"Like Four Sticks of Dynamite" - Clash Compadre Don Letts on Band's Videos

The Guns of Brixton: Don Letts and Clash bassist Paul Simonon back in the day.
The Guns of Brixton: Don Letts and Clash bassist Paul Simonon back in the day.

Even among music listeners used to lavish box sets, The Clash - Sound System (Sony) is something to behold.

The 11 CDs include every studio album the group released (save for, oddly, last gasp Cut the Crap), along with dozens of rarities, live cuts, B-sides, and remixes.

A remastered DVD offers seldom-seen early footage of the group, The Clash on Broadway film, and every music video. And ephemera goodies include posters, stickers, booklets, and reproductions of the band's fan newsletter Armagideon Times, along with a new effort compiled by bassist Paul Simonon. (A new 2CD anthology, Hits Back, is also out for the more budget-conscious)

"It's like the group. It's got some serious weight to it!" laughs Don Letts. The noted film and video director and close friend of the group has plenty of his own work represented on the DVD, including "Rock the Casbah." The clip served as the initial introduction for millions of MTV-era viewers (this writer included) to the group.

Filmed in Austin around a 1982 show the band did at the City Coliseum, the video is memorable thanks to the images of an Arab and Hasidic Jew rocking out to a boom box, the band miming the song in front of a pumping oil derrick, and one charismatic armadillo in a crowd of fans. Letts is clear on who the video's real star was.

"The way I got the armadillo to walk toward the camera was to get on the ground on my hands and knees and blow in its face. So you can imagine the scene with a Jew and Arab running around, and a guy with dreads laying on the ground," Letts remembers. "But what's amazing was that the armadillo attracted the most attention because the [crowd] had only seen dead ones! Or as ashtrays or handbags."

Curiously, guitarist Mick Jones is seen in the lip-synch section, with his face and head completely covered. Letts notes it wasn't a costume decision that he made for himself.

"Mick was having one of his Elizabeth Taylor moments and was [pissed off] at Joe [Strummer], so he showed up on the set wearing red Long Johns and black Doc Martens. Now, he's a skinny guy, so he looked like a matchstick!" the director recalls.

After pulling Jones aside and reminding him that "video is forever," the guitarist changed his outfit, but wore a camouflage hat and veil to show he was still upset. It was forcibly ripped off by Strummer toward the end of the clip.

More Clash madness continues on the next page.  

Another memorable Letts-directed clip was for "London Calling." Shot during pitch-black night on a boat in the Thames River during a driving rainstorm, it's both forceful and memorable. Though certainly not by plan.

"It was supposed to be filmed in the daytime. But I didn't know that the Thames could rise or fall up to 15 feet during the tides, and that affected the camera shot and equipment. It was the first music video I ever made, and I was flying by the seat of my pants," Letts remembers.

"By the time I got all that worked out, it was night and it started pissing rain. But it turned out to be the best thing that could happen. In typical punk fashion, my problem became my asset. If we had filmed it like I had originally planned, you wouldn't be talking to me about it now."

As for their behavior as subjects, The Clash pretty much let Letts do what he wanted to -- the director doesn't recall a single time that a member insisted he do anything.

"There were enough clues and pointers in the music to give me ideas about what to film," he says.

"And the way they performed, they were like four sticks of dynamite. I'd love to take responsibility for doing some great film work, but no. All I had to do was make sure the camera was running and it was in focus. And if I pointed it in their direction, chances are I'd get some good shit."

So -- not surprising -- all of the Clash videos are performance-based, with no "cutaways to cars exploding or girls shaking their booty," Letts says.

The Sound System DVD also includes lots of footage Letts shot of not only the band, but fans and surrounding New York, with street scenes during the group's residency at Bond's Casino, which makes up The Clash on Broadway film.

Edited clips formed the basis of the video for the song "This is Radio Clash," which showed the band soaking up early NYC rap and hip-hop on the mean and pre-cleaned up streets of Times Square.

"The guys were like cultural sponges, they would tap into whatever was going on wherever they went, and that's evident in that clip," Letts says, before offering Rocks Off an anecdote he says he hasn't told an interviewer before.

"I went to a video conference and had the opportunity to show that clip to [famed Italian director] Federico Fellini. And he told me that I 'had the vision of a terrorist,'" Letts says. "But I thought he said that I 'had terrible vision!' Someone later assured me of what he really meant. Anyway, it sounded better in Italian!"

Coming up in Part II - How Letts met the Clash, his surprise star turn as an album cover boy, the band reunion that never happened at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and how Joe Strummer cockblocked him.


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