Agit Disco 22 – John Eden
[label image features Tippa Irie, Trevor Sax, Kevin Martin and unknown male at BASH, Plastic People, Shoreditch 28th September 2006]
Like many contributors to Agit Disco I’ve been through a few political, protest and “folk” music scenes – including punk, post-punk and various forms of electronic/dance genres[i]. Whilst all that has become increasingly well documented over the last decade, I have found myself drawn to one of the more obscure strands of reggae.
English reggae has generally been seen as the poor cousin to “authentic” material produced in Jamaica, even by people living here. Whilst the music has been made in England since the 1960s, UK reggae really came into its own from the late seventies onwards.
As a white bloke who was a snotty infant and teenager in Hertfordshire when these records were made, I was hardly the intended target audience. Nevertheless, I think they are incredibly important – as both documents of social history during turbulent times, and also as cultural artefacts which lay the foundations for the UK urban music which was to follow.
Much of the material included on this mix was released on small record labels, often as an afterthought to the more important business of chatting live on soundsystems.
I found most of these records ridiculously cheap, gathering dust in bargain bins. It has been great to see them become more appreciated in recent years, although ironically the rise in prices in the second hand market is hindering my research somewhat.
People who wish to delve further are strongly recommended to seek out the recent “UK Bubblers” retrospective, the Saxon Soundsystem “Coughing Up Fire” live recording (both released by Greensleeves) and the excellent “An England Story” compilation put together by London dancehall crew Heatwave and released by Soul Jazz Records.
I make no apologies for including tunes in my selection with lyrics that deal with the problems of everyday existence rather than weightier issues like war. Whilst both have their part to play, “political music” is often overburdened with the global and universal at the expense of the local and specific, in my humble opinion.
On that note, I use the word “UK” here when I really mean “England”. I also use “England” when I really mean “London, and occasionally Birmingham” and of course I am not talking about the districts of Hampstead or Solihull when I mention those two cities.
1. X/O/Dus – English Black Boys (Factory Records, 1980)
2. Audrey – English Girl (Ariwa, 1982)
These tunes feature the children of the “Windrush Generation” wrestling with the idea of identity. Many black kids of the time felt pretty alienated – not feeling Jamaican like their parents, or “properly” English like their white school friends.
Reggae’s lyrics generally promoted Rastafari, black consciousness and a return to Africa. It is easy to see why this provided answers to a lot of questions about identity and displacement. But the situation was far from being simple, as these songs show.
X/O/Dus were a band from Manchester, the only reggae act I’m aware of releasing a record on Factory, a label most famous for Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays[ii]. Whilst the group’s name pays homage to the Bob Marley tune exhorting the march to Zion, this track reminds us that repatriation was also being bandied about by white supremacists such as National Front[iii] boss Martin Webster:
“Martin Webster, he talks about repatriation
Margaret Thatcher about the population.
They try to say that we cause the problem (oh no we don’t)
[…] Now they talk about repatriation,
to make this country an all-English white nation.
What are they are going to do with us?”
Audrey’s tune deals with the harsh reality of immigration: Jamaicans being encouraged to come to the UK as cheap labour and then being blamed by racists for unemployment and crime.
3. Lion Youth – Three Million On The Dole (Virgo Stomach, 1982)
4. Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution (Island, 1978)
Roots reggae has always documented “sufferation”, albeit usually in the context of Kingston ghettos. Lion Youth focuses sharply on the unemployment statistics in the UK.
Steel Pulse were a band from the Handsworth district of Birmingham, who were closely allied to Rock Against Racism. Their tune suggests an overcoming of the poverty and inequality in the area through solidarity and revolt.
The track proved to be prophetic – the people of Handsworth rioted in both 1981 and 1985 in response to heavy handed policing.
5. Maxi Priest – Love In The Ghetto (Level Vibes, 1984)
6. Papa Levi – In A Mi Yard (Level Vibes, 1984)
Maxi Priest is best known for his commercially successful lovers rock output, but he began his career chatting on South London’s legendary Saxon soundsystem[iv]. This track is a great slice of UK roots.
Saxon is best known for unleashing a wave of brilliant MCs in the mid eighties. This period saw an explosion of young men (and the occasional woman) taking up the microphone in UK dancehalls and talking explicitly about their lives as black people in England rather than aping the styles they heard on soundsystem cassettes imported from Jamaica.
Saxon MC Peter King popularised the “fast chat” style in which intricate lyrics were spat out at a rate at least twice the speed of the backing track. This was also taken up by his colleagues and rivals.
Phillip (aka Papa) Levi was one of Saxon’s star MCs, a much feared adversary in soundclashes. His “Mi God Mi King” is the first actual vinyl single to emerge from this UK fast chat MC scene, proving so popular that it leapt to number one in the reggae charts in the UK, and crucially also in Jamaica.[v]
“In A Mi Yard” is a stream of consciousness in which Levi lets loose a slew of cultural signifiers from South West London over the same riddim as the Maxi Priest track:
“The time it just past 4:20
A newsflash come pon me Phillips TV
Concerning the ghetto and the community
It seem the council they take a big liberty
Them call nuff man with machinery
Fi tear down the frontline vicinity
But not a word was said to the community
So evening come, the youth get angry
Start throw firebomb in a ‘ole property
The IRU not the SPG,
The dread fi an go riot in a different stylee
Say when me a chat it ah no damn fuckry
The lyric could a turn make a documentary
The ATV or a BBC
You never find reporter man a fast like me.
Me could a chat show like Russell Harty….”
7. Papa Benjie – Fare Dodger (Fashion, 1985)
8. Laurel and Hardy – Video Traffickin’ (Upright, 1983)
There are many small ways in which working class people fight back against austerity. Benjie tells the story of losing his job at London Transport, then wreaking revenge and making his dole money go further by bunking the tube and busses. It includes some practical tips for free travel, many of which are no longer workable in the age of the Oyster Card.
Laurel and Hardy are often dismissed by the cognoscenti for being lightweight “variety show” MCs, but I’m still rather partial to them. “Video Traffickin’” is from their EMI-allied album, and sees them wrestling with the thorny issue of intellectual property rights. Well, sort of:
“Video, this a video traffickin’
Because a man we’re waiting
While the pirates duplicatin’
In America they thought they had tight security
So when them released ‘Superman 3′
Two hours later me and me friend go and see
Pirate copy down a Oxford Street”
Unfortunately the theme isn’t developed all that much. The lyrics deviate quickly into tales of TV detector vans nicking people who haven’t paid their TV Licence, and unusually large sections of the track are left lyric-free. It still brings a smile to my face, though. And I do wonder if EMI in 2010 would release songs which described copyright violation with such enthusiasm.
9. Macka B – Bean and Egg (Ariwa, 1986)
10. Pato Banton – Gwarn (Ariwa, 1985)
This pair of tunes bring us back to the theme of identity which began the mix, and also to Birmingham – the UK’s second reggae capital – where both vocalists grew up.
Macka B describes the plight a friend who is forced to subsist on a diet of bean and egg sandwiches after getting married to a white girl. Macka comes to the rescue with a righteous Caribbean meal and some excellent fast chat rhyming dietary instruction:
“Seckle bean and egg eaters ‘cos I know what you’re thinking
Who’s Macka B to say what or what not we should be eating
Well me I’ll tell you one thing, me a just a give a warning
Healthy food means healthy body, healthy mind and healthy thinking
Vary up your eating and not eat too much of one thing
Too much egg gives you cholesterol your heart it starts attacking
Too much bean fill up your belly with wind, all night you will be wind-ing
When people come to your yard at night the whole place will be stinking
Take time and make good food, the rewards you will be reaping
Fast food will stop your hunger but it will not keep you going
Nuff fruit and veg – ask any doctor – helps with longer living
I got to dun this lyric now ‘cos my belly is rumbling
I could smell my rice and peas just waiting in the kitchen
But before I done I would like to tell you something
Three shredded wheat is easy – have you tried three big fat dumpling?”
Pato Banton has lent his voice to Top 40 hits by Sting and UB40. Gwarn concerns patois and his Mum’s support from him making a living as a reggae artist, amongst a number of other themes.
11. Leslie Lyrics – Pull Back Your Truncheon (UK Bubblers, 1985)
12. Ranking Ann – Kill The Police Bill (GLC, 1984)
13. Raymond Naptali – On My Way (Fatman)
It isn’t possible to write about black people’s lives in the UK in the eighties without discussing the police. There are many records from the era which describe interactions with the forces of law and order. Smiley Culture’s “Police Officer” even crossed over into the national Top 40, ensuring he got on Top Of The Pops to tell his story, (less significantly, this was also my first experience of UK dancehall MC-ing…)
Lez Lyrix is now also known as Dr William Henry, author of “What The Deejay Said: A Critique From The Street!” – the first book to adequately deal with UK dancehall culture in the 1980s[vi]. His track here, and Naptali’s, are concerned with police stop and search incidents. Both also mention them being asked to sign statements not written by them.
Lord Scarman’s report after the 1981 Brixton riots recommended the repealing of the notorious “Sus Laws” that allowed the police to stop and search anyone they didn’t like the look of (i.e. black people). But the continuing currency of stop and search anecdotes in dancehall music suggests that this may not have made any immediate difference.
Then the 1983 Police Bill proposed a whole swathe of new powers and met with some resistance in a campaign which included Ranking Ann’s tune – released by the Greater London Council’s Police Committee Support Unit no less[vii].
14. Lorna Gee – Three Week Gone (Ariwa, 1985)
Lorna tells a great story in interviews about being really nervous before her first recording session, which was to take place at Mad Professor’s Ariwa studios. Apparently when she confessed her reservations to dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, he asked her what had been going on in her life. Lorna then related her tale of woe with the dole office, and Linton replied that this was more than enough material for a record. As it proved to be!
15. Horseman – Horsemove (Raiders, 1985)
16. Daddy Colonel – Take A Tip From Me (UK Bubblers, 1985)
After a torrent of tunes about police brutality, alienation, terrible food, unemployment and general badness, it’s high time to let off some steam at the bookie’s and race track, I think…
17. Tippa Irie – Complain Neighbour (UK Bubblers, 1985)
…or of course by dancing the night away.
Tippa Irie was another Saxon stalwart, who almost rivalled Smiley Culture for chart success with his top 40 hit “Hello Darling”[viii]. This ASBO-anthem deals with the murky underside of bass culture.
On the one hand blues parties, raves etc are an authentic expression of the culture of the oppressed. On the other it’s a right old pain in the arse if your walls are shaking from someone else’s bassline late at night and you have to be at work in a few hours.[ix]
Whatever the ins and outs, this is expertly delivered and features a nice glimpse of working class distaste for “high culture”:
“Could you come round right away please, Mr Officer?
Got a complaint to make about my neighbour
It’s the tenth time this week, I know! It don’t matter
Cos this reggie what they play is worser than opera”
18. Demon Rocka – Hard Drugs (Unity, 1988)
Having said that, not all incarnations of bass culture have been uniformly well received by the reggae fraternity[x]. Demon Rocka tells us about his experience of attending an acid house party. He is not impressed by the drugs and unrighteous behaviour on show.
Which leads us to another story…
[i] History is Made At Night Questionnaire http://history-is-made-at-night.blogspot.com/2010/06/dancing-questionnaire-21-jon-eden.html
[iii] “UK Reggae and the National Front” http://www.uncarved.org/blog/2008/09/smash-the-national-front-part-two/
[iv] “Why You Are Wrong About Maxi Priest” http://www.uncarved.org/blog/2005/06/why-you-are-wrong-about-maxi-priest/
[vi] “Handling Things Lyrically” – interview with Lez Lyrix in Woofah magazine issue 1, 2007.
[vii] “Police in ‘demanding more powers’ shocker” http://www.uncarved.org/blog/2008/06/police-in-demanding-more-powers-shocker/
[viii] “Top Notch Tippa” – interview with Tippa Iria in Woofah magazine issue 2, 2008.
[ix] “Shaking The Foundations: Reggae soundsystem meets ‘Big Ben British values’ downtown” forthcoming in issue 11 of Datacide magazine