Shadows Of The Trellick Tower: Don Letts Of Big Audio Dynamite Interviewed

Mark Emsley talks to Don Letts about the history of Big Audio Dynamite and the new deluxe edition of their debut album

1984: Don Letts – movie maker, band manager (The Slits) and Roxy club DJ – teams up with a P45 carrying Mick Jones. He drafts in a bunch of gun slinging hopefuls and, foreseeing the future of music, fuses together guitar based rock-n-roll, NYC loving hip-hop beats and movie samples. Now, 25 years since the release of their debut This Is Big Audio Dynamite, a new Legacy Edition of the album is inspiring people to discover the joys of Big Audio Dynamite all over again.

The Quietus caught up with Don Letts to find out just what happened 25 years ago.

From the very outset, the artwork of This Is Big Audio Dynamite seemed to underline the fact that Mick and yourself wanted to be a part of a band. This was no vanity solo album project following Mick’s departure from the Clash. The outfits and movie samples all indicated a certain ‘last gang in town’ mentality, yet the music is very inclusive of all genres (reggae, hip hop, rock-n-roll). Was it all planned out to perfection in some café over beans on toast, or a happy accident?

Don Letts: The sound was just a reflection of what we were into as individuals and as a band. We’re talking Jamaican bass lines, New York beats, Mick’s English rock ‘n’ roll guitar with a dash of elements sampled from the media. There was no master plan other than finding a place where they all met…and that was on the streets of West London.

Were you given instructions to look like a modern day cowboy on the day of the photo shoot, or were the outfits your routine clothes with just a few hats added for effect?

DL: Believe it or not that’s what we looked like, right down to the hats! You see, the 80s wasn’t all big hair and big shoulder pads. It was also Big Audio Dynamite.

Whose idea was it to add the movie samples and dialogue? They became a focal point for a lot of the music.

DL: As the only member of the band that couldn’t (and still can’t) play an instrument, that task fell to me – and with my film background it was somewhat appropriate. When the others would be laying down their parts in the studio I’d be running what was tantamount to a film festival in the green room. Having said that, I think Mick already had the idea of using movie dialogue from his time with The Clash.

Did the fact that Tony James – one of Mick’s friends – was also adding movie dialogue to Sigue Sigue Sputnik records worry you at all?

DL: We weren’t worried ’bout a thing, nor did we consider what anyone else was doing. We were in a space of our own making. Besides, there was a crucial difference to how B.A.D used sampled dialogue as compared to how S.S.S or anybody else that came after used ’em. None of our songs depended on samples – movie or otherwise. They were only ever salt and pepper to the main meal. In other words, if you removed them you’d still be left with a song. Every word and sound was thoughtfully considered and had to justify its space.

Was there any time that you thought you should check up with Tony to find out which movies he was lifting dialogue from, to make sure you didn’t clash and use the same vocal pieces?

DL: Don’t be daft! Besides when it come to films, Mick and I are connoisseurs.

Did you ever worry about the excess of movie samples, or were things so that in 1984 these things were never considered?

DL: What was there to worry about? No-one else was doing it. We were boldly going where no band had gone before when it came to the whole sampling thing. It was all so new no-one thought to sue!

Did you have to get clearance for the reissue for all the movie dialogue, or have certain elements been quietly taken out?

DL: All tracks on disc one of the Deluxe edition are exactly as first released. You gotta understand that although you couldn’t touch us live, and for a little while it seemed like we were the people’s favourite, we never sold millions of records. We were all cred and no bread, and when there’s no hits there’s no writs!

I find it wonderful that the album is now owned by Sony. Did the ‘Sony’ subject matter ever cause concern during the reissue discussion?

DL: I don’t think there’s anyone connecting the dots in this cultural climate. Beside, Mick always said it was about his phoenix-like rise from the ashes!

When it came to remastering the album, and given the current love of loud mastering of albums, who decided on how the final results should sound in 2010? Were you and Mick consulted over the results, or was it all down to the record label?

DL: Mick and I actually put the whole thing together. But then again that’s the way it always was. Between us we took care of everything down to artwork and videos. Record companies tend to leave you alone if they know you can deliver the goods.

**Has much changed with the remastered edition? I have the original CD version, and love the open space in the production, and peaks and troughs in the music. Will I notice any difference?

DL: CD 1’s as per the original release. As for 12 inch remixes, punked-out dubs and studio outtakes – well, that’d be CD2.

