1In 2008, who declared onstage at Glastonbury: “The only person at Glastonbury who knows about reggae is Don Letts”, before asking, “Where’s Don Letts?”
“How could I forget that? More to the fact, how could I forget I wasn’t actually watching her perform. I was off in Glastonbury doing something I probably shouldn’t have been doing, but I remember it was Amy Winehouse.”
“I met her backstage and told her I wanted to see Jay-Z headline and she dragged me onstage, stuck me next to Beyoncé, and then I was there to witness his Glastonbury debut. I mean, Jay-Z is like the President of America. He’s surrounded by CIA men in dark glasses and security guards and she just pushed them all out of the way and didn’t take a blind bit of notice. She was fearless and I miss the girl.”
2In 2006, which indie band were joined by The Clash’s Mick Jones to play a version of his (and your) band Big Audio Dynamite’s single ‘E = MC2’ at their Brixton Academy residency?
“Was it Hard-Fi or somebody?”
“Are you kidding? I was just guessing there! When I joined the band, ‘E = MC2’ was the first lyrics I wrote – with Mick’s help, it has to be said. That was our first chart hit and I’m immensely proud of that. In fact, plugging my own shit, I’ve just done a dub version of it on my new ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation with Gaudi and singer Emily Capell.”
Any chance of a BAD reunion or new material?
“I’d do it tomorrow but Mick can’t be arsed! God bless him – he doesn’t need to do it anymore, he’s done his bit a couple of times over, so I don’t blame him. But yeah, I’d do it tomorrow.”
3Public Image Ltd’s 1978 self-titled debut was the first professional music video you shot. What number did the single reach in the UK charts?
“You got me there! Let me guess – 11?”
WRONG. It was Nine.
“It was a crap video, I was a total fish out of water and the only thing that gave it any gravitas was John [Lydon, frontman]’s performance. But I quickly got my shit together and the next video I did was ‘London Calling’ for The Clash on the banks of the River Thames.”
In your autobiography, There and Black Again, you tell great stories about partying with Lydon, who’d taught his cat to fetch his weed…
“Yeah, John caught his cat to fetch things. I’ve never seen anybody do that. Mind you, the cat was called Satan!”
What was it like visiting Jamaica with Lydon to find artists for Richard Branson’s Front Line reggae label?
“That was the most mind-blowing trip of my life, and the first time I ever went to Jamaica. It was insane meeting big names like Gladiators, The Abyssinians, I-Roy, Big Youth and The Congos. It was like Malice in Ganjaland. On one occasion, somebody from the record company decided it would be good to do reggae covers of Pistols songs. Cut to me and John sitting in the studio with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry directing a bunch of hired musicians as they progressed to do crap versions of ‘Holidays in the Sun’ and ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’. Somewhere in the vaults those crap versions exist because it was more bread than dread at the control, put it that way!”
Perry sadly passed away last month. What was he like?
“Oh man, he was a trip! He was Jamaica’s Salvador Dali of Sound. You’re never going to get anybody like him in a millennia.”
4You appear on 1978’s ‘Steel Leg V The Electric Dread’ (the project of PiL members Keith Levene and Jah Wobble) singing ‘Haile Unlikely’. What is its B2 track?
“Right, let me clear one thing up – that’s not me on the fucking cover with the binbag over my head. I was never that un-together! That pissed me off more than the fact it was a crap record. Quick backstory: Keith Levene and Jah Wobble went into the studio to knock out a track to get money from Virgin records. I went and laid down a demo version of a vocal and said I’d be back to do a proper vocal later. They never called me back and released it which was a laugh for them but a drag for me because they didn’t realise I was messing with some taboo subjects. As for the B-side? Knowing how unimaginative people were back on those days, ‘Unlikely Dub’?
WRONG. But close – it’s ‘Unlikely Pub’.
“Don’t bother with it, folks. I hate it and it’s a half-baked idea.”
Are you working on any new music?
“Lockdown found me at a loose end and I’m currently in collaboration with Gaudi and [Killing Joke’s] Youth on a project between the three of it. It’s work in progress. The basslines are heavy but it’s not limited to just a reggae perspective. There’s some BAD elements; there’s some bass and dub things courtesy of Youth and then Gaudi has added his musical magic.”
5An easy one: who once looked at your punk trousers and said you resembled a “bloodclart mountaineer”?
“A bloodclart mountaineer! A nasty punk rocker! Bob Marley.”
Yeah, and I put him straight! (Laughs) People think, ‘Don Letts – friend of Bob Marley’, but I was more an acquaintance. When he was in London, to be honest with you, I would get something that he needed, let’s put it that way! I don’t do it anymore and I wasn’t a dealer, but it got me through his door. I guess I was more precocious than the other dreads to the point where I was the only one wearing punk rock clothes. And he [Bob Marley] made that comment putting the punks down, because he’d been reading the tabloid press that unfairly portrayed the whole thing as very negative. I had to say: ‘No, you’re wrong mate – there’s something going on here; we’re all likeminded rebels’, to which he swiftly replied, ‘Get the fuck of out here!’ (Laughs). And I left with my tail between my legs, but a few months later, a somewhat better informed Bob Marley was moved to write the song ‘Punky Reggae Party’, so from my perspective, I got the last laugh! But that was the last time I spoke to him, actually.”
