Clash crony, DJ, musician, filmmaker. From Brixton to Radio 6, Don Letts continues to bring reggae and punk music together. It's time to meet 'The Don'.
Before I met Don Letts – calls himself ‘the Don’, legendary punk film-maker, member of Mick Jones’ post Clash, Big Audio Dynamite and DJ, he has a show called Culture Clash on the BBC’s Radio 6 and noted big mouth – we had a few bantering email exchanges. I dared to call him Donald. I was winding him up. He sent me an email back titled ‘Donald is a duck’. Apparently, he’s a Donovan but ‘the Don’ will do.
So we find ourselves in the road where I live and he is insisting – goodness gracious, this man is more insistent than me and that’s saying something – that Bramston Road is not Harlesden. ‘Nah, nah, this isn’t Harlesden,’ he says while admitting hilariously that he used his Sat Nav to get here. From Kensal Rise. Five minutes away. He is also emphatic that he’s never been to Harlesden. Which isn’t true. Of course. However, it’s less untrue than I think.
According to Lloyd Bradley, renowned music journalist, and old friend of ‘the Don’, in his book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King – Don Letts ‘used to operate his dad’s system at The Roxy, a big Harlesden dancehall – where punk and reggae came together’.
However, according to ‘the Don’, and I believe him, this is a mix up between The Roxy which was the Covent Garden punk venue in the mid-70s, and The Roxy in Harlesden which was the former Odeon cinema and rehearsal space for bands. And’ the Don’ played the one in Covent Garden but he hasn’t actually corrected Bradley because he’s an old friend!
And what about The Clash video ‘Tommy Gun’ which apparently Don filmed at the Harlesden Roxy in 1978? “It’s all lies,” he says, “I didn’t even make that video.”
Ah, but I do think I have some concrete proof of his previous in Harlesden. What about March 11th 1977 at The Coliseum (now The Misty Moon) when fabulously feisty female band, The Slits played their first gig in support of The Clash – the Don was filming them on super 8 which eventually turned up as The Punk Rock Movie? He’s a bit vague about it, but concedes that this is true. At last!
He starts telling me that he and his family – his second family, wife, Grace, and girls, Honour and Liberty, who are six and ten – are growing out of their flat in Kensal Rise and are thinking about moving over here. And that Louis Theroux was chatting to him in Queens Park about how good it is in Harlesden. Then, I spot All Eyes On Egypt – Park Parade’s ‘blackist’ shop – and take him in there to have a look. One of the ‘bredren’ as ‘the Don’ likes to say, kind of recognises him. He knows he’s something to do with music and then ‘the Don’ explains, whereupon there is much photographing and friending up. Amid the murals of ancient Egyptian gods.
‘The Don’ is a man on the run. He doesn’t like to hang around. Despite saying that the only exercise he does is at the behest of the remote control and that he can’t believe that I’ve got him out here on a two hour walk, he’s got very speedy energy. Like a natty bee in his big trademark woolly hat and sunglasses.
Suddenly, he recognises the High Street. “I’ve seen all of this in my rear mirror,” he asserts, “the traffic is horrible. I can’t move here with this traffic.”
I ask him about his Radio 6 show, Culture Clash? “Yeah, the BBC let me do what I like,” he proclaims, “I’m not just a two dimensional punk and reggae Don Letts. I can be all of myself and play what I like. I’m really happy with it.” Typically, a few seconds later, he declares: “Not that I was ever treated as two dimensional.”
My dad was a DJ, he was old school, they had bibles under their arms not ganja.
This is pure self-confessed Donism. He proclaims with one mouthful, and withdraws it with the next. Because the aim is to be provocative. His philosophy being – I’m a cunt, but interesting people are cunts. “When did nice people have good ideas?” he asks later.
I’d heard he was arrogant, but actually I like him. He’s straightforward and full of himself. But aware of what he’s doing. He likes playing the prankster, the mix it up person, the catalyst.
