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In conversation: with film director, DJ and musician Don Letts

Posted on 22 October 2021 by Ben Brandon

Partner Ben Brandon recently sat down with British filmmaker, DJ and musician, Donovan “Don” Letts to discuss his new book, There and Black Again.

In this session, Don opens up about his extraordinary life, from becoming one of the UK's most highly respected video directors, working with bands like The Clash, to co-founding the band Big Audio Dynamite and later becoming a renowned BBC radio DJ.

Don reflected on:

  • Life growing up as a young black man in London in the early 70's
  • His experience as a film director, including winning his first Grammy for his documentary work
  • His journey to becoming a renowned BBC radio DJ and educator on all things culture and Reggae Music
  • The Black Lives Matter movement

Ben Brandon

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session, part of a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.  I'm Ben Brandon and I will be hosting today's event.  Now it is my very great pleasure to introduce Don Letts, a maker of music and film who has been at the epicentre of British cultural life for half a century as a diarist, observer, creator and protagonist.  He relates all of this in his partly autobiographical book recently published titled ‘There and Black Again’ and I'm holding a copy of it in my hand here and you can see from the little stickers that I've read it from cover to cover.  What the book relates is a prolific career that has seen Don befriend Bob Marley after seeing him play at the seminal Lyceum gig in 1975, manage the iconic Boy Shop on the King's Road, DJ at The Roxy, make the first of many music documentaries, a punk rock movie, film and direct all of The Clash's music videos, travelled to Jamaica with John Lydon, manage, albeit briefly, The Slits, become the reluctant keyboard player for punk rock reggae fusion band Big Audio Dynamite, winning a Grammy in 2003 for The Clash documentary ‘West Way to the World’, become a mainstay Radio 6 DJ and author.  Don might with some justification be called the hardest working man in show business after one of his many musical heroes James Brown.  John where does all the energy come from?

Don Letts

Oh man I live in London and London is very expensive plus I've got two teenage daughters and they're doubly expensive because back in my day you could buy them a yo-yo or something but today everything they want has got lots of zeros on the end so I do all this stuff because I bloody have to you know, London will economically kill you if you don't stay on your toes.

Ben Brandon

But you enjoy it as well though still right? 

Don Letts

Yeah I'm lucky enough to make a living out of something I enjoy which as far as I'm concerned is a major winner because you know I'm not so much up my ass that I don't realise what most people do on this planet for very little money.   

Ben Brandon

I want to ask you a little bit if I may about the creative process because the book really from beginning to end is about the process of creating and your kind of role in, in creating music and creating art , film and so on. In your book you describe picking up a film camera for the first time and you said you didn't even read the instructions, that it didn't matter, that it was yours, and this is a great phrase I think, it was your punk instrument. What did you mean by that? 

Don Letts

Well you're referring to my Super 8 days.  Basically in 1971 I saw what was Jamaica's most famous film ‘The Harder They Come’ and I was struck by the power of cinema to kind of inform, inspire and entertain because back then, I am what you call ‘British born black’ it kind of rolls off the tongue now doesn't it, but back then it was a confusing concept but we knew what we sounded like because we had a soundtrack, reggae but there was no visual accompaniment to that until the advent of films like Harder They Come and the arrival of Bob Marley.  Anyway I see this film, I think I wouldn't mind being a filmmaker myself but in the early 70s for a young black man that was a ridiculous idea, it was an old white boy's network and you know, people like me were supposed to drive buses or something.  Anyway fast forward five or six years to the whole punk rock thing and I think punk rock's greatest gift was the whole DIY ethic, ‘Do It Yourself’ and the energy was such that you wanted to be involved you know, you didn't want to just be a fan so 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 Lett's the filmmaker’. 

Ben Brandon

Just to be clear for those who in the audience who haven't read the book or perhaps aren't as familiar with your career as others are, that you had no formal training at all, you hadn't been to film school or any other anything of that sort.   

Don Letts

I watched a lot of tv and that worked for Martin Scorsese and Spielberg and it worked for me.  The this stuff that I shot around The Roxy, which was a punk rock club in the UK in 1977 was me just trying to get my [shit] together and then one day I read in the papers - it was a musical journal actually called the NME - it said Don Letts is making a punk rock film, punk rock movie they said and I thought well that's not a bad idea I'll call it a movie, stuck the [shit] together showed it at a local arts theatre and that launched my film career as such.

Ben Brandon

And just, just tell us a little bit about what's in the movie?

