Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers
by Don Letts
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
You may not know who Don Letts is, but you've probably felt his impact in a variety of ways. As a film director, he has directed documentaries on punk rock and music videos by the likes of The Clash, The Pretenders, and Elvis Costello. As a tastemaker, he bridged racial differences and helped shaped the political and musical consciousness of young punks like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer by turning them onto reggae.
In Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers, Letts tells his life story. Born in London to Jamaican immigrants, Letts got his first real taste of the glamorous life when he began working at the infamous Acme Attractions, a Kings Road boutique that specialized in post-hippie counterculture accoutrements. Acme Attractions, along with their retail neighbor, SEX (the even more infamous boutique run by Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren), served as a Mecca where black and white cultures found common ground and gave birth to the British punk movement.
Subsequently, Letts parlayed his Acme contacts into a gig as a nightclub DJ, eventually becoming an early film documentarian of the London music scene, a music video director, and a member of Mick Jones' post-Clash project Big Audio Dynamite. Unable to play an instrument, Letts was nonetheless a valuable contributor to the band's sound. As an early sampling pioneer, he used snippets of dialogue from the films of Sergio Leone and Nic Roeg to give B.A.D's music a cinematic quality.
Part of what makes Culture Clash an exciting read are Lett's recollections of the period; of what people were wearing and what they were listening to. While lacking the in-depth journalistic detail of other dispatches from the period (I'm thinking of Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, in particular), Culture Clash was written by a gifted raconteur, who provides readers with the kind of stories that only a co-conspirator could offer
When Letts isn't going on about accidentally insulting Joni Mitchell, or hanging out with Bob Marley, he's all about the music, and his playlist reads like a who's who of punk, post-punk, and Jamaican dub: The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits, King Tubby, Tappa Zukie, PiL. In this respect, Culture Clash is not only an oral history of the period, but a counterculture primer.
In addition, Letts's tome also serves as a DIY manifesto. When he began making films, Letts started with a Super 8 camera and absolutely no training. He pointed it at what he saw and developed his own aesthetic. He frequently admits that he started without any formal structure. "I knew that much could be gained from the blind ‘F&*k You' energy of just going out there and doing it, without any notions or value structure," Letts writes, conjuring the creative impulse itself as subversion, rather than rebelling blindly against whatever is out there.
If there is a minor fault to be noted on this book, it's that it often reads like something that was dictated into a tape recorder. While Letts doesn't meander in his recollections, the book, considering the hefty $22.95 price tag, could have used a bit more editorial polish. But, as an oral history, Culture Clash rarely fails to do less than fully immerse the reader in a period more often defined by its hype than its reality.