15 March 2022

Don Letts: “The youth need to go out and reclaim punk rock”

"I'm as old as rock 'n roll, itself. I'm the last generation."

Don Letts is the type of figure whose life has almost taken on a mythical quality. The filmmaker, DJ, musician, and commentator has carved out a distinct niche as a tastemaker at every turn. It’s difficult to unravel him from London of the late 70s, though, when King’s Road was home to the city’s most rebellious subcultures. These punks and New Romantics were invariably outfitted from either Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX, or Acme Attractions — where Letts lobbed wares and span reggae discs. Sure, Bob Marley may have written ‘Punky Reggae Party’, but it was Letts who had to convince him that punk was worth the time in the first place. 

But Letts isn’t one for solely reflecting on the past. Speaking about the new documentary about his life, Rebel Dread, which was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic, he lets out an exhalation: “I don’t even recognise the guy on the screen anymore. I’ve done a lot of living since then!” Charting his beginnings as a child (who once set fire to his classroom desk) to his relentless pursuit of punk rock (Letts shot for the likes of The Clash and the Sex Pistols), the film tells the story of a British-born Black man who not only immersed in the zeitgeist, but became one of it’s leading, and most enduring, figures.

Now, almost half a century on, Letts is still about the music. He’s soon releasing an album, and over the course of our conversation, he keeps returning to music’s ability to “inform, entertain and inspire”, as well as incite “social and personal change”. In times divided by Brexit, Covid and the fallout from the Black Lives Matter movement, this is surely more prescient than ever: “I’m a great believer that every generation needs its own soundtrack man, it’s really important.”

To mark the release of the film, HUNGER spoke to Letts about Rebel Dread, the anti-establishment spirit that is missing today, and getting the last laugh on Bob Marley. 

The documentary is finally out. How do you feel about it?

Overwhelmed to be quite honest. I’m not used to having the spotlight shone on me. It was made almost three years ago but with Covid, it was put on the backburner. So much has happened in everyone’s life, with that and events like Black Lives Matter. It had a massive impact, and then you have the world waking up again, which has been difficult as well. I don’t even recognise the guy on the screen anymore, I’ve done a lot of living since then. 

Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid-19 would have informed the documentary somewhat? 

Undoubtedly. I had a book come out called There and Black Again, and the reason the book had that title is that I’ve gone through my whole life trying to embrace life’s colour, while everyone else has been arguing about what’s black and what’s white. At the end of the 21st century, the race argument was still the main thing on the agenda… and I’ve just spent my whole life trying to be Don Letts. Anyway, Black Lives Matter made me reexamine my part in the whole process. I’ve been on this earth for 66 years and I was left wondering whether I’ve been tap dancing for the man or whether I’ve actually been dealing with the situation. But I came to realise that through the films and the music I’ve made and the lyrics I’ve written that it’s never been too far from the argument. It’s sad at the same time, because who would Don Letts have been if society had been nice to be as a child? These are the things that you sit there during Covid thinking about. Covid is a funny thing; the good thing about it, lots of time to think, the bad thing about it, lots of time to think [laughs]. 

Having witnessed what Britain was like in regards to racism in the 60s and 70s, was it even more dispiriting to see the events that erupted in 2019?

It was a case of one step forward, two steps back. It’s funny because, at a grassroots level, you think that ground has been gained and that rivers have been crossed, but apparently, there’s a whole ocean of problems as typified by Brexit. Being woken up to the realisation that you’re in this bubble that isn’t representative of the whole country is depressing. You know, the bonds that have been formed through music and culture might be relevant in places like London, Manchester and Bristol, but they’re not indicators of the whole country. The indicator of this whole country is Brexit.

Have you always viewed music as a unifying force? 

Absolutely. I was born in 1956, I’m as old as rock and roll itself. I’m the final generation. When we grew up in the last half of the 20th century, all we had for alternative information and inspiration was music. So, it was like the air you breathe, it was like blood and food for your mind. And that combined with our whole propensity for style and fashion, we put that together and turned it into an art form. Music helped you to be all you could be. It was about changing your mind as well as your sneakers. People forget that music does have that potential. In the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s become this soundtrack for passive consumerism, but for me, it’s helped me engage with my fellow man, the planet, and it still has that potential. 

And if we turn to reggae, you were one of the people who helped it get more airplay in London…

The emerging reggae sounds were introduced in the UK by Trojan Records, actually. It captured the imagination of my white mates, and while the politicians were scaring the old white people with dodgy politics, the music of Jamaica helped us integrate. A lot is made about the problems that we went through in the 60s, 70s and 80s and beyond, and it’s all true, but not so much has been said about the bonds that were formed. We did find moments of joy with a lot of our white mates, and a lot of those seeds that were sewn went onto inform this multicultural Britain we have today. It’s by embracing that multiculturalism that Britain will be great again — it ain’t right now. But it’s always had the potential man.

What made that moment so fertile for the melding of punk and reggae?

