When punk rock careened its self-taught musical way onto the London club scene a decade ago, Don Letts was as charged up by punk's energy as the next young bloke. But while most everyone else around him was picking up a guitar or bass, Mr. Letts's inspiration took a slightly different tack. He picked up a Super-8 movie camera and though unschooled in filmmaking,documented the times in ``The Punk Rock Movie.'' Several years and more than 100 music videos later - videos which featured some of the most influential bands of the period, such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols - Letts is still winging it, so to speak. Only now he's on the other side of the camera, collaborating with ex-Clash member Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) - a mixed-race, mixed-music group that was recently named Band of the Year for 1986 by England's Melody Maker magazine.
``We were in a club one night,'' said Letts at the end of a recent three-week tour of the United States, in explaining how he wound up in BAD, ``and Mick said to me, `Well, what about you?' And I said, `I can't play anything, Mick.' And he said, `Look, take these colored stickers and put them on the keyboard and we'll work it out.'
``I'm not very technically capable, I'm more of an ideas man. It was the same thing in film,'' he explained.
Letts, who sings some vocals and co-writes with Mr. Jones, also masterminds the various synthesized sound effects and tape loops that have become a hallmark of BAD's infectious cross-cultural blend of influences ranging from rock to hiphop.
``I don't know all the ins and outs or what all the machines are called,'' continued Letts. ``But there's plenty of technique out there, and not enough ideas.''
BAD came to life in the wake of Jones's unceremonious ouster in 1983 from the Clash, a band he co-founded with Joe Strummer, who kicked Jones out. The Clash - once the very model of a leftist, politically inspired and musically inspiring rock band - ultimately became a sad caricature of its former radical self and dissolved. Jones, however, recouped, bringing his own political convictions into new and subtler forms in his work with Letts and the rest of BAD (Leo Williams on bass, Greg Roberts on drums, and Dan Donovan on keyoards).
``The things that the Clash said, and other people, too, still need to be said,'' says Letts. ``The question is how you say them these days. I don't think people want to be bored and lectured to. It's like your soapbox has got to have polka dots and neon lights all over it.''
It's style that's changed, he says, not substance - ``'cause there's still plenty of substance there.''
And there is plenty of substance in BAD's work, as exemplified in the band's first album, ``This Is Big Audio Dynamite,'' and the more recent ``No. 10 Upping St.,'' co-produced and partially co-written by Jones's ex-Clash-mate Mr. Strummer (who got involved with the album midway in its production, after patching over the much-publicized rift that existed between the two men after Strummer forced Jones out of the Clash).
In the course of its two albums, BAD has touched on a variety of contemporary issues, ranging from immigrants and unemployment to drugs and third world poverty.
``I think it's important to be talking about something, as opposed to waffling about not being able to get a girlfriend,'' says Letts.
``But we see a lot more going on in the world that excites us, or concerns us,'' he continues, ``and we like to get that information across.''
BAD doesn't hit its audience over the head with that information, however. In fact, the band wraps its concerns in music that's driven by an urban boombox beat that's as nonstop and texturally diverse as inner city life itself. Throughout it all are woven snippets of dialogue and sound effects that stretch the music - and the listener - beyond the purely aural dimension.
``I approach writing a song like a little film,'' explains Letts, who is credited with ``f/x'' (effects) on BAD's albums. ``Each song could be a treatment for a film.
``We try to use all [the effects] intelligently,'' he says,``rather than just pick something up from `The Terminator' or `Taxi Driver.' I think [the effects] give a 3-D effect to the songs. It makes them cinematic.
``You know, we look at a lot of things around us from the media as being a part of rock-and-roll,'' he says. ``TV, videos, books, films, the streets - we use all that to make our music more cinematic. ... To us the dialogue is like another instrument. Instead of going to a guitar solo, we'll go to a bit of dialogue.''
In concert, BAD fairly bristles with energy. Songs that are already standouts on the band's albums take on an unexpected new and invigorating life. The band swings tightly. Jones and Letts are both commanding singers. And the music pumps with a spirit that can only be defined as pure rock-and-roll. Surprising from a band that hardly fits - in style or content - a traditional rock image.
``We think we're a rock-and-roll group,'' says Letts. ``A lot of people would like to think of other names for us. But as far as we're concerned, we play rock-and-roll, or at least what rock-and-roll should be, anyway.
``I don't think rock-and-roll necessarily means blue jeans and leather jackets. I think you can use a beatbox, which we feature heavily on `C'mon Every Beatbox,''' he says, referring to the band's use of a drum machine on a song which is a tip of the hat to early rocker Eddie Cochran. ``And that's still rock-and-roll because it's the spirit.''
BAD is taking a brief rest after a three-week United Kingdom tour, followed by three weeks spent primarily on the US East Coast. West Coast fans should be looking for another BAD tour as early as late January or early February.