Incredible 16mm footage featuring Keith Hudson, Big Youth, John Lydon (Sex Pistols), Ari Up (The Slits), Tapper Zukie, and more!
Few have experienced more than Don Letts when it comes to 1970s and ’80s British reggae, the punk and post-punk explosion and the vital connection between them in Kingston and London. A filmmaker, photographer, vocalist for Basement 5, longtime confidante to the Slits, Public Image Limited, and the Clash, and cofounder of Big Audio Dynamite, Letts not only caught history in the making with his camera, but helped make said history through his vision, connections and passion for sound.
He also had an amazing eye, a searing love of reggae, punk, and punky reggae, and played a role in bridging the divide between white British colonialists and their former Jamaican subjects.
For example, anyone who listens to reggae has come across references to Trenchtown, the Kingston enclave whose residents created the sound of Jamaica. Few are the opportunities to travel back to late ’70s Trenchtown and absorb the actual place, though. Letts had the foresight to document this otherwise invisible shantytown. He was also a connector whose DJ sets at punk club the Roxy did as much as anything to influence the dub-drenched sound of post-punk.
“In the late 70s, the only white people you would see down at a Jah Shaka dance in Dalston, Hackney or Stoke Newington, would be Johnny Rotten, those guys from Public Image, Joe Strummer, and other guys from The Pistols or The Clash,” Letts told one interviewer. “These were my friends, people I’d taken with me. Now it’s great to see so many different kinds of people, different nationalities in the dance.”
That influence went both ways, Letts added. “Bob [Marley] wasn’t into punk style and fashion at first, like the designs Malcolm and Vivienne [at punk fashion shop SEX] were putting out, but I just told him, ‘Yeah Bob, this is what people are doing now, you know?'”
Letts added in another interview, “I fell out with Bob Marley over punk. I had on some bondage trousers and he said to me, ‘Don Letts, whatcha dealin’ wit? You look like one of dem nasty punk rockers.’ I said, ‘Hold on a minute, these are my mates!’ He’d obviously been reading the tabloids, which portrayed punks negatively. I didn’t tell him to fuck off, but as a baby dread I held my ground,” Letts said. “Later he was moved to write that song, ‘Punky Reggae Party’, which put reggae on the map. So I figure I got the last laugh.”
Two years ago, the commercial film house the Kino Library began uploading footage from Letts’ 16 mm camera. An independent film agency based in East London, Kino’s business is “supplying high quality, rare and inspiring archive footage to documentary makers, ad agencies and museums.” Letts’ footage covers all these bases, albeit in brief (the shortest is six seconds, the longest about three minutes) filmed snippets.
Here’s Big Youth (in background) performing in his prime, as a conquering dancer steals the spotlight.
Legendary roots band The Congos exploring caves with John Lydon.
John Lydon and Sly Dunbar hang by the pool at The Sheraton Hotel, Kingston.
Tapper Zukie looks sharp talking on a payphone.
Militant Barry sings into the microphone while Keith Hudson listens on headphones.
Have you ever wondered what the brilliant Kingston vocal group Culture were like in concert during their Two Sevens Clash prime? Here’s the closest thing to a time machine you’ll find.
U Roy, Keith Hudson, the Congos, Bob Marley, Prince Far I, Johnny Clarke – Letts captured them all, in the process revealing a community of creators tapping into the mystic and demanding to be documented.
He also filmed his friend John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited, who was visiting Jamaica for the first time. Looking like a fish out of water, the erstwhile Johnny Rotten is an ultimate outsider, quietly, shyly taking in his surroundings as legends like Sly Dunbar, U Roy and Dennis Brown attempt to show him a good time. An imposing figure onstage, Lydon looks as meek as a mouse in virtually all of the footage, a man too cool for his own good. (The YouTube commenters below this footage revel in ridiculing Lydon.)
Ari Up of the Slits exudes the kind of careless cool that Lydon lacks in Letts’ footage. Letts and Ari were close friends, and Ari lights up every frame she and the other members of the Slits are in. Granted, as the daughter of a German publishing magnate, she had much fewer day-to-day worries than those with whom she surrounded herself — Lydon eventually married Ari’s mother, becoming her stepfather (and a kept man) in the process — but the magnetic singer’s joyful dancing and performing in the footage is absolutely infectious.
Here she is dancing with Prince Mohamed to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s massive “Victorious Dub.”
An outdoor concert during the Slits’ amazing run in the late 1970s? Yes please.
As John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats — who highlighted the Letts archive a few weeks ago on social media — noted, you can easily lose an entire day absorbing this footage.