The Reggae Underground

Hi, dear readers! Welcome to another post.

So it was 1974 and the Black Music magazine prepared a feature on Britain’s Black Underground, as mentioned on the cover of the issue. The article, called ‘THE REGGAE UNDERGROUND’, was written by Carl Gayle, a Jamaican who came to England when he was a teenager in the early 60’s. He began to write in 1973 and nowadays he’s a singer and a very strict rasta along with his family.  Thanks to Iñaki for this first-hand and valuable information!

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I can’t post this six-page special report but I’m sure it’s somewhere on the Internet because I’ve seen it before. What I would like to do now is to stand out the photos and some extracts that I have found really interesting to understand a bit the situation of the Jamaican community in the early and mid-70’s.

THE REGGAE UNDERGROUND

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A sound system night at London’t Tottenham town hall, and one of Count Shelley’s deejays does his thing.

Fenton gets up every day at around midday except Wednesday and weekends. He struggles out of bed, into his clothes, and down to the local cafe or Wimpy bar in Brixton Rd. where he buys an Evening Standard and turns inmediately to the horse racing page. From 2pm to 6pm he’s in and out of the bookies and the record shops in Brixton Market.

On Wednesdays he strolls down to the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane and receives £10 which takes care of his food, rent, spliff, betting, and entertainment expenditure for a whole week. Fenton rarely spends on anything else. He can’t afford luxuries. Fenton’s been in and out of work for the last six years, two years after leaving school and home at age sixteen. Those two years were spent learning to be a Chef in a west end hotel. Sometimes it gets him down, not having a steady job, a good income, or a real sense of purpose. But like many others, most of his friends included, he usually makes it from day to day without thinking about it too much. Perhaps life would be much more depressing if there was no entertainment, no music. Fenton’s kind of music. 

[…]

Fenton rarely leaves the Brixton area except when he’s clubgoing, and tonight, Friday night, he’s sitting with a smartly dressed and attractive big-breasted chick drinking barley wine here in Mr. Bees – South London’s most popular club along with the Georgian in Croydon.

“This is only the secon time I’ve been here. I just decided to give Four Aces a rest tonight. this deejay Freddie is alright, he plays some good sounds.”

Fenton’s a Coxson follower, an old timer on the scene, a real roots reggae lover. He doesn’t go for funk, never did, even when in his earliest days of clubgoing, ‘soul’ was the thing.

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Club Four Aces advert

[…]

Violence has always been a characteristic of the black music scene. The Tiles, the Flamingo, the Ram Jam, the Go Go, the 007, the Twenties, the Ska Bar, the Night Angel… They all closed because of the continuos outbreaks of violence.

[…]

Back in 1967 ska was still hot. The most exhilarating ska dance was the shuffle. With tunes like “Broadway Jungle” by The Maytals, “Phoenix City” by Roland Alphonso and the many by the inimitable Skatalites beating in your ears it was a time to display your footmanship. Of all the great shufflers that I’ve seen from London to Birmingham, a guy called Errol who lived in Harlesden was the king. There were all types of shufflers. There were the big guys whose art was in their ability to look clumsy while being perfectly balanced and composed. There were the energetic shufflers who relied on speed, stamina and daring. And there were the lazily elegant and stylish dances like Satchmo and Black Diamond from Brixton. Errol from Harlesden was a combination of all of them, a supreme artist.

The rivalry which developed between the north and south and which was the foundation for much of the characteristic violence of the Ram Jam and other clubs, was perpetuated by the supporters of the sound systems – Coxson and Duke Reid in the South, and Count Shelly in the North specially. This rivalry, which often erupted in violence, was responsible for some of the division in the black music scene as a whole. As the violence increased, the clubs lost their respectability. Consequently, many black youngsters dropped out of the once peaceful reggae orientated subculture, opting for the more tranquil soul scene. Soul had been popular with West Indians anyway and a lot of people just got sick and scared of the hooliganism.

