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Filmmaker Don Letts reflects on the legacy of The Clash

Letts was close to The Clash's members and filmed the band at its apex. Now he is spreading the word about the band through a new box set, “Sound System."

By Pat Prince

“You can't spend your life on the dance floor. Eventually you have to stop dancing and face reality, and the Clash’s music understood that.”

Clash film director Don Letts speaks each one of these words with emphasis. He introduced The Clash to genres outside the U.K. punk scene to broaden the band’s sound. He filmed the apex of the band’s career as they opened up for The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982. He was close enough to the core of the Clash to know the truth.

(Clash vinyl, box set and compilation releases rock The Casbah)

Now Letts continues to spread the word of The Clash through a new box set, “Sound System,” which the band’s members conceived, compiled and in the case of the studio albums, remastered themselves. “Sound System” is pretty much the ultimate Clash box set. It features 11 audio CDs — including three bonus CDs of non-album singles, B-sides and rarities; a DVD with previously unreleased video footage by Julien Temple and Letts; and it is packed with exclusive memorabilia. The classic boombox packaging was designed by bassist Paul Simonon.

The Clash Sound System

The Clash Sound System box set packaging reflects its 1980s roots with boombox-motif packaging.

Don Letts recently spoke to Goldmine about his career with The Clash and his involvement in the “Sound System” box set.

DON LETTS: I was just sitting here thinking: How did I get roped into this? ’Cause guess what? Believe it or not, I was not in the Clash (laughs).

GOLDMINE: Yeah, but you influenced them a great deal, so you helped them on their way.
DL: The truth be told, to a degree I wouldn’t be here in this capacity as a filmmaker if it wasn’t for those guys giving me a break. So I guess it’s payback.

GM: These box sets, when they’re released, they give the artist a chance to reflect on the creative accomplishments. Is there footage that you’re most proud of on the “Sound System” box set?
DL: It’s really hard to separate it for me, because obviously they gave me my first break doing music videos with “London Calling,” and that was the first visual reference a lot of people had if they weren’t able to see them live — right through to “Rock the Casbah.” I see it pop up on the screen, and even though I made the damn thing, I still stare at it, going “Wow.” They’re all like seminal moments for me. “Bankrobber” was actually the live vocal going down. It wasn’t being shot to play back that bit with his vocals. That was a live vocal going down. All special moments in my life, I have to say ... to the very last thing I do, which is live at Shea Stadium — standing in the stadium where The Beatles played at — and I was a big Beatles fan. I only had ever seen it on TV, [when] the Beatles played Shea.

GM: Looking back, what’s your impression now of the Shea Stadium live footage — the band performance, the way it was filmed?
DL: I like the way we made it look like they were the headliners. It was The Who at Shea and The Clash supporting. Oh, and the helicopter — we couldn’t get permission to film while there were people in the stadium, for safety reasons, so we had to get the helicopter to go when the place was half empty, hence that sort of snap, whip, zoom — so you can’t really tell what’s going on. It was a trip, man. You don’t understand. I wasn’t some big-time director. I was some little kid who picked up a Super 8 camera, inspired by The Clash, and a few years later I’m directing a crew of 20 people at Shea Stadium with helicopters. Listen, when I picked up the Super 8 camera, I didn’t even read the instruction manual. Punk rock in action!

GM: Well, that’s what makes it so great, you know. It’s spontaneous.
DL: Yeah. But I’ve got to say, on the other hand, The Clash did make it easy. I mean, I’d love to take some sort of responsibility for how they came across visually, but that was the reality — I mean, a lot what you can see in the footage, you just have to point the camera at these guys, and they just went off like four sticks of dynamite. Sounds like a cliché, but there’s no other way of describing that chemistry they had.

GM: Yeah, you’re right. On a personal note, Shea Stadium with The Who was the very first concert I had seen, and I bought the ticket for The Who, but I came away more won over by the Clash.
DL: Oh, well, there you go. And it was interesting with The Clash. I think The Who recognized and saw something in The Clash that they could relate to, if you look back at the early Who stuff. There was this feeling, because The Clash were on some kind of rise. They had a couple hits — “Combat Rock” had been received really well. The public perception was that they were on an ascent. The fact? Internally, they were falling apart. What people didn’t realize when they were watching this Shea stuff was how much they had done in such a short space of time. If you look, five albums were done across five or six years. And don’t forget, some of these albums were double albums, triple albums, being made while they’re touring nonstop, you know. It’s amazing they lasted as long as they did.