Don Letts

I guess it's a simple document of the unexploding punk rock movement as it was in the late 70s.  So we're talking about early stuff with the likes of The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Susie and the Banshees, X-ray Specs, The Slits and the unfolding scene around it, I mean I went on tour with The Clash and The Slits and things like that so I guess it's the, the earliest document of the British UK punk rock movement.  In 75, 76, 77 I was running a shop called Acme Attractions on the Kings Road, Chelsea.  You know, we're talking late 70s you know, this time of social crisis and as Johnny Rotten so eloquently put it back then, a general feeling of no future, so you'd have these sort of - how would we describe them - disaffected white youth let's call them that, sort of walking aimlessly up and down the Kings Road looking for something to do, a place to hang out and one of two places they hung out was my shop, Acme Attractions and another shop further down the road called Sex, which was run by Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and it was around these two shops that the whole thing really started. 

Ben Brandon

These disaffected white youth walking up and down the King's Road I like that image in my head.  Who, who were they and, and…

Don Letts

Well they turned out to be these people that are now revered like your John Rotten as he was known then, your Joe Strummers, your Paul Simonon’s, your Mick Jones people from The Slits, Ari Up and they'd come down into the shop really attracted by the music I was playing then which was hard core Jamaican music, dub reggae.   I guess it was through our mutual love of that music that we actually became friends.

Ben Brandon

What was it about the music that you were playing that you think attracted them?

Don Letts

I mean the white youth have constantly gravitated towards black music for their rebellious fix. Pre the whole punk rock thing. I mean who do you think, the Stones and the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were listening to, it was stuff from America R&B.  I guess by the time I was growing up in the mid-70s it was more, it was more River Thames than Mississippi Delta because my lot had arrived in the 50s so no longer were they… my white mates being captivated by distant sounds we were living next door to them so the impact on their culture was a lot more obvious it wasn't disguised in interpretation you know, I mean you can hear reggae type bass lines in the songs of The Clash for instance and that [shit] was really empowering to me because it gave me a, I guess, a kind of equity with my white friends.  I was no longer like the poor relation. 

Ben Brandon

It's a recurrent theme when you're speaking about the creative process in the book  the significance of your status and, and the status of other people who you work with, other collaborator as a, as an outsider, certainly in your early years of being from a marginalized community and this is an idea I think that Quincy Jones has also talked about in in his autobiography about the where the real creativity comes from, those who are outside the tent and it's those to whom you must look to for new ideas.  I mean do you think that was your…

Don Letts

Outside the tent?

Ben Brandon

Did that, did that form your experience?  The tent in the sense that you know not part of that, of that group of, of individuals that were running the music business, that were you know, making the music at the time, that were deciding and which records went out and which records were played on the radio and so on and so forth.  I mean was, was punk outside that?  Did you feel outside of that?

Don Letts

Absolutely we were trying to create our own soundtrack that was relevant to our situation.  I mean the  popular music of the time was like Prague Rock you know, bands like The Eagles, singing about Hotel California we didn't know where California was much less be able to afford a goddamn hotel so we had to come, come up with a soundtrack that was you know, I believe that every generation needs its own soundtrack.  In the late 70s I had mine, it was reggae, it was politicized, it was militant.  My white mates were not so lucky so they had to create a soundtrack that was of the people, for the people, by the people - punk rock,

Ben Brandon

And, and did… but were you conscious at the time that you were outsiders?

Don Letts

You know I’m black man, I've been outside the whole time and I have not and it's funny all that pressure I've come to realize has helped to make me the man I am today.  I often wonder if society had been nice to me maybe I wouldn't be sitting here now because you know if I didn't have to work twice as hard as my white mates and continuously have to prove myself you know, maybe I would like I say, yeah I'd be a nobody.  So you know, what do they say, what doesn't kill you make you strong, makes you stronger and I think I'm yeah a product of that dynamic and that’s you're asking.

Ben Brandon

I, I saw a statistic in the paper this morning that 67 percent of black artists in the music business in the UK today have experienced racism in some form or another and so the question I was going to ask you…

Don Letts

It hasn’t changed.

Ben Brandon

Do I mean, I guess it's a wrong way of approaching the question but do you get the sense that things have changed at all from when you were first started making music or do you think ‘oh man it's, it's much, much the same’?

Don Letts

Well obviously the title of my book has had me reflecting on my cultural journey and what we've gained and what we've lost.  I mean you know obviously you know road has been gained and rivers have been crossed but there's a whole ocean of confusion to deal with. I'm tired of having to deal with the fact that I'm black you know, my whole life I spent my whole life to trying to be Don Letts but it's like the world won't let you.  You know the other day some cabbie said to me ‘but why are you people so angry, why are you always going on?’.  I am like ‘look dude I don't wake up in the morning going I'm black, I'm black, I'm angry’, it's a reaction to how you're treated you know and hence the whole Black Lives Matter thing which unfortunately has been brought to a head because you know, all the protest songs from the last 60-70 years, all the marching from the 60-70 years hasn't really changed anything so people have had to get more proactive beyond just a swipe or a like on your goddamn phone and things have changed because it's no longer just a black conversation as you can see in these marches.  There's as many white people there because it's all of us or none of us.  You know what I mean and the argument's been focused into a colour thing but if you took everyone of colour off the planet would racism disappear?  Of course it wouldn't.  I mean that's you know, human beings would come up with some other divide and maybe we need to look at why that is, why do we need to [shit] on other people to make ourselves feel better.  I haven't got the answer for that. 