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Dancers at Tottenham

[…]

Tottenham Town Hall is rather squalid inside but outside on the balcony where the tired, middle-aged women sit in their Saturday night best, it’s a little more elegant. The women wear an air of indifference. Some sit fanning themselves in their tight dresses which reveal the characteristically large midriff bulges that all black women seem to suffer from once past thirty-five or forty. The prettier, younger, slimmer fashion conscious females wear Oxford bags or tight skirts with striped blouses. They wear make up and hair do’s out of Ebony, and stand around trying to look like the models in Vogue. The older men are always the most talkative. They desert their wives and stand around drinking whisky, and swapping jokes with their friends and, their friends’ wives.

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Sound System men at Tottenham

[…]

JAMAICAN music was bound to gain a foothold in Britain once the first wave of immigrants had settled here. It all started back in 1953 at a shop in Stamford Hill, North London. The shop was opened by Mr Benny King and his wife Rita, in June 1953. By September, many Jamaicans were visiting the shop and asking for ‘blues’ records.

“We didn’t know what they meant,” said Benny, “but we soon found out it was Jamaican music. Then one customer said we should get the records from Jamaica and he gave us Coxon’s (the Jamaican label owner / promoter / producer / sound system man) address in Jamaica. We wrote to him sending the money and finally we got the first shipment.”

[…]

SHEPHERDS BUSH market, like Stoke Newington and Brixton markets, are the focal points of the black communities in London.

The middle aged women and younger housewives stroll around with a shopping bag or basket in each hand and sometimes with a playful youngster at their side as they purchase next week’s groceries. The teenagers, the black youth of Brixton, Stoke Newington, and the Bush, gather in the record shops which are usually crammed with record enthusiasts from mid-day until closing time on a Saturday.

In the early days it was the men in their mid-twenties and upwards who bought most of the records, not the fifteen to twenty year olds who loiter in the shops all day. Today, reggae is really a black teenage music. The youngsters today spend more than they can afford on records, but they want the best and the rarest.

[…]

“White kids had been associating with backs in clubs like the Ram Jam, since black music first became popular in England. But it wasn’t until 1967 that the whites had begun to really appreciate reggae music, and to mimic the black lifestyle. They fell in love with the first wave of reggae music that Pama Records issued, like the instumentals – ‘Spoogy’‘Reggae on Broadway’, and ‘1000 Tons of Megaton’. They stomped to the franctic dance records like ‘Work it’ by The Viceroys, and ‘Children Get Ready’ by The Versatiles. They sang along to Pat Kelly’s ‘How Long Will It Take’ and Slim Smith’s ‘Everybody Needs Love’, and laughed at rude items like Max Romeo’s ‘Wet Dream’ or Lloyd Terrell’s ‘Bang bang Lulu’.

Pretty soon you couldn’t go to a black house party without finding a gang of skinheads. But amazingly, there was little black/white violence and hardly any resentment. Black and white youth have never been as close as they were in the skinhead era, despite the mixing in the trendier soul scenes nowadays. The skinheads copied the way we dressed, spoke, walked, the way we danced. They danced with our chicks, smoke our spliff and ate our food, and bought our records.

Today, four years after the birth of the skinhead boom, the white working class kids in bovver boots and hedgehog haircuts have disappeared completely from our clubs. Their current heroes (Slade and Bowie) are no longer identical with ours.

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[…]

“So I enjoy myself much more at these kind of places than at the expensive places like the Q where everybody’s so sophisticated. When you go to those posh places you find that people are more standoffish. They won’t say hello to you until they’ve seen you a whole heap of times. And the simplest thing, asking a girl for a dance, which I seldom do, if they don’t know your face the answer is ‘no’. But with the ordinary local crowd everybody’s on the same level. My music is strictly reggae, but you have some soul music which I like such as the Chi-Lites and the Stylistics, the type that reggae artists put into a reggae version”.

Nice footage of the Q Club

There is a real division between the ‘roots’ reggae crowd and the reggae/soul crowd. The former, as Mellos pointed out, usually dislike soul type clubs like Ronnie Scotts, the Columbo or the Q. Their down to earth manner is in sharp contrast to the sophisticated cool of the dudes who wear baggy pants and high heels, regularly buy James Brown, and specialise in dancing like the Americans.

