"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Breaking punk out of the box

London's Roxy may have only lasted 100 days in 1976, but in the punk club's brief lifespan a cultural revolution was born. And almost as important as the acts who flailed wildly on its stage, from the Sex Pistols to The Damned and The Clash, was the dreadlocked DJ keeping the beat between acts.

As the bands didn't yet have their own records to play, Don Letts spun the music of his parents' Jamaican home, forging a connection between punk and reggae that lasts to this day. Dub riddims, skank guitar, riffs and beats drenched in reverb -- all would become part of the arsenal of British punk. Letts, initially a non-musician, can lay claim to single-handedly bringing together two disparate cultural tribes.

Inspired by the creative ferment and DIY ethic of the punk scene, not to mention close friendships with the likes of Joe Strummer and John Lydon, Letts would move from turntables to film cameras, documenting the nascent punk scene and directing music videos and feature films. With Clash guitarist Mick Jones he formed the influential band Big Audio Dynamite in the late 1980s, originating a new pop cocktail of Jamaican basslines, hip hop beats, rock guitar and sampled film dialogue. Punk: Attitude, just released on DVD, is his latest offering -- a tightly packaged overview of the movement. The 49-old Letts arrives at Harbourfront Centre's Kuumba Festival next week to participate in an artist talk and to introduce his documentary on Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Dubbed the godfather of rap, Scott-Heron's early-seventies songs set the standard for politically incisive poetry wedded to soul and funk-inflected jams.

When first approached by the producers to create Punk: Attitude, Letts was unenthusiastic. It was ground he had trod before, first in his seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 and more recently in his 2003 Grammy-winning documentary about The Clash, Westway to the World. "Give me a [expletive] break was what I thought," he says.

"I wondered what this constant fascination was about. It seemed to me that people were trivializing a bigger idea -- that punk was part of an ongoing dynamic. Counterculture did not begin and end in the late seventies, and if you keep putting punk in a box it becomes this dead thing. Then you look around at the current culture and you realize, if people ever needed to be reminded about this shit it's now."

The film's thesis underlines what Letts considers the true value of punk. In its DIY ethic he saw the blueprint for other countercultures and creative possibilities. The film opens with a nod to the hippies, and punk forebears The Stooges, MC5 and The Velvet Underground, and concludes with the anti-globalization movement as an example of punk's residual influence. Which points out a paradox today. The Internet is making it possible for individuals and groups to communicate and collaborate with an ever-growing audience; this, however, as our culture grows more fragmented into solipsistic entertainments.

Will we ever see anything as galvanizing as punk, or even early era hip hop, again? "It's funny, the creation of these countercultures is fuelled by the social, political and economic climate of the time.

"The hippie movement certainly was, as was punk rock. Those [social conditions] are still out there multiplied a thousand times but it doesn't seem to have had that same galvanizing effect."

While Letts allows he remains generally positive, and believes "if you look further afield there is always something going on," he is particularly frustrated by the state of hip hop, a music he calls "the black punk rock moment."

"I'm first generation British Black, that's the term we use quite easily these days, but back in the mid-seventies, it was a very confusing idea, trust me. There was no blueprint for this social experiment, we were kind of like a lost tribe. It was music like Gil Scott-Heron's that empowered us. It had a social purpose.

"Where are people like Chuck D and KRS-One now? Hip hop has become hip pop. Would it be the largest-selling music on the planet if it was really that radical? I have a hard idea believing that we were put on this planet just to entertain everyone."

With his recent documentaries on punk and Gil Scott-Heron so rooted in cultural moments long past, it's remarkable how freshly observed they are, as Letts looks back for relevance, not nostalgia. He's unashamed to pronounce, on the eve of his sixth decade, that he still "lives punk rock on a day-to-day basis." I ask him if, true to rumour, he really didn't know how to play keyboards in BAD.

"Absolutely, I had stickers on my keyboards [to show me what to do] because I didn't know how to play. Nevertheless, I came up with nearly all the songs with Mick. I used to tell people a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. And when you look around today there's a lot of bad ideas out there, man."
posted by R J Noriega at 8:42 AM | Permalink |


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