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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