In 1977, The Clash was known as "The Only Band That Matters." Today, The Clash -- Westway to the World -- the band's story as told by its members to filmmaker and friend Don Letts -- underscores that bold claim with raw-powered live footage and new interviews with members Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon and sometimes drummer Terry Chimes.
"I was creating a blueprint for rock & roll, to show people how a band can come together, do something and actually have an effect -- the 'lest we forget' type vibe," explains Letts, who, twenty-five years on, still calls himself a punk rocker.
Westway to the World was conceived in 1999 as a very un-punk promotional tool to help promote the Clash catalog and a long overdue, posthumous live album, From Here to Eternity, but there was one slight problem: "They didn't have four guys who were prepared to go and promote this whole back catalog," says Letts. "They weren't salesmen, the Clash -- they were the real deal."
The band had specifically stayed silent until now on the subject of its history and messy 1983 breakup, and it was up to Letts, the band's unofficial historian (he'd followed the band with his camera since its inception) to pull together the members' final words. It's possible that had he not been at the helm of the project, the band would not have sat for the interviews (some taking up to eleven hours), nor would they have been so outspoken.
Some of the more dramatic parts of Letts' movie got cut into a VH1 Behind the Music segment. "I'm really pissed off about it because it's kind of tabloid TV that undid all the emotional content that I'd taken great time to get," says Letts who's been vindicated with a new director's cut DVD that also features interview outtakes and the twenty-five-minute Clash on Broadway, his film documenting the band's 1981 historic sixteen-night stint at Bond's in New York City.
"I'd like to take credit for it, but you'd have to be a complete idiot to make a bad film about the Clash," he says. "In most instances, I just pointed the camera at those guys, and they just went off."
A substantial portion of the film is devoted to pre-punk days and the group's formation, but there is plenty of in-your-face live footage that spans the band's career, captured by Letts' own lens. Letts, who is black and British, was at the epicenter of the London pre-punk scene as a reggae-loving clothes seller; his bondage trousers and "baldy friends" were the inspiration behind the Bob Marley song "Punky Reggae Party."
As DJ at the Roxy, a gathering place for the nascent punk scene in the late Seventies, Letts spun reggae while pointing his camera on the working class musicians and artists -- among them future members of the Clash, Public Image, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Slits -- grooving to the underground dub sounds (Letts recently compiled some of those old reggae sides as Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown for the Heavenly label). He went on to make Clash videos and later became an in-demand documentary filmmaker for English television. He also joined the Mick Jones post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite.
"It was definitely a cultural exchange," says Letts of his years side by side with the Clash. "We were both turning each other on to our respective differences; we realized that reveling in our differences made us closer."
Perhaps what makes Letts' movie of the Clash extra compelling is that it is also his own story. "It was good to have that up front instead of buried," he says. "The whole background and setting the scene, how they grew up, that's all my background."
Letts makes the point that white rockers borrowing from black music isn't a new phenomenon, but he maintains that the Clash were different. "It wasn't people who were three thousand miles away that were influencing them; it was the people who they grew up with. The fact that they realized they could say things with musical reportage, that comes from listening to old reggae records."
Clash classics like "White Riot" and "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," documented real-life events (the Nottinghill Carnaval riot and a Dillinger and Leroy Smart gig at Hammersmith Palais, respectively), setting the racially charged scenes into anthemic protestations. From 1976 to 1983, the Clash delivered a unique brand of rebel rock that incorporated punk, reggae and rockabilly into one explosive mix. By 1979, it all came together beautifully for the epic double album London Calling. But by '83, when its revolution rock went Top Ten with Combat Rock and into Shea Stadium opening for the Who, the band's individual members could no longer reconcile singing "Career Opportunities" to millions; they splintered apart instead.
"Longevity was never the point," asserts Letts. "It's like old movie stars: You want to remember them as they were. Every generation has its own soundtrack, and if you look at most bands -- aside from the Stones and U2 -- that six/seven-year cycle of a band is actually what most great bands do. You're relevant to your time, and that's it."
Which is why Letts is happy not to see a Clash reunion. "I'd be shocked if they did, and I guess in my heart I'd be let down too," he says. "All reunions do is tarnish the legacy of whatever the band left before."
But was he happy to see his old pals put down the grinding axes? "I didn't think about that so much, not how it would be good for them, but how it would be good for the youth out there to see a real rock band. I don't know about in your country but there's a whole lot of bands being got together by corporations. The whole boy band/girl band thing, you'd think that punk didn't happen. Things won't change unless there are examples. When we all got into music, back in the day, we got into it to be anti-establishment. Nowadays, bands start bands to become part of the establishment . . . A lot of people look back to punk rock, but I'm going forward with punk rock. It still works for me on a day to day basis."
The Clash -- Westway to the World screens March 1st at 7:30 p.m at Artist's Television Access, 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop 2002 Film Festival. Call (415) 824-3890 for information.