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Club Columbo advert

[…]

The Q starts filling from 11.30. This is the club (reputedly) where you’ll find the best soul dancers, the prettiest, trendiest black chicks, the hippiest black dudes, the Yankee money men, the in crowd.

“We lead the field because we’ve always moved with the times at the Q club. When we opened ska music was the thing, Prince Buster, Don Drummond, Reco, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Baba Brooks y’know. They all played here when they toured London. We played all the latest things and the new dances caught on quick. There was the twist, the dog, the boogaloo, the rock steady. Now we just had the bump, the American guys from the bases and the American tourists bring the latest dances here. And we use all the top American and Jamaican groups that come to England, we always have.”

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Getting down: Dancers at London’s Q Club

“But black people are accustomed to one type of music, the music they feel, and that is reggae and soul. You never get a black population digging white people’s music, the majority don’t dig it. But white kids in general like to be among black people because they get a certain feel in our clubs. And the white kids who just go to a white club they can’t dance much but when they mix with black kids they become very good dancers. So black music will always thrive”.

The Q isn’t at all representative of the grass roots reggae crowd; the regular visitors here have much more money in their pockets than regulars at other black clubs like the Apollo, the All Nations, or the Four Aces.

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Drinkers at the Q Club

[…]

IN GENERAL, the West Indians who have been in Britain the longest are usually the more affluent, having discarded many of their family ties and cultural traditions. Together with the West Indians of British birth, they generally form this new wave “soul crowd”, the black youth of Britain who relate only superficially to African cultural roots. They eat soul food, drive flash cars which they can’t really afford, wear Afros, feign artistic creativity, shop at Bibas, keep “selective” soul parties, and attend clubs like the Q and Columbo’s in Carnaby Street.

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Q Club advert

The polarization continues. The ethnic reggae crowd have grown out of their tendency towards self destructiveness: the violence has dissipated, The rastas have mellowed with the maturity of their peace and love idealogy and are closer to each other now than they’ve ever been. Bob Marley, Count Ossie, Big Youth, and Gregory Isaacs have shown them who their real enemies are, and these are the artists that have become their heroes regardless of what anyone else thinks.

To finish with this post, the second phrase I like the most from the whole article (the first one is already above, I guess you know which one it is):

… “And the only reason they stand here in the shop is because they really love the music. Man, reggae music can make you cry. I’ve seen people just start crying when the music holds them.

And as always in parting, a tune regarding the post: Groovin’ at the Q!

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Hells Angels Versus Skinheads

Hello, everybody!

So it’s been a while. Almost one month without posting anything but hopefully I will make it up to you with the next posts. Nice stuff even if I say so myself!

What have I prepared for this Sunday? Well, a week ago or so I bought two magazines dated January and February 1970. The one from January came with an article on Reggae/Jamaican music and the February issue with an article on Greasers and Skinheads. I’ll be sharing the latter today.

Hells Angels Versus Skinheads

The Battlefield

The slum wastelands of Birmingham where multistorey flats tower above the back streets.

The Armies

The Hells Angels and the Skinheads.

This is War in Brum

Wendy Jones reports.

“My brother did two Skinheads single-handed, stripped off their coats and shoved them in the cut. They swam out, but the police got my brother and he’s ‘inside’ for six months. Wait till he comes out! I’m polishing up his motorbike, and we’ll be off again on a hunt for Skinheads….”

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Hells Angels, brum. Members of the Small Heath Chapter. A squad of 50 hogs – and 300 local allies.

That’s Rosko Kane talking. He’s eighteen and one of the Hells Angels’ Small Heath Chapter.

“When we go to the City match on Saturday we defend the Tilton Road entrance against the Angels and the other team’s supporters. We get there early to start scrapping. We fight with anything that comes to hand – bottles, bricks.”

That’s David Ward, aged sixteen. He’s a Skinhead.

The Birmingham “war” has been hotting up in the past year since more Skinheads appeared on the scene – in the district of Small Heath. Every Skinhead tells a story of: “How I beat up an ‘Angel’ “. They fight a lot and talk about it a lot.

As gangs they hate each other. But more than that, they all hate conventional society. Angel leader Ron Saunders, aged thirty, explains: “We are the one per centers, while ninety-nine per cent of the population conform, we are the rebels. We are free, and we live as wild as we like.”