Who’s been the most unexpected person who’s liked your work?
“When Arcade Fire dedicated their cover of The Clash’s ‘I’m So Bored with the USA’ to me and told the audience to Google me, that was cool. As a kid, I was an Apple scruff who would hang outside the Beatles‘ headquarters at Savile Row, so I was almost crying inside when I got the opportunity to make a documentary film with Paul McCartney for ‘Something New’, Sharing a pizza with Jack Nicholson in Hollywood shut me up! And I’m not usually short of a few words! And [mode and actor] Lauren Hutton looking me in the eye and saying: ‘You look interesting’ – that fucked me up! (Laughs)”
6In which music video that you directed does a band member appear as Batman?
“I went to Jamaica with Black Grape. Jamaica’s never been the bloody same since! (Laughs) Black Grape was my last bit of rock‘n’roll, but I can’t say anything they got up to without getting into trouble in this PC climate! Besides, Shaun’s a reformed man now – he’s even got new teeth! (Laughs) When I did the video for The Heads’ [band comprising Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Frantz] track with Shaun [‘Don’t Take My Kindness for Weakness’] in New York, Shaun couldn’t remember the words so we had to hold cue cards up behind the camera for him to sing – and that’s the least of the shenanigans!”
7You acted in the 1990 movie Midnight Breaks opposite Toyah Willcox and Robbie Coltrane. What’s the name of your character?
“How do you know this stuff?! I was the leader of a band – a Don Letts sort of character. I can’t bloody remember who I played. I blanked that film out and if you ever see it, you’ll understand why!”
WRONG. You play Tyrone.
“Don’t bother with it, folks. I’m always up for a challenge, somebody asked me to act and said I could keep wearing my dark glasses, so I thought I’d give it a shot!”
8Which director once proclaimed you have “the vision of a terrorist”?
“It sounds better in Italian! Over the years, I’m like: was that a compliment?! (Laughs) It doesn’t matter – I met Fellini man! It was in response to my video for The Clash’s ‘This Is Radio Clash’. From his perspective, it would have looked like visual terrorism because he was into long, meandering tracking shots and ‘…Radio Clash’ is the antithesis of that.”
Talking of directors – did meeting Martin Scorsese aged 19 mean a lot to you?
“Yes, he asked for a private audience to see my first film, The Punk Rock Movie, because he’s fanatical about film documentaries. We took him to a screening in Notting Hill and I didn’t know what to say to him because I was a massive fan. Years later, I went to see his  film The King of Comedy [which The Clash cameo in] and in the credits, I spot Don Letts. I’m such an arsehole, I bought another ticket and watched the whole movie again, only to realise it didn’t say Don Letts, it was Dom Letts. I’m not in the film and they’d mistaken me for Ray Jordan, The Clash’s security man who’s black with dreadlocks. Adding insult to injury, they’d spelt my name wrong!”
9You won a Grammy for Best Long Form Music Video in 2003 for your documentary The Clash: Westway to the World. Name any two films you beat.
“Well, I know one was 1 Giant Leap because it was financed by [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell, who I love. I don’t know the others, so I’m not even gonna try!”
WRONG. Apart from 1 Giant Leap, you also beat: Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, Nappy Roots’ The World According to Nappy, and Robbie Williams’ Live at the Albert.
“I didn’t think I was going to win. When they announced me as the winner, they said: “But he’s not here…” and I shouted from the very back: ‘YES I AM I AND I BOUGHT MY OWN FUCKING TICKET!’. And I disrupted the choreographed ceremony by running all the way down the hall to get my Grammy.”
10Your first-ever cover was on the front of punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue in 1977. Which other two bands do you share it with?
“I remember seeing The Gorillas underneath and ….The Adverts?”
“You’re kidding?! Shit! There you go! The punk spirit’s like The Force in Star Wars – you can’t stop it. Music’s probably the last bloody place you’ll find it now because too many people have career plans, but you’ve got to look in new places. If you don’t want to be on the red carpet or at the MTV Video Awards, then world is a really exciting place.”
Bonus question! For a half-point: who did you once prank by telling him you’d spiked his cake with LSD?
“Andy Warhol –I felt bad about that!”
“I don’t know why I did that. That was just me larging it. He ran off in a panic, but not before somebody snapped a picture with me and him though. I ain’t stupid! (Laughs) I can be such a dick, like when I met Joni Mitchell at her house and asked her, ‘What is this shit we’re listening to? Take it off’, before she told me it was her new album! Fortunately, Johnny Rotten was sniggering so hard it defused the situation, because my lame retort of ‘Well, it’s not ‘Carey’ is it?’ didn’t go down well. Not my finest hour!”
The verdict: 6.5/10
“I thought I’d get absolutely none – and I’d have been quite happy with that! I seem to be having an eternal senior moment these days!”
– Don Letts’, AKA The Rebel Dread, next release in his ‘Late Night Tales’ series, ‘Version Excursion selected by Don Letts’, is out now. He will appear ‘In Conversation with Robert Elms’ 29 September at Rough Trade East, London. His book, There and Black Again: The Autobiography of Don Letts’ is available now.