Don Letts On The Clash, 'London Calling', And The Essence Of Punk
Don Letts was around The Clash almost from the start. Familiar with the exact same West London streets that flooded through the band’s DNA, he was close with the group, part of the coterie of creative satellites who orbited their realm. A new exhibition on the band has just opened in London, timed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their seminal double album ‘London Calling’ and – somewhat naturally – Don was asked to spin a few tunes on the opening night.
“It was an immersive opening,” he jokes, “because some of the band was actually there. It’s funny to be there, live and direct.”
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“I have mixed feelings about rock ‘n’ roll in museums,” he adds. “It’s almost like an oxymoron, isn’t it? It’s interesting in today’s cultural climate that they seem to have captured such a young audience… because I was expecting it to be full of 50 year olds and up. But that’s not the case – seemingly their demographic is somewhere between 16 and 25… which is pretty amazing. Basically, they’ve got a fan-base that weren’t born when they were happening.”
“From my perspective, they’ve communicated in a currency that’s still the language of the young, in that they look good, sounded great, oozed attitude, and actually made songs that were about something.”
A musician, DJ, and film maker, Don Letts has always been obsessed by street culture. That’s partly what keeps him fascinated with The Clash, that collision of different influences, driven by a real sense of purpose. “Every generation needs its own soundtrack and The Clash obviously created one that was relevant. It was of the people, for the people, by the people.”
“When we were growing up music was the only thing we had! Music and style. And we were deadly at that combination,” he insists. “Those are still the basic elements that capture young people now, they’ve just got to give it some content. It’s not good just looking good and sounding good, you’ve got to be about something, man. Times are too dread for just ego and make up.”
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Then and now, Britain is a divided place. That’s one of the reasons that The Clash haven’t dated – their righteous punk fusion feels like it belongs to a different universe to the septic right wing politics polluting the discourse in 2019.
“I think people forget that music can be a tool for social change. I know that sounds corny, right, but it actually did change a lot of young people’s lives. I get to travel around the world and see all these bands that have totally been inspired by The Clash and their ethics, and their integrity, and their belief that music can change people’s lives. It’s not to be sniffed at, man. It’s not to be sniffed at.”
“It reminds you of the potential for what music can be, and the part it can play in people’s lives. I’m a product of all that shit, you know what I mean? It’s not just about flogging stuff.”
Situated in the band’s home city, the new exhibition is a reminder that The Clash remain – definitively – a London phenomenon. “I’m not being funny but they couldn’t have come out of any other place on the planet. They’re inherently a London band,” he argues. “Not just London but the whole multi-cultural aspect of Britain.”
“The thing about the band is that they weren’t stuck in that fast ‘n’ furious guitar thing, they embraced all that the world had to offer and that was reflected in the musical range of ‘London Calling’ and that’s why it captured people’s imaginations. If you listen to the difference between that and the first album, it’s a musical quantum leap, and they redefined what punk could be. That’s another cool thing about it.”
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It’s ironic, then, that in a recent interview Boris Johnson – former Mayor of London, newly elected Prime Minister – claimed to be a fan of The Clash. His politics and the band’s identity couldn’t be further apart, we state. “I think he meant that he likes the song ‘Bankrobber’ and he got it mixed up,” Don comments. “He’s a big fan of ‘Bankrobber’. I’ll say no more!”
To Don Letts, the culture clash is what makes British society so electrifying – it’s going from a curry on Brick Lane to a late night blues party in an Afro-Caribbean shebeen, while picking up some punk 7s from Rough Trade.
“That’s what is going to make Britain great again – embracing multi-culturalism. Cos we ain’t going nowhere, so this shit has got to work! And anyway, if you take all those cultural influences out of the UK and what are you left with? I’ll tell you what you’re left with: Andy Capp and ‘Greensleeves’.”
“The input of Afro-Caribbean – and all those other cultures – has given British music and life a distinct identity, because it is open to all these other influences that have been coming in over the past 60 years. It’s the creativity that comes from that which makes Britain great. That’s why I love this place. It’s the cultural mix. And everybody knows: Don Letts is all about the culture clash.”
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Indeed, this multi-cultural identity is all over ‘London Calling’. Sure, it’s a punk record at heart, but drummer Topper Headon - “the ultimate glue that made ‘London Calling’ possible” as Don puts it – had a background in soul and funk bands. Joe Strummer was obsessed by rhythm ‘n’ blues, while bass player Paul Simonon was a serious reggae head. Don Letts was closest of all to Mick Jones, an early advocate for hip-hop culture.
At the centre of it all, though, was this attitude, this relentless insistence that if you wanted to do it, then you could. The film maker agrees: “Punk rock’s greatest gift was the whole DIY ethos and that’s why we’re still talking about it today, because it wasn’t just about guitars, it was a complete sub-culture that touched many different disciplines.”
“From my perspective, the only thing that the UK has thrown up across the whole of the 21st century that has any kind of punk resonance to me is the grime scene,” he states. “Which started out as a bunch of geezers shouting at me all day, but – and it’s taken a while – but they’ve found a space now where people are starting to be a bit more honest, a bit more emotional, and it isn’t about the macho thing. It addresses the issues that are out there.”
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To Don Letts, punk’s real legacy and meaning is something that looks forward. “I’m not being funny but the thought of talking about punk rock 40 years ago does my head in!” he laughs.
“The real question – the only question – is, where is it today? That’s the only thing people should be talking about. It wasn’t part of the plan to talk about something that happened 40 years ago. Maybe we can glean lessons, but we’ve got to drag this attitude and this spirit forwards because that wasn’t what it was about. It wasn’t about selling your Ramones t-shirt.”
Don Letts remains out there in the trenches, continually fighting the good fight. An internationally recognised DJ, he holds down a 6Music show, and recently showcased his essential documentary on The Clash – 2000’s superb Westway To The World – at London’s BFI. The culture clash is non-stop, he insists.
“People have to realise that punk ain’t about wearing a t-shirt,” he states. “It’s an actual thing that you do on a day to day basis, and it made me who I am today. Punk ain’t something to look back on – it’s something to look forward to.”
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London Calling: 40 years of The Clash runs at the London Museum, London until April 19th - details.
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