to the World' was pretty cool though).
Jean Encoule tMx10 July 03