Don Letts on the Legacy of the Clash and the Girl Joe Strummer Stole Away
Check out part 1 of our interview with Don Letts by clicking here.
Film and video director Don Letts has a lengthy and varied resume, but is most associated with The Clash. The new all-compassing band box set, Sound System (Sony) includes a DVD of Letts' concert, promo, and atmospheric videos he shot for the group.
The black Letts and the lily-white Clash met while traveling in the same social circles with other artists, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians, initially bonding over a love of reggae.
"You have to understand, in the latter part of the '70s in London, the social, political, and economic state was shit, and we were all feeling disaffected," Letts says today. "I had something to ease my pain, which was reggae. My white friends weren't so lucky, so they created a soundtrack [punk] that was available to them."
Letts was initially attracted to the fledgling Clash's sense of style. So while others were picking up guitars, Letts grabbed a Super 8 camera and - inspired by the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come - set out to document the music scene of the city. And he didn't even read the instruction manual.
As for the Clash, Letts says they attracted an energy all around them. "There was this incredible cultural exchange. [Singer/guitarist] Joe [Strummer] would take it all in, and use it in the next record."
Letts cites a trip that Strummer and fellow singer/guitarist Mick Jones took to Jamaica with bringing reggae into their sound on the album Give 'Em Enough Rope, while the burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene of New York colored Combat Rock.
And though he was used to being behind the lens, Letts became a part of the Clash's visual image and lore when a picture of him at the 1976 racially-charged Notting Hill Carnival Riots (which also inspired the song "White Riot") was featured on the cover of the Black Market Clash compilation.
On it, a seemingly defiant Letts (seen mostly from behind) appears to charge ahead into a line of Bobbies, aggressive, unrepentant, and unarmed. The truth behind the photo, however, is a different matter.
"What the picture doesn't show is that all these brothers are behind me with bricks and bottles. Plus, what I'm doing is actually getting out of the way!" Letts laughs. "I wasn't that stupid! Sorry to break the myth. But that's very punk, reappropriating images."
In addition to the older concert footage and videos on the Sound System DVD, there are also songs Letts filmed during the Clash's 1982 massive Shea Stadium gig opening up for the Who (then on their "farewell" tour).
For both filmmaker and band, it was a long way from the dirty, filthy basement clubs of just five years before.
"I was old enough at the time to be a Beatles fan. To me, Shea was where they played and not a [baseball] stadium. So to be standing there with those guys was amazing," he recalls. "And looking at all the records they put out and dates they played in those five years, it seems to have been a physical impossibility to do what they did."
The Clash anecdotes continue on the next page.