DON LETTS – filmmaker, musician, producer and BBC Radio 6 Music radio presenter – has watched the changing cultural landscape over the past few decades, and understands how what went before can inform what is yet to come. He’s less keen on dwelling in his punk beginnings of 1977 than he is on driving the narrative forward, turning people on to the new, and discussing next steps and new directions. Where cultures clash, collaboration brings great art. Art that is bold enough to take on its own detractors and those who seek to crush it. Letts sees the problems, knows the issues we’re all familiar with, but he’s optimistic: he believes in the creators, those who think outside of their borders, those who refuse to have their imagination stifled by the relentless march of gentrification and cultural homogenisation. He recognises the importance of the social connectivity we all seek and depend on in the digital age, but also sees the inherent danger in its seductive and addictive charm.
Letts has never had a plan as such. His career pretty much finds him, rather than the other way around. Music is central to everything he does, though, and with a new film, Two Sevens Clash: Dread meets Punk Rockers, already in the can for Sky Arts, and a new album based on his Culture Clash 6 Music show due in June, he’s not hung up on nostalgia: the push forward is what it’s all about.
You found yourself at the eye of the punk storm back in the day, a frontline soldier of that movement. What would you say was punk’s biggest cultural impact?
Interesting question… OK, well I think it was the reaffirmation of the punk spirit and attitude. Because the thing is, there’s a lot of emphasis on that late 70s incarnation of the punk spirit, but it didn’t begin and end there. That was one particular incarnation of something that has a lineage and a heritage of something that goes way beyond music, and almost even beyond art. I get kind of worried on people’s focus on that period, cos if you think it only happened then, it doesn’t give it life and legs, you know? Cos if it happened then, it can happen again. The whole DIY thing that made me who I am, the whole thing of turning your problems into assets, the idea that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea protected – all these things are what I got out of punk, and they still serve me on a day-to-day basis. It’s much bigger than safety pins, Mohawks and loud guitars. I’m into moving it forward. Nostalgia doesn’t get us anywhere, really.
Youth movements, for want of a better term, seem to build themselves around a need to rail against something, to rebel and object the unit of opposition. Where’s the next revolution going to come from, the next rebellion? Online, maybe?
Well, that’s possible, it’s a tool to be used, you know. It’s not social media’s fault that it attracts dickheads. In other places on this planet, things like Facebook are a major fuckin’ lifeline, not only to galvanise people, [to] get them together, but also to let them know what the fuck’s going on. There are a lot of things for people to be angry about, but the economic state has a big impact on the quality of the art. How artistic and rebellious can you be if you’re working every minute just to pay the rent? Look at this Brexit shit: I’ll be dead in a few years, and it’s younger people who’ll feel the worst of it, but people need to wake up and see it all for what it is. Who was it that said, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’? That’s an appropriate term right now.
You’ll be In Conversation at Sound City+ with Dave Haslam. The exchange of ideas and thoughts is fascinating for the audience, but what is it that you look to take away from being involved in these events?
Well, it’s a two-way thing. As much as I might possibly turn people onto something, I’m hoping for the same thing myself, to remain engaged in, you know, now. That’s why I’m not always comfortable with the ’77 thing. It drives me fuckin’ nuts. We’ve got to move things forward, that’s what it’s about. And move myself forward. I like the Q&A thing. Where people throw ideas around. I like all that. I like people arguing with me, maybe making me think twice about something I’ve become set in my ways about, maybe. It keeps me on my toes, and makes me check myself, you know? I’m looking to be turned on. That’s what it’s about.
What drives you forward? What’s the vision?
Well, lately I’ve been thinking… I never had a plan. I’ve always followed my instincts and, through art, tried to engage with the planet and make the most of the experience of living. There ain’t no plan. There never has been. I just follow my heart, my instincts and my feet. It’s all been driven by music. I’m a child of the vinyl generation, I’ve got an analogue attitude. I suppose I’m driven by the whole culture-clash thing, using our music to turn each other on, and, through that dynamic, we come closer… like the Punky Reggae Party thing. Contrary to popular belief, you know, the world’s a big and beautiful place. But I ain’t so up my arse that I don’t realise that, if you can make a buck surviving, doing something you enjoy, you’re on a winner.
Don Letts is In Conversation with Dave Haslam at Camp and Furnace for Sound City+ on Friday 26th May.