“We were rejected by society long before we put on leather jackets. Nearly every one of us has been victimised by the police in some way. So now we wear swastikas – our mind-snappers. They hated the Nazis and now they can hate us. We’re not afraid to use violence. I’ve only to make a couple pf phone calls to get together three hundred Angels in this area.”

Ron joined the Hells Angels two years ago. Excitement for him comes in Angel gear: leather coats, covered with badges and swastikas, with the red-yellow-and-black “colours” of the Angels on the back; the greaser look and the Hogs, a squad of fifty motorbikes built from spare parts. Angels despise shop-bought bikes, the “citizens’ cycles”. Some Angels, though, have clipped wings – many of them have been banned from driving.

Rosko, at eighteen, is proud of his record of minor offences. He is on probation. “I got caught for screwing telephone boxes.”

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A commitee meeting for the Angels. Left to right: Rosko Kane, Ron Saunders and Steve Taverner

Shaun McKearny, who is seventeen, left home to join the Angels, and now lives with Ron Saunders in a back street terrace. Damp runs down the walls and furniture is sparse, but he prefers it to the new semi where his parents live.

“Take my dad. He works all day in a boring job as a painter, comes home, watches television, never says a word to me except to ask for money, my share of the housekeeping or something.”

“If you live like that you might as well be dead. So when my dad said: ‘Burn that swastika or get out’, it was like choosing between life and death. I chose life – with the Angels.”

Shaun wears a German army helmet, which his parents hate. “My mother worked on ambulances during the war. I don’t know what my father did – he’s never told me anything about himself, and I never asked him.”

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Shaun McKearney. he left home to join Hells Angels.

Like most of these Angels, he has had a number of convictions for stealing motorcycles and breaking and entering. “You don’t steal for the money so much as something to do. A bit of excitement. It breaks the routine.”

Chris Murray, twenty, wears a Brownie badge among the collection on his leather coat.

“I bought a job lot of badges. I didn’t realise I’d ‘joined’ the Brownies. Middle-aged people don’t understand about badges. They scream at us for wearing swastikas. They don’t realise it’s just to give them a bit of aggro. If this country were run by the Nazis, or anyone else for the matter, we’d be wearing Britis uniforms to aggravate them.”

Members of the group usually move from one casual job to another, as the fancy takes them. At the moment Chris is a gravedigger.

Three of the Hells Angels are in their thirties and exert strong influence on the younger ones. Barry, at thirty, is worried about the number of youngsters of sixteen and seventeen who are coming in.

“I don’t think they’re old enough for this kind of wild lie. They copy us older ones and get into more trouble.”

His father was an alcoholic. His home broke up when he was small. “All along, I’ve been in this sort of gang. Teds first, then Rockers. I left it for a while when I was married but after my wife ran off with another man I came back into the Angels. Something to do, I suppose.”

Barry lost a finger in a Mods’ and Rockers’ fight. He also has had his face badly cut in a fight with Skinheads.

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Angel Barry (30) – he lost a finger in a fight. He had a bad accident on a motorbike recently.

He’s a trained biologist but doesn’t need his qualifications to do manual work on the railways. “If you go round with ‘Death to Coppers’ printed on your back, you’re not likely to get a job in a profession. Anyway I don’t care, the money’s lousy in most professions, especially being a biologist.”

He is one of the only Angels who takes drugs. Angels as a rule say they get al their kicks out of bikes, and the clothes they wear.

The Skinheads are obsessed with cleanliness. Their convict crew cuts – half an inch long all over – make them more popular with the older generation than the Angels who prefer their hair long.

Many come in from the suburbs. David Ward, who works in a factory, used to live in a city back street, but his home was demolished to make way for redevelopment. His family were moved to a suburban council house. “It’s death out there,” he says, “nothing to do. No one to talk to, and all the houses look the same.”

So he spends every evening in what remains of his childhood area – the sordid streets of cafés and clubs for coloureds. “We like Jamaican music. Sometimes we stay out all night in the clubs.”

“The haircut is compulsory, though you do feel a bit cold at first.”

