Friday, September 14, 2007

Yes Letts

After disappearing from view for large parts of the 90s (seems he was in Jamaica for much of the decade shooting Dancehall Queen), Don Lett is currently everywhere you look, from a recently-published autobiog, to his regular slot on BBC 6 Music. Which is entirely right and proper; since the man has been at the centre of the action for over 30 years, it's good to see him at last getting his due out front rather than behind the scenes.

Known initially as the man who provided punks with tunes at The Roxy, Letts found early notoriety as a video and documentary director. His Punk Rock Movie, shot on Super 8 in 1977, is possibly the most authentic document of the period; it features must-see footage of The Slits at their most raw, and and a pre-signing performance by The Banshees. However, it also captures much of the crassness and stupidity of punk from mid-77 onwards, and this is why it's such a valuable film. It wasn't all as Julien Temple would have us believe. In Letts' film you can see Genesis P. Orridge, for example, acting like a berk and waving a flick-knife around in Boy, and a young Shane McGowan jumping around like an imbecile. You can even see Eater attacking a pig's head for no apparent reason other than to pander to expectations.

So he was there, and like Dziga Vertov, Letts was the man with the movie camera. Videos for The Clash and others followed, as did a stint in Big Audio Dynamite alongside his old mucker Mick Jones, before bailing out to join electro-dub outfit Screaming Target. Things went a bit quiet until the release of Dancehall Queen in the late 90s, but since then Letts has been making documentaries at a rate of knots, with recent features on The Clash ( Westway To The World) and mid-7os U.S. punk (Punk: Attitude) particularly recommended. He's also found a niche compiling CDs of reggae and hip hop for labels like Trojan and Heavenly.

The man has lived quite a life, and must be one of the few people on earth to count Bob Marley, Joe Strummer and Federico Fellini as acquaintances. Fellini apparently said Letts "had the vision of a terrorist", and more churlish critics have pointed out that he misspells the name of his admirer as Frederico throughout his autobiography, which slightly spoils the effect. I can overlook this, though, as the man has a nice line in self-deprecation, pointing out in the book that the famous shot of him seemingly fronting out the cops at the Notting Hill Carnival (a shot that later became the cover of Black Market Clash, left) was no such thing. He was, it turns out, simply crossing the road.

This self-deprecation, and refusal to lose a sense of perspective, was presumably one of the impulses behind the recording of Haile Unlikely, Letts' sole collaboration with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene from 1979. Released under the confusing title of the Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP, the Rasta-baiting title tells you all you need to know about the Don Letts worldview: equally at home in Jamaica or London; respectful of reggae traditions but not in thrall to voodoo mysticism; engaged but aloof, the consummate observer. Above all, this is a man that refuses to be pigeonholed. As such, Mr. Don Letts has earned a special place in the Irk The Purists hall of fame.

Download Haile Unlikely by Stratetime Keith, Jah Wobble and the Electric Dread (deleted May 2008)

Good interview with the Don

An even better interview

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