"Why has nothing knocked punk rock off its pedestal?"

Punk revolutionary, filmmaker and BBC 6 DJ Don Letts is bored of the scene he documented from the inside. He asks where today's rebels are, and explains how a tamed youth culture can make a stand. 

Text by Tom Revell
Photography provided by Don Letts

Words: 1,400
Approx reading time: 8 mins

"I'm fed up of punk rock," says Don Letts, the filmmaker who documented punk's heyday from the inside, the DJ credited with introducing the likes of The Clash and London's runaway punk scene to the virtues of reggae, the fan that rubbed shoulders with Bob Marley, Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten.  

Letts’ rise to the inner circle of punk began at Acme Attractions, then London’s most happening clothing store and in ‘76 a favoured hangout of punk’s A-listers. From picking the tunes in Acme’s basement stall, Letts was plucked to DJ at the Roxy, the Covent Garden nightclub that hosted punk’s formative months.

Amid the party Letts picked up a Super 8 camera, and punk’s renaissance man began a career that has seen him win a Grammy (for the 2000 documentary The Clash: Westway to the World), manage The Slits, take to the stage alongside Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite and work with icons from The Beastie Boys to Amy Winehouse, from Gil Scott Heron to Paul McCartney.

The current day job is DJing, both at clubs around the world as a curator of Jamaican music and each Sunday night on BBC Radio 6 Music, hosting an eclectic show that features music from far and wide and deep into the past, with scant regard for genre.

But among Letts’ most crucial cultural contributions was his role as wingman in that improbable hook-up between punk and reggae. In unprecedented times, Letts took his white friends – The Clash, The Sex Pistols – to reggae dancehalls and brought Jamaican music to the Roxy and punk’s many dive clubs. Angry, alienated youths on both sides liked what they heard. In ’77, an unlikely alliance was formed.

The phenomenon – which was later given a name and further legitimacy by Marley’s track ‘Punky Reggae Party’ – is the subject of one of Letts’ ongoing projects, a film for which he has been seeking funding.

But today, Letts paces the floor of his “man cave”, a shrine to counterculture that sits at the end of a lush garden, in a serene corner of North London far removed from the hustle of the city.

He speaks of his frustration that, so long after its genesis, he is still often asked about the movement that made him, the movement that he as a tastemaker, manager and director helped define. But he also speaks, with tangible excitement, about the young people around the world who can redefine the future of counterculture.

Nightmare: So, about punk…

Don Letts: I didn’t think that I’d be talking about it 40 years later. I don’t understand why nothing has happened since then to knock punk rock off its pedestal.

I was recently asked to take part in a discussion on punk at the Southbank Centre. I remember standing up and saying ‘why isn’t there one young person in the audience saying ‘fuck off old man’? Why aren’t they saying ‘punk rock was OK, but what about this? Or what about that?’ It’s because there is no this. There is no that.

It sounds almost like everybody is happy. Which is weird. I’m looking for the rebels. Where are the Joe Strummers, the Johnny Rottens and the Iggy Pops? The bad boy of the 21st century is Justin fucking Bieber. What can you do with that?

N: Why do you think that is?

DL: The internet has killed mystery. As good as it is, the net’s made things too easy. A lot of the sub-cultures I was involved in or that affected me were created by how little we had, not how much we had.

And consumerism. Consumerism has castrated rock & roll. I grew up with music that helped you be who you could be. It was about changing your mind, not changing your sneakers.

I ask young people today where the rebels are, who is making them think outside the box. And everyone looks at me like I’m crazy. And I’m not just talking about music either – I’m talking about filmmakers, authors, journalists, anybody.

And I'm not talking about people throwing Molotov cocktails. I’m just talking about freethinking people that are asking questions. They’re hard to find. Thanks to commercialism, to record sales and all that, no one is opening the door to them.

N: We have a lot of conditions that created punk – recession, disillusionment, inequality – so where is it?

DL: Good question. Students coming out of university with tens of thousands of debt, no one able to afford homes, the rise of racism… All these things were happening in the mid ‘70s. Punk rock was formed out of a culture of social crisis.

These things are just as relevant today, but no one wants to run with it. I get the impression a lot of people are too scared to be involved, they’d rather have an easy life. I understand that. It’s hard to take up these causes. If you have a big flatscreen, £100 sneakers, how angry can you be, I suppose?

If there are punks out there, they’re not being loud enough.

N: Is there any movement today that excites you in the way that punk did?