You’ve got to look at the socio-political climate of the times man, there was dread in the mid-70s. There was massive unemployment, and as Johnny Rotten so eloquently put it, “a general feeling of no future”. As a first-generation, British born black, I was obviously somewhat already alienated but I had a soundtrack, I had my reggae thing to ease my pain, but my white mates weren’t so lucky. What was interesting was that by the mid-70s, it seemed as if England had managed to alienate its own white youth through politics and through the predominant music of the time, which did not relate to what was happening on the streets at all. So my white mates set about making a soundtrack that was of the people, for the people, and by the people: punk rock. I’m a great believer that every generation needs its own soundtrack man, it’s really important. We were like-minded rebels that were thrown together by society as Bob Marley so eloquently wrote about in his song, ‘Punky Reggae Party’. 

On that note, you actually met Bob Marley

On the internet you read things like, “Don Letts, friend of Bob Marley,” and that’s a little bit of a stretch. But I was an acquaintance. I have to say he came and sought me out and we had some very interesting conversations, particularly one about punk rock. Basically, I went to see his show in 1975 at the Lyceum and was so taken by it that I walked out of that show a changed man. I followed him to his hotel in Kensington, hustled my way in, and because I had something that he wanted… let’s put it that way, we formed an acquaintance. 

Then, in 1977, when he was staying here after being shot in Jamaica, he was living on the King’s Road in Chelsea, around the corner from a shop I was managing called Acme Attractions. And because I’d made an impression on him back in the day, he’d come to Acme looking for me so I could, let’s say, help him out [laughs]. Look, I’ve got to be clear about this, Don Letts was not a dealer. I just had something that would get me through the door to someone who was my hero. 

I guess the one time that you’re talking about specifically is when we famously had an argument about punk rock. I was wearing some punk clothes and he said that I looked like a nasty punk rocker. This was before his understanding of what the scene was about. And I had to stand my ground and be like, ‘Bob, you’re wrong. These are my mates, they’re like-minded rebels,’ and he was like ‘get the hell out of here’. I left with my tail between my legs, but three months later, a somewhat better informed Bob Marley was moved to write the song, Punky Reggae Party. So in my books, I got the last laugh. 

They say you should never meet your heroes. Did he live up to expectations? 

With Bob, what you saw was what you got. It weren’t an act on stage, and as a young, British born Black trying to find his way in this world, Bob was instrumental in making me the man I was today. There are no two ways about it. And not just for Don Letts, we were children of the Windrush generation, before Bob Marley and films like The Harder They Come, we were running around like headless chickens. We were almost like a lost tribe, we weren’t sure where we fit, we were looking to America and Jamaica but we weren’t that either. It was a long journey for me to say I was a British born black and for that to actually mean something. It’s a prime example of music’s ability to inform, entertain and inspire and be there for social and personal change. You can’t get better than Bob. 

You’ve spoken a lot about the clothing store you managed, Acme Attractions, it was such a stomping ground for that scene. And to top it off, you were just down the road from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s boutique, SEX. 

Malcolm was a big inspiration for me. I was lucky enough to be friends with them before the whole punk thing even happened. In fact, it was Malcolm who showed me that this countercultural stuff that I was so enamoured with had a lineage, a tradition and a legacy. It was him who made me join the countercultural dots and realise that if I had a good idea and was brave enough I could be part of this thing too. You don’t have to stand on the sidelines and be a fan your whole life, with any luck that can only be a tiny part of your journey. Punk was very much that, breaking down the fourth wall… it said if you had a good idea, get involved. 

Shops like SEX were the centre of the zeitgeist around that time. I don’t think that exists in the same way now…

No. Listen, you’ve got to understand, all of the stuff we’re talking about — especially the style-driven subcultures that were so prevalent in the last half of the 20th century — were created out of necessity. The mainstream didn’t satisfy the likes of myself and my friends, so we created our own scene; our own culture. Fast forward to the millennium, the digital age comes in and all of a sudden, you have access to everything. It’s removed the pain and the struggle that was so much a part of the creative process, I’ve gotta tell ya. It’s not the same and it definitely won’t look as good.

In the last half of the 20th century, as demonstrated by punk, we revelled in individuality and freedom and expression. I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush, but as we moved into the 21st century, it seemed as if there was a regression where people no longer wanted to be individuals. Generally, there’s this weird conservatism that’s crept back in that makes me feel like punk rock never happened. The youth need to go out and reclaim this shit, man. 

What do you think is missing from this moment, culturally speaking? 

Oh man [pauses]. I know. Collective synchronised experience that isn’t happening via a computer screen. What I mean is, people getting together, looking each other in the eye, and bringing in the human chemistry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite, all this technical stuff is great, but without the humanity it’s a waste of time.

What’s next for you for you in 2022?

Oh, this album I’ve finished. It’s not gonna come out till Autumn, it’s called Out of Sync, because that’s how I feel, and I’m really, really excited about it. Funny enough, because of Covid and the book and the film, I’ve had to collate my thoughts and what I’ve done is given people a really great bassline. That’s it.

Rebel Dread is available to watch now on BFI Player 

  • Writer Nessa Humayun
  • Images Courtesy of Don Letts

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