GM: In some ways, it was the right period of time, and that’s it. You have these bands now that just last forever, and they’re not the same.
DL: I’m a great believer that if you’re lucky in life, you get a window of opportunity, and then you should use it to the best of your ability, and then you should f**k off and let somebody else have a go. There’s too many people clogging up the airwaves with ego and makeup. Air space is valuable, man. Clash believed in music as a tool for social change, and I know that sounds corny, but the world’s a big place. And I’ll tell you what: There’s a lot of people who still believe that. It ain’t all about England and America no more. The Internet’s freed that sh*t up. We still care about the music. It’s not supposed to be just a soundtrack for consumerism, you know. I mean, it can entertain, as well, but you can’t spend your life on the dance floor. Eventually you have to stop dancing and face reality, and The Clash’s music understood that.

GM: If you watch “The Clash on Broadway” film, it depicts such a different New York City than it is today.
DL: Yeah (laughs). No sh*t. Listen, I remember living down on Orchard Street, next to Avenue A, B & C, where some of the graffiti writers had rented studio space. There weren’t art galleries down there. There were shooting galleries — you know, people went down there to score, to be shooting up. That was the kind of New York that I became familiar with. You know, a 42nd street that looked like the opening scene from (the movie) “Taxi Driver” with Travis Bickle. You know, one day a real rain will come and wash all the scum [off the streets]. That was the New York we got off on. I guess if you were living there, it would have been a pain in the ass. But I’ll tell you what else was interesting. The time the Clash were there, people got to remember, the summer of ’81 to the summer of ’82, that the whole hip-hop thing’s exploding, as well, breaking out of the Bronx and Harlem, and for a brief moment in time there was this kind of punky, hip-hop party in the same way we had a kind of punky, reggae party in London. And that was kind of a cool thing to see — how we were turning each other on through understanding our differences. That was beautiful thing to see.

The Clash publicity photo copyright Adrian Boot

Though The Clash (from left, Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer) was only around for a decade, the band left behind a lot of influential music. Three new releases celebrate its legacy: the two-CD compilation “Hits Back,” the “Five Album Studio Set” and the definitive 12-disc “Sound System” collector’s edition. But don’t go looking for 1985’s “Cut The Crap” studio release in that mix. The focus is on the band’s canon from 1977’s “The Clash” through 1982’s “Combat Rock.” Photo Copyright Adrian Boot/Courtesy Epic/Legacy

GM: If you had the New York City of today to make that movie, it wouldn’t fit the Clash.

DL: Yeah. But, hey, it’s not just New York. Gentrification is ruining every nation. It’s just the way of the world, man. I don’t know what to tell you about that. The world ain’t just America and England, though. Buy a plane ticket, Americans (laughs). But before you buy a plane ticket, you must apply for a passport (laughs)! No, really, joking aside, another thing that’s beautiful about The Clash and Joe particularly. You know, when punk started off, it was interpreted by the media as being negative and nihilistic and all that sh*t — and it did start off like that initially — but the Clash were the first band to break out of the restrictions that punk had put around itself, and it began to embrace all the world had to offer. You know, you look at the difference between the first album and “London Calling.” Joe realized that punk wasn’t about all that negative nihilism. It was about individuality and empowerment and freedom, and I think that’s one of the reasons I dug The Clash the most. And because they did bring in all these influences they were getting off on, certainly Jamaican music.

GM: That’s what made it so special. It was a natural evolution of a band. A lot of bands sound the same every album. And here you have a punk band where “Armagideon Time” might have been their best song. I don’t know if that could have been on the first album.
DL: No way. No. They had to set the stage and get everybody’s attention, and once they got the attention, they didn’t stick with the formula. And that separates the men from the boys.

GM: And you look at it now. If Joe Strummer were still alive, I couldn’t see The Clash doing a reunion tour like The Sex Pistols did. It wouldn’t seem natural. I don’t know if it would have happened.
DL: You know what? For me, it was never about repetition or longevity. Like I said, you get a window of opportunity, you use it to the best of your ability, and then you step aside for somebody else. I say what went down with The Clash, if you were writing [the story of] The Clash as a movie, what went down was exactly what was supposed to go down. They set the scene for somebody else to pick up. Listen, The Clash didn’t come out of a god damn void. They understood the legacy and lineage of this sort of punk attitude that had started with others, like the Woody Guthries and Bob Dylans and John Lennons and Gil Scott-Herons, and they picked up on that energy and that potential of music to communicate ideas, and they ran with it for as long as they could — fairly intensely, and it kind of imploded, but what it’s about is passing on the energy. One of the things I keep saying in these interviews is that I hope that people who get this box set pick up on that and try to interpret it and do their own thing with it. You know, it ain’t about just looking back and saying ‘Wow, wasn’t it great then?!’ If you’re brave enough and have a good idea, well, maybe you can be part of that lineage and heritage, too. Because I tell you what, the cultural climate right now feels to me like punk never happened. I find for the most part, in the West, there’s a lot of conservatism around that kind of frightens me, I have to say. Having said that, I am not so naïve as to not believe and understand that there are people operating below the radar who don’t want what the system is offering, who are trying and are believing in music as a tool for social change. I get to travel a lot, and for the most part in the West, there’s a lot of where they’re treading water.