“I look more like London than a beefeater,” he says, “but it wasn’t like that in the 70s, then we Black British didn’t know what to call ourselves.” But he is very much an ‘all tribes should be represented’ kind of man.
The recent riots did hit this bit of the High Street – the jewellery shop was looted – but it was contained. I heard local elders came down and persuaded the young men to stop. “Those riots were not good,” he declares, “all I saw was young men seeing sneakers at the end of the street. I was in the Brixton riots in the 80s, and the Notting Hill ones in the 70s, they had a point. I was disturbed by these ones.”
There was no political heart, you mean? “There was a lack of humanity,” he says.
Has he ever bought his records up here? Like at Hawkeye? “No, I used to get all my records at the Dub Vendor in Ladbroke Grove,” he says, and he used to live off the Grove for years.
He grew up around Brixton – “My dad was a DJ, he was old school, they had bibles under their arms not ganja”- so it was Afro-Caribbeans like ‘the Don’s’ family who were from Jamaica (his everlasting anecdote is that he didn’t actually visit until he went with John Lydon just after the Sex Pistols split up), Irish and Greeks. “Why did the Greeks always have chip shops?” he laughs.
I take him to meet Harlesden’s gorgeous George who has been running Avant Garde – a really traditional and very funky men’s clothes shop – for the past 30 years. There’s a photograph I want to show the Don of Jesse Jackson and George in 1995 at the shop. George’s friend recognises ‘the Don’ as the video director of the Musical Youth track Pass The Dutchie that topped the charts in 1982.
“I’ve got my own Jesse Jackson story in Namibia,” says the Don. While George is bemoaning the blandness of the High Street these days and how it’s impacting on his business. “It’s all food and hair shops,” he says, “and no-one can park outside my shop.” He says he will be retiring soon and going back to Clarendon in Jamaica where he has a farm and he’ll get involved with the community here and it’ll be a much better life than the one he has here now.
I’m 56 and I’m loving it. I’m as old as rock n’ roll. I’ve been through punk, rave, rock, reggae.
‘The Don’s’ Jesse Jackson tale is a funny one. Basically ‘the Don’ was there for Independence Day, March 21 1990, and thought he’d get a sound bite from Jesse. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. “He went into a political rant and he wouldn’t stop. I really learnt how to keep the camera still. After fifteen minutes, I was like ‘ please shut the fuck up’ in my mind.”
Scandal Takeaway is a famous Harlesden Jamaican food shop so ‘the Don’ pops in for some cornmeal porridge. Here we meet Will, an MA photographic student who has contacted me and asked if he can take photos as part of the Not On Safari project. “You didn’t tell me I was going to have my photograph taken,” complains ‘the Don’, meaning he’s not wearing his superdread togs, before taking charge of direction himself. Of course, he knows what he’s doing. Will has failed to get the ‘Scandal’ sign into the frame, and the Don insists on a re-shoot.
Was he a full-blown Rasta in the past? “Yes, I used to go to St Agnes in Kennington for a long time and I defined myself as a Rastafarian but as I got older, I realised I didn’t want to be told how to think. Now I’m open to everything.”
And you met Bob Marley? “I went to his concert at the Lyceum in 1975 and it was a live-changing experience for me. I met up with afterwards and we became friends. In fact, we had an argument one evening about punk rock, he really didn’t get it, and I was in that scene. I was wearing bondage trousers and he took the piss and said I looked like a ‘bloodclaat mountaineer’. I walked out in a huff. I was nineteen back then. But he got there in the end and wrote his song ‘Punky Reggae’”.
As you can see ‘the Don’ is not short of ripostes so I’m surprised when I ask him where he gets his feistiness from, and he seems at a loss for an answer. A very rare event. It seems to be something he hasn’t considered. In fact self-reflection is not one of his big features. He’s too busy getting to the next activity. He flounders for a few minutes as though this is a new question, and finally settles on: “Well, being the only black boy in an otherwise white grammar school helped me get my shit together.”