Ben Brandon

One of the things that I thought was interesting about how you described the inter-relationship between the punk movement and punks themselves and reggae was that you said that these, these young white men as you described them…

Don Letts

As affected white youth.

Ben Brandon

As affected white youth walk down you know the high streets with reggae blaring out the windows and, and it became you know, they became acquainted with it in that way, they learnt the culture in that way, I mean is, is that is, is that something that you think is unique to London?

Don Letts

The organic mix of the cultures yeah I guess that is unique to London.  I've never seen it anywhere else.  I guess it's something to do with the evolution of the city itself.  I mean you know my forefathers were dragged kicking and screaming to America as slaves.  My parents bought a ticket to a multicultural dream in the UK.  So their point of entry was very different to what was going on in America and from my perspective it was actually the culture of my parents that helped them to survive being aliens or strangers in a strange land because you know, when they came over as part of this Windrush Generation they brought with them their hopes, their dreams and their precious record collections and it was through their, it was their music that kind of captured the imagination of my white mates and while my parents tried to anglicize themselves to survive, which was never going to work.  Ironically it was their culture that was like I say, captivating my white mates and bonds were forming through music and culture on the streets.  There's a big deal made about this punk and reggae connection in the late 70s right, but that's not where it started, I can tell you exactly where it started, 1968 with the creation of a label called Trojan Records, the first independent reggae label in the UK and what's interesting about this label is it was launched the same year, 1968, that a gentleman called Enoch Powell made this rivers of blood speech which basically was this kind of race hate speech that polarized the whole country you know, capitalizing on kind of freaking out the old white people.  A time honoured tactic believe me and at the same time as he's freaking out the old white people it's the music of Trojan that's capturing the ears of my white friends and really sowing the seeds of the UK's love affair with Jamaican music and that's where that story started.  You know, John Lydon, your Johnny Rotan’s, your Joe's Strummer’s , your Paul Simonon’s, your kids from Two-Tone, your Terry Halls - that's where their love of Jamaican music started.  I came along later on that journey.

Ben Brandon

You're going, you're not going like me for bringing it back to punk and reggae again but, but I think one of the…

Don Letts

I'll tell you, I’m going to interrupt you one more time because I’ve got to tell everybody this.

Ben Brandon

Yeah, yeah.

Don Letts

You know this over emphasis on the late 70s version of punk rock really trivializes a bigger idea and that bigger idea is that this punk attitude and spirit because that's what it is, it's an attitude and a spirit that can inform whatever you do even goddamn lawyers and it's really important that people understand that it has a lineage, a heritage and a tradition because then it becomes something you could look forward to and not something to look back on and it's not even the preserve of just music.  If you look back through history you can see all kind of punk rock art but I'd argue it's not even the preserve of just art you know, I don't know if the world needs any more punk rock musicians but we could do with some more punk rock politicians and lawyers and teachers you know.

Ben Brandon

You were very keen to make the point that it wasn't just this kind of 18 month period in 1970 you know, from 1977 to 1979 that it started much earlier and it continues today.   So take us through that journey where, where does it start in your in your view?  Punk, punk rock or the spirit of punk rock?

Don Letts

Oh man and that's a good goddamn question.   Where does t start?

Ben Brandon

I’m glad I’ve asked one.

Don Letts

Where does it start?  I don't know, I guess the first guy decided to go left when everyone else was going right metaphorically speaking you know, first person to maybe not accept what was being on offer and maybe the first person to ask a question.  That might have been the beginning of punk rock.  I can't tell you where it started but I can see it, smell it and taste it when it happens in front of me, I can tell you that and I think if you could vocalize exactly what it was well maybe that wasn't punk and I think it's continuously reinventing itself.  That's the point, I think.

Ben Brandon

Well from the rebel dread, Thank you very much  for your time and your wisdom  and your humour we really appreciate it..

Don Letts

Well thank you.

Ben Brandon

Thanks for coming.

Don Letts

I hope you all got something out of it.  In my mind I’m like why do lawyers want to know this, why do lawyers want to know this you know, so anyway I hope there was something in there for you.

Ben Brandon

Because we're open-minded.

Don Letts

And I hope I never have to see any of you ever in my life.  Don't take that the wrong way.

Ben Brandon

Thank you very much.  Thank you Don Letts.

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions to access advice for businesses that is regularly updated please visit mishcon.com

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