DL: Through my job on 6 Music I know there are people out there who don’t want to be on the red carpet. And when you dump that careerist shit, the world becomes an exciting place again. But there’s been nothing to knock punk off its pedestal.

People suggest to me things like grime, but they’re just different genres of music. They’re not schools of thought.”

I think the punk sub-culture is emblematic of a certain point in civilisation, a pre-digital, pre-internet time. These things formed because the mainstream didn’t satisfy the needs of everybody. So you went out and found likeminded people. Now you can download it and have your own personal sub-culture on your iPad. It’s not as sexy though, is it?

N: So what was it like in punk’s heydey, in those nights at the Roxy?

DL: Well to be honest, The Roxy was a shithole. It’s become this legendary, mythological place but it was only open for three months [January 1977 - March 1977].

But it was great. You had all these social outcasts there together, seven nights a week, and bonds were formed. We became closer by understanding our differences. There was a cultural exchange and it was a beautiful thing to see.

You only realise that with hindsight. At the time I just thought about how I was digging my crazy white mates, and they were digging my reggae baselines. Punk rockers and rastas are unlikely bedfellows, but somehow we found common ground and that open-mindedness has a resonance to this very day.

N: I guess the drugs helped?

DL: Drugs were definitely part of the mix. But now people do coke in the pubs. It’s snowing everywhere. And it isn’t fuelling creativity. It’s pure escapism.

Back then, for all of the people that were getting out of their heads and nodding along, there were others that were expanding their horizons and being creative.

N: So what made you pick up the camera?

DL: I remember watching [1972 Jamaican crime film] The Harder They Come and being aback by how it could inform, entertain and inspire.

After that I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. In the early ‘70s that was a ridiculous idea for a black man from London. The industry was an old boys club.

But then punk came along in ‘77 with that DIY ethic, and all of a sudden my white mates were picking up guitars. I wanted to pick something up too, but the stage was full, so I picked up a Super 8.

I started filming the bands I thought were exciting, and it grew from there. Soon I was making their music videos. I reinvented myself, like many people did in the explosion of ‘77.

I was brave, I was bold, and I didn’t define myself by my colour. A lot of my black mates though I was crazy for hanging round with the punks. But I saw something exciting in them. 

Me and the punk, we were both social outcasts.

N: Who would you most like to film?

DL: Obama. I never thought I’d see a black president in my lifetime. I maintain its because everyone in Middle America still has a black and white TV set and they can’t tell he’s black. It’s a big deal.

His election was so inspiring for so many people around the planet. It’s a big deal, when black people are told that 400 years ago you’d have been a slave, so be grateful, and all that bollocks. Our history goes far further than that. It is richer than that, and it predates a lot of Caucasian history.

You need these people to look up to. When I was at school I was taught that my history began with slavery. That has a big impact on how people behave in society.

N: And who have you learned the most from?

DL: Malcolm McLaren. He was instrumental. He was the one that showed me counter-culture didn’t happen in isolation. That it had a lineage, a heritage, a tradition. He’s probably the first one that made me realise that if I had an idea, and I was brave enough, I could be a part of that lineage too.

N: So is the punk spirit dead? Has the system won?

DL: No. We’re just in a state of flux. Human beings have been knocked for six by the the digital age. Ultimately there’s a battle going on between the technological and the organic. Technology has evolved far more rapidly than we have. We need to catch up.

What we need is to bring back collective experience. In the old days, for example, we all saw The New York Dolls on the Old Grey Whistle Test at the same time. It blew all our minds and the next day we’d all be talking about it. That collective experience translated into some kind of energy, into some kind of power. Now information is fragmented, and that dilutes that energy.

We need to get people in the same space, in the same room, in the same field. That’s how the punk rock scene started.  

But I’m an optimist. Already, if you look in places that haven’t become jaded to the possibility of music then that punk ethos is there.

N: Where are these places?

DL: Countries in the east, where people are gaining access to things they’ve never had. For them there are possibilities and potential. There, young people can see music as a way to express themselves. They don’t just want to be pop stars. 

I think there are lots of new homes of punk, as long as you’re not looking for that spiky haired, safety pin shit. That’s not what it was about. It was about attitude.

Punk is a birthright of young people.

If they’re brave, they can be part of it. And it’s not just the preserve of music. You can express yourself through film, through writing. As far as I’m concerned you can be a punk rock doctor, or a punk rock teacher. It’s how you do what you do.

Punk is a spirit, an attitude. It’s not dead. You can’t stop it. But you do have to look for it in new places.

Text by Tom Revell
Photography provided by Don Letts