Although he then adds in a characteristic Don manoeuvre that n fact there wasn’t an issue for race with him until Enoch Powell made his anti-immigrant ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
By this time, we’ve walked by Odeon Court – the flats where the cinema used to be and the Harlesden Roxy where ‘the Don’ did not perform – and up to Stonebridge. ‘The Don’ hasn’t realised that the 60s tower blocks have actually gone from up here. And they have.
Only this morning, I was looking at a great photo of the young Don and Jeanette Lee who went on to run Rough Trade, in their zeitgeisty clothes shop Acme Attractions – 1975 The Kings Road – and there is a scooter adorned with the Union Jack. It reminded me, I say, that the Union Jack has been used again and again to re-define Britain. “Exactly,” he says. “They used to say there was no black in the Union Jack but there is now.”
On the way back, we start talking about Malcolm McLaren, the maverick, the ideas man, the Sex Pistols’ manager. “I met him at his (and Vivienne Westwood’s) shop Sex, in those days. He influenced me. I might not be the man I am if it wasn’t for him,” he says, “he showed me how to join up the cultural dots. I’m sure he was ruthless and all the things people say, but he was also brilliant. It’s like I said, nice people don’t have great ideas.”
And so of course, ‘the Don’ has to declare. “People either love or hate me,” he says. “That’s how it is.”
Otherwise, it would appear he was the holder of bad ideas.
He’s just been on a six month world tour with Big Audio Dynamite – four men including Mick Jones in their 50s on the road – how was it? “It was like revisiting our youth,” he says, “I’m 56 and I’m loving it. I’m as old as rock n’ roll. I’ve been through punk, rave, rock, reggae. I’ve done it all and I’m still doing it all. It hasn’t stopped. I’m a product of youth culture before it all went pear-shaped with X Factor. Music here is in crisis but in other parts of the world, it’s flourishing and is still about social change.”
Now we’re sitting down in the Tamariz Portuguese cafe. He’s talking about being on tour recently in New York and Tokyo. “People say to me – ‘Wasn’t it exhausting?’ – I say how exhausting can it, we’re being flown around the world, staying in great hotels, I’m with people I still hang out with, it’s not like we’re strangers re-forming a band. Women throwing themselves at us. Get real, it’s fantastic. And I still can’t play. I still have stickers on the keyboard but I’ve co-written half the songs so I think justifies my space.”
He also goes out Djing – the history and legacy of Jamaican music, from dancehall to dub step – on his own. Here and abroad. No fanfare. “I really enjoy it,” he says. “I like hanging around with funky, ordinary people and hearing their views.”
‘The Don’ hates a lot of different things, but equally he loves a lot too. On our way back, he’s opening up and telling me he was a tubby teenager. Which I can’t imagine and guffaw. “Stop, laughing,” he says, “I’m trying to tell you something serious. I couldn’t use my body to attract girls, so I had to start getting my mind together. I can’t stand pubs, football or playing games. I’ve never been a man’s man, I’ve always hung out with women.”
That is the truth…
I forgot to mention, the dreadlocked gentleman who approached the Don down the road. He recognises him and wants to talk music. Don is impatient but gives him his email address. “That’s another reason I don’t want to walk the streets,” he says in grandiose mode.
I say with understatement: “Hey, it hasn’t been that bad.” In other words, hardly anyone has recognised him.
“Yeah, there should be a fuck of a lot more people that know me in Harlesden,” he says with Donist brio.
PS He points out later that it was people like John Lydon and Joe Strummer that started called him ‘the don’.
Don Letts’ show Culture Clash in on Radio 6 every weekend. He’s also Djing nationally and internationally as well as still making films. This is part of the walks and talks on Not On Safari In Harlesden roserouse.wordpress.com A short film Dance Willesden Junction is coming soon.
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