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Don Letts at Metronome: “We need punk ethics now more than ever”

4 March 19 words: Becky Timmins
photos: Fabrice Gagos
photos: Dan Skurok

If you’ve never had the good fortune of spending an hour or two in the company of filmmaker, DJ and all-round legend Don Letts, listen up: it’s serious medicine. We caught him at Metronome this weekend for a screening of his latest film and a Q&A with Ali Emm…

Photo Fabrice Gagos

“Why has it taken so long for you to make this?” is Ali Emm’s first question to Don Letts tonight, following the screening of his 2017 documentary Two Sevens Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers. She’s referring to the fact that all the footage was shot with a Super 8 camera in 1977, spanning the streets of Kingston and Brixton, all the way to Jamaica. “Because out of fourteen hours of footage, only about three were in focus!” Letts sniggers, leaping out of his seat in customary intrepid style. That, along with the anniversary of punk, prompted a realisation that he’d been sitting on the story of one the world’s most influential underground movements.

Whilst Don Letts rarely needs an introduction - renowned for shooting the seminal music videos of some of punk’s biggest bands, for one - his deeper involvement in the punk explosion is sometimes overlooked, and it’s this oversight that Two Sevens Clash triumphs in correcting. The proximity the film allows us to The Clash, the Sex Pistols and The Slits is exhilarating. “I’d earned their trust, I suppose” Letts muses, before going on to talk about just how much of a 360-degree impact punk had on culture in the 70s. “It wasn’t just about fast and furious guitars, it was a much bigger idea – an enduring spirit which informed everything we did”.

The film equally draws out the sheer DIY nature of the movement, identifying a shared spirit between reggae and punk. “Reggae was Jamaica’s punk – we couldn’t do all that Eric Clapton stuff, but we could strum a few chords.” The clash of reggae and punk was never really a clash, though; what began as a collision of subcultures during those infamous nights at The Roxy, where Don would spin discs between punk sets, flourished into a mutually beneficial period of growth.

While there were the punk purists who rejected this exposure to reggae, others notably embraced it. Joe Strummer, Ari Up and Johnny Rotten all began to allow reggae to permeate their sounds, paving the way for post-punk’s more experimental direction. And what did reggae get out of it? “Once people heard those baselines and those lyrics, reggae didn’t need help or exposure anymore”, says Letts.

Photo Dan Skurok

From defending punk in Bob Marley’s living room, to sparking Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ temporary reunion while working on Big Audio Dynamite’s second album, Letts is disarmingly humble. His searing honesty is equally as captivating too, particularly when talking about women’s place in the punky reggae party. “Girls took that spot, man” he says of The Slits, going on to recall the time he tried and failed to manage them as a support act for The Clash on their White Riot tour. “These were strong fearless women, standing up for what they believed in - Ari was really fearsome.”

As if his invigorating attitude and filmmaking flair weren’t enough – he broke the box office record at London’s ICA in 1977 when his first film The Punk Rock Movie was screened – his wisdom is perhaps what stirs you the most. When asked by Emm about advice for aspiring young creatives and filmmakers, he hits the nail on the head: “In some ways the internet has made things too easy and killed some of the passion and the struggle, but it’s all about the content and the idea.”

Letts is ultimately an advocate for music and creativity as tools for social change, not just passive reflections of consumerism. “There’s a similar socio and economic political climate today and I don’t see any major reaction and I don’t understand. It seems to me that we need a creative anarchy in the UK more than ever.” His attitude is infectious, and vital right now. 

Don Letts was at Metronome on Saturday 2 March 2019

Metronome website

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