Punk may have got all the headlines, but reggae proved vital in ending the rift between black and white teenagers and introducing cross-pollination to the charts
By Neil Spencer, in The Guardian (30 January 2011)
It was punk‘s “summer of hate”, 1977, and the required pose was a sneer, a leather jacket and something hacked about – a spiky haircut, a ripped T-shirt, a sawn-off school tie. And, of course, no flares, the despised flag of hippiedom. But at the cold, concrete roots of Britain a very different aesthetic was also in the ascendant, one calling for an oversized tam, dreadlocks and a display of “the red, gold and green”, the colours of Rastafari. Flares? Fine!
The two looks represented the different worlds inhabited by young white and black Britain, worlds which a year previously had been remote from each other but which by the summer of 1977 were unexpectedly and often uncomfortably rubbing shoulders. At Hackney town hall, under portraits of whiskery Victorian aldermen, I watched the Cimarons chant down Babylon while Generation X snarled their way through “Wild Youth”. In Brixton, I gaped as the Slits, the acme of unruliness, shared a stage with Birmingham’s Steel Pulse, the most militant of Britain’s proliferating reggae bands.
More than just the “Punky Reggae Party” Bob Marley had playfully celebrated on disc that summer, these were gigs that signalled the birth of a new Britain, one in which the neofascist National Front was consigned to the margins and musical cross-pollination became the norm. Rock-reggae bands such as the Police, ska revivalists such as the Specials and home-grown reggae acts such as Janet Kay would soon occupy the charts. Further down the line would come UB40, Culture Club, Soul II Soul and then the current era in which, to quote Soul II Soul singer Caron Wheeler: “You can’t distinguish between colour any more – it’s just people.”
These days, punk is to be found in the cultural academy, in lecture halls, art galleries and fashion history books. By contrast, British reggae remains half-forgotten and little praised, represented mainly by the Specials’ “Ghost Town” as the default tune for any retrospective on the bleak, Thatcherite early 80s.
By way of correcting the imbalance comes Reggae Britannia, a BBC4 documentary in the vein of the channel’s Soul Britannia and Folk Britannia, which follows Britain’s romance with Jamaican music from “My Boy Lollipop”, Millie Small’s 1964 hit, through to the late 80s. Its broadcast is preceded by a Barbican concert featuring a selection of Jamaican and UK acts – Big Youth, Ali Campbell, Carroll Thompson and Ken Boothe among others.
Those 1977 shows, organised by a nascent Rock Against Racism, meant it had taken 29 years since the arrival of the Empire Windrush for black and white Britain to share the same stage. Preposterous though it now seems, it hadn’t happened too often before. Jazz had long provided a cross-racial haven (black bandleaders such as Ken “Snakehips” Johnson were active as far back as the 1930s), but most often the only place to find the two communities mixing was in a soul club or at an Al Green or Stevie Wonder concert. As late as 1978, Joe Strummer would sing of being the only “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” at a reggae extravaganza (Joe exaggerated; there were at least six).
In reggae terms, it had taken the emergence of Bob Marley to effect the uneasy coalition of rock fans, black youth, lofty Rastas and proto-punks that confronted each other at his celebrated 1975 Lyceum shows. After Marley, reggae was taken seriously as music of substance and innovation, where previously it had been treated at best as a novelty or simply ridiculed.
The series of reggae hits that had made the UK’s pop charts in the late 60s and early 70s seemed only to harden prejudice; Tony Blackburn, in his pomp as Radio 1’s premier DJ, declared them “rubbish”, despite the British public regularly sending the likes of Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” and “It Mek” into the Top 10. Catchy numbers such as the Upsetters’ “Return of Django” and Dave and Ansel Collins’s “Monkey Spanner” reflected reggae’s popularity among skinheads (odd given the skins’ racist tendencies), while other hits – Bob and Marcia’s “Young, Gifted and Black” (originally a solemn Nina Simone song), Nicky Thomas’s “Love of the Common People” – had jaunty orchestral arrangements added to the Jamaican originals (“stringsed up” was the saying) to sweeten them for export.
Though hits such as Bobby Bloom’s “Montego Bay” were unashamed gimmicks, others, like Dekker’s “Israelites”, reflected the Jamaican ghetto experience. A surprising number became part of the fabric of British life, popular as run-out theme tunes for football clubs (notably Harry J’s “The Liquidator”) and advertising jingles.
Yet British reggae acts remained thin on the ground. Bands such as the Cimarons existed principally to supply backing for visiting Jamaican stars or were expected to provide a medley of soul hits rather than reggae. “You had to be more of a showband,” recalls Dennis Bovell, who established Matumbi early in the 70s and who would become a groundbreaking figure in British reggae. “We’d play some rocksteady but mostly Otis Redding, James Brown and the like – soul music was considered the music of emancipation.”
Matumbi found work at a variety of venues – American air force bases, chicken-in-a-basket supper clubs in places such as Huddersfield and Cannock – though black Britain, like Jamaica, preferred to keep up to speed with the latest releases via the “sound system” (disco) and the “blues dance” (a house party with pay bar). “A blues was the only place you could get a girl,” says Bovell. “Reggae dancing was full embrace, and if you were young and living at home, that was your only chance to spend a night in someone’s arms.”
Sound systems had long played a pivotal role in Jamaican life, providing escape and a showcase for hot tunes, usually with added commentary from talk-over DJs such as Dennis Alcapone and Big Youth. “Sound systems were our BBC or CNN, a way to communicate with people on the street,” says Big Youth in Reggae Britannia. In Britain, sound systems were almost the only conduit for reggae. “There was nothing on the radio,” points out Bovell, who alternated his role in Matumbi with running London’s Jah Sufferer system.
British sound systems, which drew cachet from having the latest Jamaican releases, were snooty about home-grown product. Bovell, exasperated at the exclusion of his music, eventually bought a “dinking” machine to knock out the centre of his records so he could pass them off as Jamaican imports.
For the sons and daughters of the Windrush generation, reggae became an underground code of defiance, part of the quest for selfhood. “We rejected the caution and restraint our parents had in a hostile racial environment,” says poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. “We were the rebel generation – reggae afforded us our own identity.”
Singer Brinsley Forde, who helped found Aswad in 1975, echoes the sentiment. “What we sang about was our experience in London. People were copying Jamaica but weren’t telling their own story.”
A key element of that story was police use of the hated “sus” laws, which allowed people to be picked up on “suspicion” of committing a crime, while hostility to the police was stoked by the deployment of phalanxes of cops to protect National Front marches through black areas.
A simmering atmosphere of distrust was brought to boiling point at the end of 1976’s long hot summer, when the Notting Hill carnival turned into a battle between black youth and police. The confrontation would be played out in more extreme form in 1980 and 1981, as Brixton, Southall, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds all experienced incendiary riots, one result of which was the repeal of the sus laws.
The summer of 1976 brought another pivotal event, Eric Clapton’s drunken rant on stage at Birmingham, in which he acclaimed Enoch Powell as the politician who would “stop Britain from becoming a black colony… the black wogs and coons and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here”. From a man which had topped the US charts with a cover of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”, this was shocking stuff and inspired the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).
British reggae swiftly acquired a new militancy and ubiquity. Steel Pulse sang “Ku Klux Klan” with the Klan’s white hoods on their heads. Linton Kwesi Johnson proclaimed it was “Dread Inna Inglan” and warned “get ready for war”. The growing roster of home-grown acts – Misty in Roots, Reggae Regular, Black Slate – found exposure on RAR stages and, after John Peel’s conversion from prog rock, on his Radio 1 show and its live sessions.
Aside from its social commentary, reggae became chic due to its sonic radicalism, with its dub, rap and special disco mixes picked up by rock and soul. “Reggae taught us about space, leaving gaps. It was such a relief after the strictness and minimalism of punk,” says Viv Albertine, guitarist with the Slits, whose 1979 album, Cut, was produced by Dennis Bovell.
In the post-punk era, the Clash, the Members and the Ruts were other rock bands incorporating reggae into their sound, along with the Police, who deftly integrated reggae on hits ‘Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon”. “We plundered reggae mercilessly,” acknowledges drummer Stewart Copeland on Reggae Britannia.
By the close of the decade, another strand of Brit reggae was in play; the 2 Tone ska revivalism of Coventry’s Specials. Their nostalgia for the ska of the mod and skinhead era quickly blossomed into a ska-punk fusion. As Specials founder Jerry Dammers remarks: “We were the beginning of the imitation generation. We didn’t know how to play Jamaican ska so we ended up creating something that never happened in the first place.”
Together with the Selecter, the Beat, Madness and more, the 2 Tone bands straddled the fault lines of British racism, their multiracial line-ups attracting an audience that included sieg heiling skinheads intent on trashing their shows. It was a crazy, unsustainable scenario that helped capsize the Specials, though their swan song, “Ghost Town”, became the defining hit of 1981.
The angst and confrontation of British reggae ebbed during the 80s – “The fun had gone out of the music,” says Bovell – though by then it had melded into mainstream pop. Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” reached No 2, a representative of sweet, home-grown lovers rock that found an echo in the catchy output of Culture Club with what singer Boy George describes as “reggae that wouldn’t frighten white people”. Some said the same of Birmingham’s UB40 – “They cashed in on our hard work with a weaker, pastel version,” opines Steel Pulse’s Mykaell Riley – though the Brum troupe would prove world conquerors, popular even in Jamaica.
A few years later, the arrival of Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, collectives weaned on sound systems and punky reggae, rendered the old categories obsolete. Was their music reggae, funk, hip-hop, pop or something else? It was all and none of those things, but mostly it was just British.