Don Letts on Punk

This week McQ speaks to Don Letts – film director, DJ and overall punk icon – about the origins and the future of punk rock.

 

Letts, known for his feature documentaries The Punk Rock Movie (1977), The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) and Punk:Attitude (2005), landed a job as a DJ at The Roxy the first punk rock venue in the UK and played a key role in the London punk rock scene. Letts ran clothing store Acme Attractions on King’s Road during the mid seventies. By the mid 1970s Acme’s scene featured punk heroes such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. ‘I thank my lucky stars that I bumped into the whole punk thing. Their DIY ethos gave me the inspiration to pick up a movie camera and reinvent myself as Don Letts the filmmaker. Most importantly it gave me and many others the chance to get involved’.

Don Letts portrait

Sniffin Glue – Don Letts

 

Letts, whose parents came to the UK from Jamaica in the 50s, describes how the London punk rock movement established itself in a poor social, economic and political environment. His relationship and response to it were immediate. ‘I first saw The Who in 1971, 14 years old, after school. It was a so-called full production rehearsal and I was 20 feet away from the band. It changed my life forever by opening a gateway to a new universe. I’ve been there ever since. It was then just a hop and a skip to seeing Bob Marley in the mid 1970s then The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the late seventies. Although these were all benchmark moments for me it was the arrival of punk rock with its DIY attitude that saved me from just being a fan. So respect to punk rock! ’

Don & Patti Smith

 

Letts actually met Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren before the movement started. It was McLaren who made him realise that everything he liked was connected: ‘He showed me things didn’t happen in isolation. There was a lineage and a tradition. He helped me join the countercultural dots.’ Letts worked down the road from their shop ‘SEX’ on Kings Road. ‘What is interesting about these two shops on Kings Road is that the UK punk rock scene really evolved around them.’

 

Acme Attractions was the home for now established punk icons and signposted the multicultural way that London was heading. ‘Acme Attractions was probably the happiest period of my life because I just sat there with dark glasses on, looking cool.’

Don Letts & Jeanette Lee at Acme Attractions

ACME Attractions

 

There were two main things that brought people into Don’s shop besides the clothes. There was the music, dub reggae, and his girlfriend at the time Jeanette Lee who managed the store with him. ‘Acme was packed on the weekends. It was like party central for like-minded people that were looking for something new. The dub reggae Don played in the shop and later on as DJ at The Roxy would later influence many of the emerging bands.

 

In 1977 Letts met Bob Marley who was staying in London that year. ‘He lived in Oakley Street, around the corner from Acme and he used to pop into the store. One day I went to his place to collect some money he owed me wearing a pair of Vivienne’s bondage trousers. Bob started to take the piss saying, Don, you look like a nasty punk rocker! He’d obviously been reading all the negative press about punk in the tabloid papers. Now I might have been baby Don Letts but I stood my ground and told him he was wrong and the punk rockers were my friends ‘cause we were like-minded rebels’ before leaving in a huff. Funnily enough, two months later Bob Marley released the song called ‘Punk Reggae Party’ so I figure I got the last laugh.

Don Letts and Bob Marley

 

When Acme changed to BOY Don left to briefly manage The Slits who along with the likes of Gaye Advert, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene and Jordan were fearless punk women who stood up for themselves in what was previously a male dominated scene. They were instrumental in empowering women up and down the country in a way that no other movement has done since.

 

In 1978 Don released his debut film The Punk Rock Movie. After The Sex Pistols split, Letts joined Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) on a trip to Jamaica, his first time to the island.

Although many think punk rock started in the late 70s, nothing could be further from the truth and by no means was this expression and attitude exclusive to this period alone. ‘Picasso’s art, the birth of hip-hop and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ were all punk. The idea is much bigger than being on stage hitting a guitar – it’s not even just about music. A punk attitude can inform anything you do and once you realise this, the world’s an exciting place.’

Don Letts & John Lydon

 

According to Letts, punk rock cannot be defined. ‘It is an intangible spirit but when you see or hear it, you’ll immediately recognise it as it always rises above the shit. And besides if you could define it or put it in words, it would be a formula.

 

Punk broke down barriers and motivated people to reinvent themselves. ‘It was very much a complete subculture. It wasn’t just about music, it inspired some people to become fashion designers, others to become poets, graphic artists or indeed film makers’. That’s why punk had such a huge impact and we’re still talking about it 40 years later. Letts believes that the 1977 incarnation of punk still informs many things that are going on today. ‘I think it’s really important that people understand it was never about safety pins and Mohawks. It was an attitude that could be incorporated into whatever you did.’ Being proud to have been part of the movement, Letts finds it curious that nothing as big has happened since. Part of which he puts down to living in the digital age. ‘As useful as the Internet is, it’s also removed a lot of the pain and struggle which was an integral part of the creative process. Punk happened because of how little we had not how much we had’. There was no Internet, no mobile phones and no social media back in the day. You’d have to get off your arse to find like-minded people and that’s how subcultures begin.

 

Affordable technology’s also got a lot to answer for, I mean just ‘cause you can afford it don’t mean you can do it, you still need a good idea. Joe Strummer had to beg, borrow and steal to buy a guitar (and then do it all again to buy an amp), by the time he’d gone through that process, he really wanted to play guitar. Todays low prices mean any fool can have a go, the downside of which is mediocrity. Personally I think art was better when shit cost more.’

NOWTHEN Don Letts

 

We are not looking each other in the eyes anymore. We don’t share enough collective experiences, being in the same place at the same time. Collective synchronised experiences are a major source of creative energy. The digital age has kind of killed all that. You can now download your own personal subculture via your laptop without going out your front door. All very convenient but not very sexy.

 

‘I believe every generation needs its own soundtrack but in the 21st century its all gone quiet on the western front and it feels like punk never happened. But I remain optimistic ‘cause punk’s like the force in Star Wars – you can’t stop it – but you might have to look in new places’.

 

Letts is currently working on a new film ‘Two Sevens Clash’, due for release in 2017.

 

Enjoy the PUNK THEN & NOW PLAYLIST LETTS CURATED SPECIALLY FOR McQ HERE: