“The American Negro has his blues: England’s West Indians has reggae. . .” – This is how this article taken from The Sunday Times Magazine – February 1973 starts. Colin McGlashan explains how reggae has developed; and overleaf describes his encounters with those who write, perform and dance to it. The article is quite long, about 8 pages; therefore, I will be sharing only a couple of pages plus the great images. Hope you like it.
THE SOUND SYSTEM
Three a.m. in black London. Hornsey Slim is looking for a blues party. North through Dalston and Stoke Newington he shouts at every black face on the pavement: “Hey, man, where Shelly playing?” The first two houses are someone else’s sound, and half-empty. But at last there is the heavy muffled thump of a big sound system 50 yards away; closer, and there is added a strange rhythmic buzz-buzz, which turns out to be the upstairs windows vibrating.
There are 20 youngsters trying to get in, another 50 in the hall and stairs, and you have to force your way past the doormen like a cork into a bottle. They want to make sure everyone’s paid their 15p, and they have the same deep warm faith in human nature as a moneylender. Inside, the house is stripped of furniture. It is hot, dark and packed with bodies. Three hundred? Five hundred? It’s hard to tell.
The crowd is mainly young, 15 to 25, with a sprinkling of older men. A bus-driver in his forties, still in uniform, dances with the young girls; no-one regards him as stupid or out of place. There are perhaps a score of white women; white men are as rare at blues parties or shebeens as black men in the clubs of St James’. Clothes range from poverty-sober to peacock, work-clothes side by side with feathers and glitter; there’s no one style except, here and there, on a youngster wearing a tenner’s worth of gear and looking like a million dollars, the cult of style itself.
The amplifier is downstairs, pushing the heavy beat of the music through loudspeakers stacked here and there in heaps. The sound pulses through the people, stirring them together like a dark, treacly cake-mix. A top sound system is 30 to 100 times as powerful as a domestic hi-fi. The point isn’t volume, but the amplification of the bass beat until it sounds like the world’s biggest drum, until it becomes music you feel. You feel it in your feet, in the vibrations of a Coke tin with an unlicensed shot of Scotch inside, you feel it through your partner’s body. The first time you hear it, it’s unbelievable, unbearable, oh my God! But you get used to it. You grow numb; through that, and there’s a cool, cool joy, a sedative high. Ice in the spine. No pain.
Around 5 a.m. the crowd thins. Slim (“I’m a maddy-maddy man!”) dances wildly, brilliantly, at first alone, then with his wife. Sweat pours down his face. He is watched and admired. But there are a few smiles, little talk, no laughter; when the music stops, they stand there like a switched-off carousel.
West Indians parties used to be cheerful. They gave off a sharp joy, snatched, sometimes, from the edge of despair. Warm rhythm, dancing, holding, moving together for comfort. Jitterbugging to Don Drummond when Somerleyton Road in Brixton was wide open, a shebeen in every other basement: “an’ them white girls! Listen, man, parties! I tellin’ you!” The music of exiles, trapped like cherries in this Ice-Cream Surprise of a cold motherland. “What the heart lacked,” wrote dward Brathwaite in Rights of Passage, “we supplied with our hips and the art of our shuffle shoes.”
But tonight is a diferent generation, the young, black and English. Immigrants have a past, and therefore the implicit possibility of a future; for their children, there is only now. “Goin’ blues” is a weekly escape for youngsters, many of whom are out of work, some also homeless. These are the English blues, neither happy nor sad; they are limbo, never-never land, an interval between the reality of today and tomorrow. The flavour is not of celebration, but of refuge; and, worse, of a refuge that is no longer secure. The despair of everyday life has seeped in like fog through the broken window panes. I feel like a remembrance of a world this entire scene has been constructed to shut out, and thus also symbolic of his failure to do so. Perhaps, perhaps, although no-one has raised an eyebrow of unwelcome, I should not be here; it is hard to know.
Between dawn and 8 a.m. the night’s mysteries are over. The last celebrants depart. Disconcerting daylight on night people. Their plumage turns tawdry on the Sunday morning pavements of white England. They seem almost to shrink, to lose poise, grace and style, to fade.
ARMED ELECTRICAL LOVE! painted on a Notting Hill wall. The urban guerrillas of the counter-culture strike again. Opposite, The King is building a secret weapon: four 1000-watt amplifiers driving 20 speakers four feet square. Sound men compete to play the newest records over the biggest amplifier; the amps cost roughly £1 a watt.
He rummages through his stock in a cream marble Formica trunk, tossing handfuls of records on the bed. The titles have been scratched off. One of a quartet of silent, admiring teenagers tries to name them; he gets half right. The King knows them all. I explain I want to chat because he’s one of the top sound men. “One of!” explodes an acolyte unbelievingly. “He’s the top, the greatest, man. The boss sound.”
The King, warmed, expands. “Look, a-notice the white groups, they try to play reggae an’ can never play it. You got to have that hard strong feeling, that feeling’s got to be born in you. That feeling come from the mother’s breast, man, the breast milk. It’s true! Listen, y’see, the natural milk, man, from the mother’s breast, man. It give you that. . . that. . . stickness in your body, man, an’ that feelings, man, to create things that supposed to been created. And no other black man throughout the world can play that music than the black man who born an’ grow in Jamaica.”
Most days he scours the Edgeware Road for bits. Today he wants a horn. At Messrs. Tannoy, the far side of Brixton, a man in a white coat calls it a flare, a trumpet-shaped loudspeaker. He offers the sort of announcers bellow through at large sport meetings. But it won’t take the 100 watts plus The King wants to put into it, and really there isn’t anything that will. Oh well, ha-ha, says White-coat, there is one, but we make it specially for the Eddystone lightship, ho-ho, and it costs £90. “It tek 100 watt?” demands The King, eyes-gleaming.
White-coat’s voice changes gear. Going upwards. This crazy black man is ready to pay £90 for the speaker that blasts the boom of the Eddystone lightship two miles through thick fog. He wants to play little plastic records through it at parties, if it will stand the strain.
The King turns away. He waves at some large plastic structures lying round the yard. “What dem t’ing, dey speaker?” They’re used, explains White-coat, a triffle tight around the lips, on North Sea oil-rigs. “Yeah?” says The King, gleam returning. But they aren’t strong enough either.
Evening at Mr. Eddie’s: “What you want my dad for this time?” says his son, astride in purple Chopper. Mr. Eddie is a Ghanaian, a quiet, lovely man who spends six evenings a week in his basement making amplifiers for the big sound-systems. The seventh night he goes to hear them play, usually Admiral Ken’s sound above a pub at Leytonstone. The sound men drop in and out with their machines. They are very respectful. Even The King calls him Mister.
He is almost ankle-deep in flotsam. Output transformers, almost too heavy to lift. A plastic Rupert bag building with shiny valves as big as light bulbs. Wire, aluminium, nuts, bolts and washers, test-meters, transistors, semi-conductors. He burrows with a soldering-iron inside his newest toy, a transistorised pre-amp. The television’s on to his right; in front, a loudspeaker tests the pre-amp, Joshua Set Them Free followed by Give Me Justice; on his left, The King answers the phone to another sound-man: “Hello, Metro. . .”
Not sure but I guess Joshua Set Them Free might be the same as Oppression
“The Englishman”, says Mr. Eddie, “wants more treble than bass. The Negroes want the rhythm, and they’ve got to have bass for the rhythm. You want the beat, not the loudness. A shop, they can make it loud. But listen to this heavy beat. You can stand it all night, it won’t worry you. You have to have the big amplifiers.”
A young DJ tests a mike over the top of the record, knuckles against his mouth as though he’s eating spare ribs: “Wake-it-up, wake-it-up, wake-it-up. . .” “Listen,” says The King, “the only man that’s the best is Rosko, Emperor Rosko. Tony Blackburn, him is rubbish. Him talking, you can’t hear the record, him turn it down.”
Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn burn burn!
Blood, blood, blood, blood and fire.
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth! growled the have-nots, drinking Red Stripe at Grandpa Joint No. 2, Mutt and Jeff Pub, the Ethiopian Cooling Station.
On the cool suburban hill-tops, the haves shuddered in their villas. They muttered on their terraces about fierce punishments for them, the makers of music and mayhem. Public hanging. Castrate the rapists. Cut off thieves’ hands.
The music throbbed between Trench Town and Beverly Hills, booming out of the sound systems, the record shops, the jukeboxes, like war-drums. The lyrics grew more and more threatening. Judgement a-coming! Where yuh goin’ to run to? Burn down Babylon! The music was clotted with menace, heavy with dread. But at the smart hotels, at Courtfield Manor, in the Jonkanoo Lounge of the Sheraton-Kingston, the haves the expatriates the brown skinned irl, the U.S. businessmen, we dancing to it. It was like Belgravia bopping to a record of Clysiders singing The Red Flag.
Music and politics fused. They toppled the Government. Last year’s Jamaican elections, according to the Daily Gleaner’s political reporter, were won by reggae. Michael Manley, leader of the opposition People’s National Party, called in singer/composer Clancy Eccles for his campaign. Eccles raided the pop charts. Better must come, a catchy up-beat number, became the PNP’s anthem. In his own song, Rod of Correction (“beat them with the rod of correction, father. . . burn ’em in Sodom and Gomorrah!”) Eccles substituted the name of the Prime Minister, Hugh Shearer, in the line “King Pharaoh’s army was drowned”.
Mixed with politicised DJ shrieks in patois, the words and rhythms of apocalypse and redemption boomed across Jamaica: Power for the People! Freedom Street! Let the Power Fall! Beat Down Babylon! Thirty-eight shows, crowds up to 30,000, a heavy rhythm morality play with Manley as Joshua, 1000-watt amplifiers bellowing about Babylon. In desperation, Shearer banned political and Rasta songs from the radio, but the sound systems and jukeboxes took them to the smallest village.
The PNP won by a landslide, Clancy Eccles now calls the Prime Minister “Michael”, and the musicians feel ten feet tall. “We knew we were more popular than the politicians,” says Eccles. “People hear us on the radio everyday. If Michael at any time should get lazy, don’t believe that we won’t start hitting at him.”
In Brixton, Rico is hailed from every corner, grasped, clasped, hugged. “I grew this man up in school!” exclaims one man, grabbing him. They ask about me in patois; who’s the white man? Oh, says Rico, him jus’ carry me roun’. Electric Avenue, Atlantic Road, the market. In the record shops they play him his own music, mostly from albums he’s never seen.
Black man, white face. Rico has paid his dues. At 19, he was living on the beach in Ray Town, Kingston, playing music for fishermen, sharing any food that was going, sleeping on flat rooftops.
“I’m one of. . . I’m a Jamaican, you know, an’ I grew up among them. Sometime you ‘ave to fight your own battles among people to verify yourself. But it wasn’t a real prejudice. The h’economical pressure breeds and h’atmosphere, whether you black or you white. It cause worries among each other, an’ sometime you got to fight your own battles. But then after, they accepted me jus’ like one of them. Whites. . . well, I didn’t really mix with the whites in Jamaica.”
“Reggae is protest, formed out of suffering. What I mean by suffering is there was no way of earning money. Because you were very poor, an’ you had to eat, you stay down where the fishermen draw their nets, so you’d have food everyday. Fishermen always give you fish, they like to hear you play. You’d ‘ave someone at a drum, someone at a grater, someone at a shakkers. Always some kind of harmony. Sugar-belly, he’s one of the originals, he make his own saxophone out of bamboo, an’ at the end of it he got a piece of tin, an’ he use coconut leaf to make the reed, an’ elastic at the sides.”
“When the police come, we ‘ave to use philosophy. We jump in the sea. If they catch one of us, we’d gather in gangs, get a policeman near the sea, standing there with gun in his hand, and let him know that we jus’ drown him. Gun can’t fire in water.”
“The music is from the way of life, something one feels. You vibrate it back to those who oppress you. What I was playing was what I felt, you know? Hardships. I played hardships out of the horn.”
Poised on the brink of a Brixton barstool, businessman-neat in a dark overcoat, The Composer ponders new assaults on the English language. The Composer, The King, Hornsey Slim. . . they’re bitter. The white man’s taking their music and making money out of it. Taming it, gelding it, adding in violins and echo-chambers. Straining out of the locksmen, the Rudie boys, the sufferers, the dread. Keeping the jingle-jingle boom as as a backing for the expensive sexy yells of bright, marketable, young singers. An’ the money so near you can smell it! Mick Jagger in Jamaica. Reggae in the music papers. White writers coming round asking questions. And now every Tom, Dick and Winston in a pub is posing as an expert. Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Jackie Edwards. . . who they? Rass, man, we the originals!
“Listen! Listen!” explodes The Composer, gnashing a quarter of gold teeth like cymbals. “Hear what the man telling you! Chuh!” He’s as angry as Muhammed Ali getting a nosebleed off a sparring-partner.
The first reggae record that was recorded in England was 1960, the tenth of August. They say other man bring that rass to this country. Me bring the rass to this country!”
“True! True!” says The Chorus, a trio in pork-pie hats.
“You have a strong point,” says The Challenger, back-pedalling quickly, “a strong point. . .”
“Strong point,” says The Chorus. “. . . but it must be translated.” “Have to translate it,” says The Chorus.
“That guy,” says The Composer, “he only make it because he got the white man behind him. Rico here, it’s only me an’ him are the originals.”
“It’s true!” says Rico. “True, true, true.”
“True word!” says The Chorus.
“It’s we pave the way an’ them reap the sweets! Which one of them artists is as popular as Rico among the Jamaican people?”
“None, none, none. . .” says The Chorus.
“It’s that I say!” says Rico, excited. “I mix with the people!”
“. . . none, none, none. . .”
“An’ this man,” says Rico, openly taking The Composer’s side, “he live in Brixton an’ he meet the people.”
“. . . none, none.”
“That’s what I telling you!” says The Composer triumphantly.
“Yes,” says The Challenger, fighting to get off the floor, “but how you going to broke down that system? Him don’t want to know. Him don’t want to hear your story.”
The Composer moves in fast for the kill. “Listen, me sing in four languages, an’ me ain’ drive no Rolls, but me happy! I play guitar and piano and I write music. But look brother, everybody can’t make it. Why you no make it big in life?”
Tuesday is a hungry night at The Big Six. Everybody hustles everybody. “You don’t want to go in there even with a pocket,” warns Hornsey Slim, “they’ll cut it open with a razod blade. Even me they’ll thief, and if they’ll thief me they’ll thief everybody else.” (He wasn’t joking; the last time we went they got his wallet.) Apart from weekends, when it’s packed with ordinary youngsters, The Big Six is the club for the West End’s black hustlers. There are far fewer of them than white hustlers; it’s convenient for all concerned that they shoud have one regular place to go. At midnight it’s like a City bar at 5.30: a couple of stragglers, but most haven’t yet finished work. They drift in slowly, and come alive.
The Big Six is a temple of style. If you want clues about what you’ll be wearing, how you’ll be talking, the way you’ll be moving, five years from now, The Big Six is one of the places to go. The delinquent young of visible minorities are obsessed with style, drowned in it. It is all they have.
It is difficult to describe dance styles, except by contrast. Unflattering. Whites tend to flounce: fast, angular, jerky, hips motionless and everything else flying. They stand out in a crowd of black youngsters like the Chelsea Shed at a cricket match. They aren’t popular; there’s no room. Apart from shuffling, which is a different art-form, black youngsters dance like Manuelito making a pass at a bull from a pocket-handkerchief. Hips move first; everything else moves, if at all, afterwards; style is all.
There are two main ways of dancing: separately, several feet apart, cool, casual; or together, thighs between thighs, rocking gently sometimes almost motionless, openly sexual. Both horrify some whites, particulary the second: “It’s disgusting!” cried a woman teacher at a school dance, “they’re masturbating in there!”
Tonight, a youngster in floppy velvet cap carefully arranges the point of one shoulder against a pillar, and dances by himself. Another leans his shoulder-blades against the wall while a girl dances against him. A third stands, hands in pockets, leaning back from the waist, the 45-degree end of a banister wedged in his crotch, and dancing. A fourth breaks away from his girl; he offers me a spliff, open on the palm of his hand, shrugs elegantly at my refusal, and dances back – without by one movement losing the rhythm.
