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Don Letts on the Legacy of the Clash and the Girl Joe Strummer Stole Away

Don Letts on the Legacy of the Clash and the Girl Joe Strummer Stole Away
The Clash Blog

Check out part 1 of our interview with Don Letts by clicking here.

Film and video director Don Letts has a lengthy and varied resume, but is most associated with The Clash. The new all-compassing band box set, Sound System (Sony) includes a DVD of Letts' concert, promo, and atmospheric videos he shot for the group.

The black Letts and the lily-white Clash met while traveling in the same social circles with other artists, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians, initially bonding over a love of reggae.

"You have to understand, in the latter part of the '70s in London, the social, political, and economic state was shit, and we were all feeling disaffected," Letts says today. "I had something to ease my pain, which was reggae. My white friends weren't so lucky, so they created a soundtrack [punk] that was available to them."

Letts was initially attracted to the fledgling Clash's sense of style. So while others were picking up guitars, Letts grabbed a Super 8 camera and - inspired by the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come - set out to document the music scene of the city. And he didn't even read the instruction manual.

Don Letts on the Legacy of the Clash and the Girl Joe Strummer Stole Away

As for the Clash, Letts says they attracted an energy all around them. "There was this incredible cultural exchange. [Singer/guitarist] Joe [Strummer] would take it all in, and use it in the next record."

Letts cites a trip that Strummer and fellow singer/guitarist Mick Jones took to Jamaica with bringing reggae into their sound on the album Give 'Em Enough Rope, while the burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene of New York colored Combat Rock.

And though he was used to being behind the lens, Letts became a part of the Clash's visual image and lore when a picture of him at the 1976 racially-charged Notting Hill Carnival Riots (which also inspired the song "White Riot") was featured on the cover of the Black Market Clash compilation.

On it, a seemingly defiant Letts (seen mostly from behind) appears to charge ahead into a line of Bobbies, aggressive, unrepentant, and unarmed. The truth behind the photo, however, is a different matter.

"What the picture doesn't show is that all these brothers are behind me with bricks and bottles. Plus, what I'm doing is actually getting out of the way!" Letts laughs. "I wasn't that stupid! Sorry to break the myth. But that's very punk, reappropriating images."

In addition to the older concert footage and videos on the Sound System DVD, there are also songs Letts filmed during the Clash's 1982 massive Shea Stadium gig opening up for the Who (then on their "farewell" tour).

For both filmmaker and band, it was a long way from the dirty, filthy basement clubs of just five years before.

"I was old enough at the time to be a Beatles fan. To me, Shea was where they played and not a [baseball] stadium. So to be standing there with those guys was amazing," he recalls. "And looking at all the records they put out and dates they played in those five years, it seems to have been a physical impossibility to do what they did."

The Clash anecdotes continue on the next page.  

Don Letts today (right) in front of the album cover photo of him during the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976.
Don Letts today (right) in front of the album cover photo of him during the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976.
Sony/Legacy

Still, what should have been the pinnacle of the band's story to date - as well as a venue to break to an even larger U.S. audience primed with Combat Rock ("Rock the Casbah," "Should I Stay or Should I Go?") was not.

"Looking at that Shea footage, you'd think the sky was the limit for the Clash," Letts says. "But in truth, they were falling apart."

In short order, Strummer and manager Kosmo Vinyl would orchestrate the sacking of co-founder Jones, and drummer Topper Headon would succumb to serious drug addiction. A last record with a new lineup (Cut the Crap, not part of the Sound System package) would limp out, and soon "the only band that mattered" was no more.

The four classic members would go on to a variety of other projects -- with Jones forming Big Audio Dynamite with Letts and producing other artists, Strummer venturing into acting and recording with the Mescaleros, bassist Paul Simonon abandoning music for a reputable career as a visual artist, and Headon eventually kicking junk.

In 2002, Jones and Strummer reunited onstage for a firefighter's benefit that Strummer was scheduled to play. The three-song set -- during which both men couldn't stop grinning -- stoked the fires for a possible reunion at the Clash's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, which was set for the following March. Strummer seemed to be the move's biggest cheerleader.

Sadly, the frontman would die only a few weeks after the benefit show of a congenital heart defect. And while Letts think the reunion would have happened (despite Simonon's reluctance to play), things ended up as they should.

"In rock and roll, you want to leave your audience wanting more. So I think it worked in their favor, and I know that sounds cold blooded," he says. "I have mixed feelings the Hall of Fame, and they would have ended up reforming for people who paid thousands of dollars for their seats."

As for his personal feeling about Joe Strummer, Letts says he wasn't perfect and had a lot of contradictions, and while there is now a tendency to put him on a pedestal post-death, Joe Strummer -- the man and the character -- didn't come fresh out of some sort of punk rock incubator.

After all, this was a guy whose early heroes were Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan -- neither of whom would have been caught dead with a Mohawk or clothes safety-pinned for fashion.

"There is one other thing..." Letts adds about the late performer. "He stole my goddamned girlfriend! That pissed me off for a while, and we didn't speak."

"But the Clash gave me this energy," Letts sums up. "You wouldn't be talking to me now of it wasn't for them. That's the power of music. It can change your life -- and not like your sneakers."

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