Don Letts: the soundtrack of my life

Don Letts
(Image credit: David M. Benett/Getty Images)

"Music’s all about taste. Lucky I got some,” the ever-modest Don Letts says with a laugh. 

Now 65, the man whose record collection inspired punk fans and musicians in the 70s to get into reggae – and got Bob Marley into punk – is spending some time in self-reflection with his new autobiography There And Black Again when he’s not directing videos or hosting his 6Music radio show

“Everything I am has come from music,” he says. “It’s not a job for me, it’s my life.”


The first music I remember hearing

As a child I had what my parents were listening to in one ear: the emerging sounds of Jamaica, such as Prince Buster and Toots And The Maytals; my father was also listening to crooners like Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves. In the other ear I’m listening to what my white mates were listening to: Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young, Beach Boys, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Beatles, The Who. It wasn’t one single thing, it was a collision of sound.

The best record I made

I’m proud of all the Big Audio Dynamite stuff I did, and getting to write songs with Mick Jones. I’m particularly proud of our third album, Tighten Up Vol 88. Then I stupidly quit BAD and started my own band, Screaming Target – ego will get you every time, right? – there’s a bunch of songs on there that I’m genuinely proud of.

The worst record I made

A single called Haile Unlikely. The name is a pun on [Rastafarian Messiah] Haile Selassie, so I was sticking my neck out culturally with the lyrics. It was me, Keith Levene and Jah Wobble. They blagged some money to go into the studio, and they got me in to work on some vocals. I had a rough go, then said: “I’ll come back in a couple of days and do it properly.” I never heard from them again. 

Next thing, I see this record in a shop – Steel Leg v The Electric Dread. First off, it was unfinished, so that kinda pissed me off as it was my first commitment to vinyl. And worst of all, on the cover there’s someone with a gimp mask/bin liner over his head, which some people think is me. I was doubly offended. But hey, I made a record and I can’t play anything, so that’s a result as far as I’m concerned [laughs].

The guitar hero

Mick Jones. He’s a fucking great guitarist, and no one really talks about that, it all gets lost in the Clash thing. When Mick’s on stage with his guitar it’s a really beautiful thing to watch.

The songwriter

I’m as old as rock’n’roll, so this was bloody difficult. I’m quite partial to Paul Simon, but there’s Dylan, John Grant, Rufus Wainwright, Paddy McAloon, Prince and Stevie Wonder. Then there’s the combinations like Strummer and Jones, Lennon and McCartney, Morrissey and Marr, Jagger and Richards… You want me to pick one? Come on.

The anthem

Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up. In the twenty-first century Bob Marley has been somewhat castrated, and the first song people might go to is One Love. For a lot of people in this world it’s the Get Up, Stand Up Bob that we relate to, because of inequalities. And as long as there are those inequalities that will always be the song for us.

The greatest album of all time

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. A godly piece of work, informed by the social, political and cultural climate of the times. His lyrics – war, ecology, rape – he’s still, unfortunately, on point.

My cult hero

Joe Strummer would fit that title, and justify it too. A fine example. Much missed, and we need more Joes today. We need people with that energy, people who call it as they see it.

The most underrated band ever

The Slits. Them, Magazine and Public Image really kicked off post-punk. I loved their open approach – they liked reggae, they brought in African rhythms – and they broke down doors globally for women in music, along with Poly Styrene and Siouxsie Sioux. The Slits were the fiercest of the fierce. They were terrifying.

My guilty pleasure

At age sixty-five, I own everything that I am and I haven’t got any guilty pleasures. I like George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice, incredible record. I like a little Patsy Cline occasionally. But guilty? Pfft. Don Letts ain’t guilty of nothing [laughs]. 

The song that makes me cry

The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize??. Listen to the words: ‘Do you realise that everyone you know some day will die?’ It’s a hymn to humanity, life and death, uplifting and devastating at the same time.

My 'in the mood for love' song

A new kid on the block, Jacob Collier. When I heard He Won’t Hold You, featuring Rapsody, it stopped me in my goddamn tracks. Amazing kid who does everything himself. Finding new music makes my life worth living.

The song I want played at my funeral

If I wanted to make everyone laugh, The Jam, Going Underground. But if I want to make ’em weep it would be Father John Misty’s Ballad Of A Dying Man. I’ve been a fan of him since Fleet Foxes. This hits the nail on the goddamn head.

Don Letts' There And Black Again is available now via Omnibus Books.

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.