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Don Letts - Dread Walkabout

Author: Steve Tauschke
Friday, 2 May 2008
From fashion guru to Grammy award-winning film maker to Big Audio Dynamite songwriter, Don Letts in a man with fingers in many pies. Steve Tauschke hears from Letts ahead of his debut Australian multimedia show this week.

Which medium was your first love growing up-
I guess that would be predictably music, even though I was just listening. I grew up in a cultural climate where music was the primary source of information for young people looking for an alternative to what was on offer.

Did you have a music/fashion/film epiphany at any early age-
The whole thing came together with the punk rock explosion in the UK back in 1977. With its DIY ethos, I saw a way forward and from Roxy DJ became Don Letts, ‘film maker’.

Was there a sense during the ’70s punk era that history was being written-
Not at all! It was a quest for individuality and empowerment. We were just expressing ourselves the best we could.

Your London clothing stores were gathering points for local artist and musicians… Was there a tangible community or sub-cultural spirit you were able to feed off during that period-
My white mates were feeling pretty alienated by the popular music/club scene of the time. I was a first generation British-born black and alienation was part of the deal. Like-minded rebels would congregate in Acme Attractions, drawn in initially by the dub reggae sounds I’d be playing. In this environment we became closer by understanding our differences. We used our respective cultures to turn each other on!

Tell us about your first trip to Jamaica in the ’70s with Sex Pistol John Lyndon.
John was the first person to take me to JA. He figured I was black so I must have been but the closest I’d been to Jamaica was watching The Harder They Come in my local cinema. Tales a plenty – things like sitting in a smoke-filled studio watching Lee ‘Scratch' Perry produce reggae versions of the Sex Pistols tracks was pretty out there though.

I believe Mick Jones invited you to join Big Audio Dynamite because he enjoyed your ‘non-musical ideas’. Can you elaborate on this-
As I had no musical training I had no preconceived ideas when it came to music. How else would I come up with ideas like sampling bits of dialogue and sound effect from films- I couldn’t play an instrument but wanted to contribute to BAD and as it happens I did co-write most of the songs with Mick using my film background.

Were you frightened initially at the prospect of performing musically in a group-
A pair of shades will get you a long way and I had coloured stickers on my keyboard while performing live. We’re talking punk rock here!

Do you think BAD left a musical legacy-
I’m really proud of BAD. A lot of the musical experiments: Jamaican bass lines mixed with hip hop beats and rock n roll guitar combined with melody, samples and a little rap are now part of the fabric of contemporary pop music. BAD signposted the way that multi-cultural Britain was heading.

What’s the best thing your films/music have done for you-
It’s helped me to be all I can be and stay connected to the planet.

So what can we expect from your 2008 multimedia show here in Australia-
Ask not what you can expect from me, ask what I can expect from you! I’m bringing what I always brought to the party: word, sound and power.

WHO: Don Letts
WHAT: Plays Manning Bar
WHEN: Saturday 10 May