BFI Future Film is celebrating 40 years of Punk with a ‘Punk Season’, a month of filmmaking activities, screening recommendations, discussions, and events. Introduced by THE Don Letts, DJ, musician and filmmaker, this month is due to be busy one for the lovers of film and subculture .
Don Letts is sort of a big deal, he’s worked with so many reggae and punk icons of the 70’s through noughties that he’s himself is an icon, if not through his ridiculously good taste and talent then through association alone. Don did what no one could before him, he introduced a whole generation of London’s punk scene to reggae music.
Don was born in Brixton in the late 50’s to Jamaican parents. A first-generation Black British kid, before it so easily rolled off the tongue. London in the 70’s for the black youth was a confusing time and Letts admits he never really considered himself British until the 80’s. He grew up listening to reggae in his family home but couldn’t avoid what was happening in the streets was it and spreading like wildfire. Don found himself rebelling against whatever it was that said he had to be solely a reggae kid and looked to his white friends and punk music. It wasn’t long before he noticed that in turn his white friends looked to his culture and reggae music as an act of rebellion. Black or white, the youth were frustrated and wanted to do the opposite of what came before them.
Like, to me, the reggae thing and the punk thing…its the same fuckin’ thing. Just the black version and the white version. The kids are singing about change, they wanna do away with the establishment.
Don Letts, 21, Sniffin’ Glue interview
In 1974 the Acme Attractions boutique popped up in Kings Road, three years later ‘The Roxy’ (London’s first Punk club) followed, Don found himself as the face of both, managing the Kings Road store by day and spinning the decks by night. It wasn’t an act of innovation or genius that caused him to first introduce reggae into a punk playlist, but his personal taste and the lack of punk material available to work with (10 LP’S, 20 singles, over 5 hours DJing – do the math.)
Punk was anarchy, anti-establishment and completely foreign to the generation that came before it. No one was going to write about these kids, so they’d have to do it themselves. This DIY attitude is to thank for the creation of ‘Don Letts the filmmaker’, who decided he was going to do his bit by picking up a camera.
‘The Punk Rock Movie’ was created after Don read about himself in the NME, someone had reported that he was going to create a punk rock movie, so he did. Shot on Super-8mm, it became the only documentary looking at the U.K punk scene and featured; The Sex Pistols, The Clash and many others. The film was premiered at the ICA –the film that they said he was making had been made.
Being so heavily involved in the Punk and Reggae music scene at the time, he had relationships with highly sought after artists and went on to direct over 300 music videos for a diverse range of artists; Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, Beanie Man and The Clash. Don even went on to form the band ‘Big Audio Dynamite’ with fellow Brixtonian (after being kicked out of the The Clash) Mick Jones. Despite not having the typical musical talent and literally needing stickers on his keyboard to guide him, Don went with the flow of things and Big Audio Dynamite became a post punk dance group producing hits including E=MC2 and The Bottom Line. Don’s work has been exhibited across the globe and in March 2003 he even won a Grammy for his documentary ‘Westway To The World’.
Don Letts in his twenties didn’t only go against the tide and unite two genres, but two cultures. As part of the first wave of the Black British kids, Don took his difference and shared it with the people. With Don, lead singers of punk bands found themselves at reggae concerts. He stood up to Bob Marley when he wasn’t feeling the punk movement and what was the result? A Punky Reggae Party. He was there in 1976, filming and fighting for his rights in the Notting Hill clash between the people and the law. He’s earned his stripes and because of ALL of these things we thank Don Letts’ for his contribution to British music and British culture.
Don continues to be as active as ever and his show on BBC radio, 6Music Culture Clash, has been running for nearly 10 years. He mixes new sounds from across the UK, the Caribbean, Africa and the USA with old school hits that he hand picks from his personal vinyl collection. The show can be caught every Sunday at 22:00 on BBC Radio 6 or on BBC
Our ongoing series of reports on film from the underground with a special emphasis on those films with a subculture theme.
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Underground and Rebel Reel Cine Club team up to present a series of subculture film screenings. Each film selected is a subculture classic that captures a seminal event or ground-breaking moment in the underground world.