GM: It was exciting a few years ago when Occupy Wall Street happened. That had a very punk flavor to it, and then it just died off. It was very strange how it just disappeared.
DL: Well, it’s interesting that you can say that, because I think the thing that’s galvanizing people now is politics, and maybe music has been so co-opted by the system that its rebellious potential in the West has been undermined. Whatever outrage you can come up with, somebody can repackage it and sell it tomorrow. You know what I mean? Don’t get me wrong; music still has the potential. Like I said, I still get to travel around a lot, but I think in the West, we are in a period of flux. I mean, the digital age has kind of confused things, as well. All the affordable technology, it’s kind of one step forward and two steps back. Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you can do it. So, I think we’re in this star in flux where we haven’t quite worked out how this sh*t’s gonna work itself out. But I do remain optimistic, because it ain’t all about England and America. But, hey, I’m pontificating. Get me back on the box set (laughs).

But you know what’s interesting, when you are talking about a band like The Clash? You can use them as a springboard for so many ideas, and I think that’s why they particularly spoke to me. It wasn’t just about dancing; it wasn’t just about looking good. Joe was passionate about staying engaged and emotionally connected to the planet and people. I think that was his most attractive quality. You know, he had this thing when you bumped into him, he wasn’t like, ‘All right, hello and goodbye.’ He talked to you for an hour or two hours. Anybody. He’d take time out and talk to them. He had this knack of making everyone feel like they had a role to play, even if they bloody didn’t. But he made them feel like that.

GM: It’s true, because The Clash made you think. Even if you didn’t agree with everything, they made you think.
DL: There’s a famous quote — I wish I came up with it, but I didn’t — it said that The Sex Pistols would make you want to smash your head against the wall. But The Clash, well, they gave you the reason. I’m quoting somebody else.

Don Letts and Paul Simonon credit Don Letts

Love watching that armadillo toddle around in The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah” video? You have filmmaker Don Letts (left, with The Clash’s bassist, Paul Simonon) to thank. Photo courtesy Don Letts.

GM: Joe was well informed. He must have been reading a lot of stuff.
DL: Oh, yeah, he read avidly. Like I said, he was passionate about it, and engaged with the planet and what going on, and the day-to-day working of his fellow man. I don’t know how else to put it. It sounds kind of hippie-ish. Mind you, there was a lot of hippie in Joe, which ain’t a bad thing. But that’s what gave the music its gravitas, is that he genuinely cared. I mean, look at his performances, his best performances. It’s not an act. You know, he didn’t walk off stage and become somebody else. Ask anybody who hung out with Joe.

GM: And we’re talking pre-Internet. He really had to work hard to get all that information.
DL: Yeah, exactly. And I think what’s really sad in the cultural climate that we’re living in. It doesn’t seem to throw out these characters any more. Listen, I realize that Joe’s not the last in line of whoever these people are. But they are sadly lacking in the 21st century, I will say that.

GM: Or it doesn’t seem authentic, Don, when it does happen. That’s the even sadder thing.
DL: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. But I remain optimistic.

GM: Growing up in the age of MTV when they actually played music videos, I think a lot of people who grew up in that MTV generation remember “Rock the Casbah” video when they remember the Clash.
DL: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites, yeah.

GM: Doing those type of videos — where do those ideas come from? I mean, the armadillo, the location, everything just worked.
DL: The armadillo was definitely mine. But see, what I’m saying is that there’s something about The Clash, where you just have to scan their lyrics. In one of Joe’s rhyming couplets were more ideas than there were on some people’s god damn albums. We’re talking about high-impact information here. And I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t have to try that hard. First off, nearly every video I’ve done with The Clash is performance based. There were no gaps or cracks I had to paste over. There were no girls I had to get shaking their booty or have cars exploding in the background. You could not take your eyes off these guys. And all I would do would add what I call a little visual salt and pepper that would somehow enhance or tap into what they were talking about. But it came from The Clash and the inspiration they gave me directly. It wasn’t that hard with those guys. You had to be stupid to make a bad film about The Clash. GM