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Skinhead David Ward says: “We don’t like a lot of show and boasting, like the Angels. We’re a quiet lot and we want to be left alone by newspapers and all that.”

Steel-capped boots – “cherry reds” – and braces are uniform. “The police don’t like the boots. They take them off us at football matches; we get picked on all the time. Just walk along the street in boots and they’ll stop you.”

“We look nicer, but we’re much rougher than the Angels. They’re always saying how brave they are, but we think they go in more for beating up old ladies* than fighting tough people like us.”

“At football matches the ‘cock of the Tilton’ – the best scrapper at the Tilton Road entrance – is a Skinhead. We usually chase the Angels into Town and scrap with them there. We always start it. I don’t know why we fight; it’s just that everytime you see an Angel you’ve got to. You must do what everybody else does.”

“We’re no organised with financial accounts and everything like the Angels – we’re just a gang of mates who know each other. There are thousands of us around; particularly in this area.”

“Parents don’t have the faintest idea what goes on. When they heard about the fighting, my parents started to get a bit stroppy, but I’d threatened I’d leave home if they didn’t stop nagging. so now I’ve got them where I want them, and I do as I like.”

John Barnfield, who is sixteen, spends his days putting down pavement slabs. He joined the Skinheads when he was really very young.

“You can join from the age of eleven upwards; most of us do because it’s the fashion.”

We like this fashion. It’s like the Mods, it’s very smart. Look at the Angels, all that revolting greasy hair and the way they’re always boasting. It can’t possibly be normal.”

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Skinhead John Barnfield, aged 16. “We’re the really smart ones, you won’t get us making an exhibition of ourselves.”

The Angels almost have a pathological delight in anything that is cruel or frankly revolting.

Whatever you decide about all their different stories, one thing is certain; the Angels really do believe in their way of life and living. some are saving up to go to America.

“That’s where it really started ad where we could all be kings. We could have our own land and build our own town. Compared with the ‘Frisco Angels’, we’re quiet and respectable. But just wait until our numbers grow and we’re big and powerful over here.

*The old ladies

Girls who hang around with the Birmingham Angels are known as “sheep”. When they become the property of one particular Angel, they are known as “old ladies.”

If they don’t choose one steady boyfriend, they are expected to “pul a train”, which means they have sexual relations with all the members and are known as “Mammas.”

Skinheads don’t go in for lasting relationships with girls; more often they are passed around among the group.

Occasionally they are called ‘Irigs’ instead of girls, but most Brimingham Skinheads feel that their “special language is a myth invented by the newspapers.

Sylvia, who is eighteen, is the old lady of one Angel. “I’ve known them all about a year and they’re great,” she says. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a Skinhead. They’re freaks. Angels don’t abuse their old ladies as the Skinheads do. We’re treated wit respect, not like something the cat dragged in.”

“It’s not true to say Angels don’t work. I work in a sweet factory forty-two hours a week, and so do a lot of the girls, and most of the lads have jobs, too.”

Maureen Taverner, who is eighteen, married an Angel last year. She met her husband, Steve, through her brother, who used to be an Angel.

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Steve and Maureen Taverner, both 18, were married at a special Angels’ ceremony with a line up of “hog” motorbikes.

“My parents weren’t keen on the group, so after an argument I left home and now we both live with Steve’s parents.”

“When you’re on your bike it’s so wild you don’t think of anything except the run. I’m never scared of an accident, but I keep away from fights. I worry about Steve sometimes.”

Lorraine, twenty-one and also addicted to motorcycles. “All my life I’ve been mad on bikes – that’s all I care about. I go around with Mad Mick – he’s the president – and we just live for Hells Angels.”

***

A crazy read! But with lots of details. Of course we know that this couldn’t and can’t be applied to the 100% of Skinheads, many of the ‘originals’ didn’t like violence and I don’t like it either. The aim is just to share, stuff like this doesn’t come out that often, you know.

Here are a couple of links regarding the same ‘fight’ in case you would like to have a look:

Man alive (BBC documentary 1969)

– Skinheads and reasers (BBC clip 1969)

And as always in parting, a nice little tune. Last week we were dancing to this in his honour, what a gem! R.I.P. Harry, ‘The Liquidator’, Johnson