Hornsey Slimi has vanished backstage to talk deals with the soundman; his record booms briefly over the speakers. Upstairs, past a bouncer with a skull you could crack stone eggs on, past a youth at the cloakroom who dances by himself in the corridor all night, is The Big Six’s only white man. He sits by the door, taking the money.
East London is different. There is a relationship between black and white. You can taste it in Dalston market and not in Brixton or Shepherds Bush. It is not liberal tolerance, not always even liking. It is respect based on similar values: family, toughness, extrovert warmth.
In 1968-9, a new generation of black Cockneys threatened to become the East End’s trendsetters. In street football games they picked the sides, scored the goals, settled the arguments. It was a time when what was being peddled as pop music might as well have been Beethoven. ‘Underground’ music at two quid something an album, freaky lollipop heroes you couldn’t admire. . . it didn’t take on down the Mile End Road. In the youth clubs, the black teenagers had what the girls wanted: not super-sexuality, but style, social confidence, and music you could dance to. Out of that equation came the skinheads, London’s white Rudies; their music was reggae.
There followed a strange period when black and white girls and boys mixed in the East End’s club and discos with an ease and casualness you could see nowhere in England, perhaps nowhere at all. It seemed almost possible to use words like ‘integration’. Thanks to the adults, it didn’t last.
English society has always reacted with paranoia to groups of working class teenagers in uniform – Teddy boys, mods and rockers, skinheads. It credits them with starting patters of delinquency that already exist, with alarmist publicity that ensures imitators to make the myth come true. ‘Paki-bashing’ wasn’t new. It attracted attention only when perfomed by another visible minority. Once it was unearthed by the media, most East End teenagers couldn’t get out of their braces fast enough. While the Midlands and Manchester rushed to buy cherry-reds and Ben Shermans, down in Bethnal Green you could almost hear the hair grow.
What followed was London’s Great Reggae War. Black teenagers suddenly found youth clubs attractive. Starved for years of places that would let them in, they travelled across London to anywhere with good sounds. They arrived twenty, fifty, even a hundred at a time. Some youth leaders with near-empty clubs were delighted; most neighbours weren’t. Police virtually picketed some clubs and discos at closing time; mayhem, predictably, followed. White youngsters, who had been happy with a one-third black minority, found themselves outnumbered: they fled or called in reinforcements of heavies. The game of musical clubs lasted perhaps nine months. Black teenagers wandered round a shrinking circle of youth clubs that played their music, to the accompaniment of clashes, residents competitions, franctic committee meetings. Most youth clubs chucked their reggae records in the dustbin. Segregation returned.
But the skinheads had changed something. As late as the spring of 1971, you could see the juniors from the Mile End Mob in Sloopy’s Disco or the A-Train, wearing West Indian-inspired gear like long open overcoats (a fad taken up by white youngsters around Brixton and translated into the crombie) and stingy-brim hats. They were dancing hesitantly to reggae and American soul numbers with lyrics like “going back to Af-ri-ca ‘cos I’m black”. Remembering the generations of West Indians whose teachers obliged them to chant “Bri-tons never-never-never shal be slaves”, these white youngsters presented a pleasantly-ironic spectacle.
No white kid, one of Britain’s leading pop gurus told me confidently in 1971, is ever going to dig James Brown, much too strong. . . A month later, Brown’s Albert Hall concert drew a 60 per cent white crowd. The black kids listened decorously; it was the ex-skinheads who leapt up and down and danced in the aisles and rushed for chartered buses for his second show in the East End. A devoted minority of white working class teenagers haunt the Brixton reggae shops. And at Tiffanys, Mecca’s archly-renamed palais-de-danse at Ilford, there isn’t a black face in sight. But peering through the plastic palm-fronds from the balcony, you can spot the thighs that have learned to move to other rhythms, learned, indeed, to dance to a very different drummer. The DJ plays two Otis Reddings and then James Brown. “And we’re really getting it together down there. . . A lot of sex machines here tonight.”