I think a lot of the album still sounds very relevant, and unlike a lot of 80s productions seems to stand up well. I would suggest that this is probably due to the focus being on the songs, as opposed to over cluttering the music with unnecessary overdubs.

DL: The basic elements of Big Audio Dynamite’s sound: Leo Williams Jamaican bass lines, Greg Roberts New York-style beats, Dan Donovan’s electronica, Mick’s U.K rock & roll guitar plus the whole sampling thing, are still the main ingredients of the things that excite me today. That coupled with an analogue attitude and dub sensibility.

The second disc is full of remixes, and previously unreleased tracks. Was it weird listening back to these off cuts?

DL: It’s interesting that when I was initially asked to sift through our old material, I groaned. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t sound like yesterday or even today. It still sounded like it could be tomorrow.

Were there any tracks that were found, and were not able to be put on the second disc that you would have liked to have seen added?

DL: Nope…I could lie and say we’d written loads of tunes at that time and just picked the rights ones. We were so busy getting the blend right there was no time for fat.

One thing that has always puzzled me: ‘Flea’ is credited on the albums as ‘dynamite’. For years I have wondered if, like Echo and the Bunny Men, or Dr Avalanche in Sisters of Mercy, ‘Flea’ was a drum machine or much loved sampler?

DL: Flea [aka Adam Newman] was actually Mick’s guitar tech and he made a mean cup of tea. He was also what’s sometimes described as a ‘vibes man’ and therefore an integral part of the line-up.

While the band used the studio toys to their full, they really came into their own live. Was it easy with the technology available back then, or did you just have to go with the flow when the machines failed?

DL: Mick was adamant it should work live – not an approximation but the shebang, dialogue, samples and all. Now today, that’s a button away, but back then we’re talking serious Heath Robinson! I’d be flying in dialogue stuff on cassette from a boom-box and sound effects with an Ensonic keyboard.

Is the urban legend that you had to have stickers placed above keys to show what to play true?

DL: Hey I’m extremely proud of my sticker technique dude! As a non-musician I certainly did have coloured stickers on my keyboard when playing live. In fact, when the spirit moved me, I’d lift up the keyboard and show the audience as if to say, ‘if you got a good idea and you’re brave enough you can to this to’. I’ve always been into ideas over technical ability and believed a good idea attempted it better than a bad idea perfect (and there’s sure a lot of those around).

Did you place the stickers, or was it all set up for you by Mick?

DL: Dan Donovan was responsible for directing The Don.

Whoever chose the supports clearly had an agenda. Chiefs of Relief were very much rock-n-roll band, while a young Rodney P pointed to the future of UK hip hop. It was probably my first introduction to such a collision of styles. Trailblazing times, for the listener. Was it fun from the stage, or were you too concerned about the technology to stand back and take in the event?

DL: When you’re in the middle of it you never see it, but Mick always wanted to make the line-up culturally interesting; another thing he’d picked up from his time with The Clash.

**What was it like having Joe Strummer back in the fold for the second B.A.D album? a source of tension, or group hugs all round?

DL: It was while we recording our second album in N.Y.C that I actually invited Joe down the studio after bumping into him in Times Square. He was supposed to come and say hello and ended up setting up a bunker under the piano and co-writing and co-producing ‘Number 10 Upping St’. From my point of view, it was a beautiful thing to see them creatively fall in love again.

Trellik Towers [a storey of flats in London] have featured many times on the covers of Big Audio Dynamite albums, starting with Tighten Up Volume 88. What was the reason for its ongoing use?

DL: We’re all London born and bread and intensely proud of that fact…it’s in the mix.

After a few more albums, finalising in the club orientated Megatop Phoenix , you moved onto being the front man for the short lived Screaming Target project, which seemed to reinforce the need to keep reggae soundsystem beats and bass lines at the fore, but things didn’t quite work out. What happened? Like others, did you come to the realisation that being a pop star was not your calling, or did you have a desire to get back behind the camera?

DL: Yeah those solo vanity projects eh… what you gonna do? Guess it was just some stuff I had to get off my chest. You say it didn’t quite work out… well it did ’cause I did it.

And finally, I’d love to check if there are plans for CD Legacy Editions of any of the other Big Audio Dynamite albums? I’m sure there must be stacks of unreleased remixes, live versions etc.

DL: That would be down to accountants and the people.

And more importantly, have there been any further developments re your recent suggestions as to a reunion in 2011?

DL: I can neither confirm or deny the rumours. I’m up for it but then again I would be, I’ve only got to get some coloured stickers.

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