Dave Simpson [of The Guardian, UK] on what happened when reggae and punk went head to head in the UK.
It's late autumn 1977, and the Stranglers are headlining a show in the Midlands. The support comes from the roots reggae band Steel Pulse. They know what to expect from a punk crowd: gobbing, cans being thrown. Steel Pulse are barely into their first number when a huge wad of phlegm shoots from the audience and lands on the hand of bassist Ron "Stepper" McQueen. The band's nickname for McQueen was "Psycho" and they fully expected him to live up to his name. "We all stared at Ronnie and we stopped playing," remembers Steel Pulse's singer, Mykaell Riley. "So there's this silence onstage, then eventually 4,000 punks went silent." McQueen didn't react, however. Instead, Stranglers bassist, Jean-Jacques Burnel, stepped out of the wings, waded into the crowd, identified the culprit, and knocked him out cold. Then he turned to face the crowd. "He just went, 'You fucking wankers. You love reggae,'" laughs Riley.
If 1977 was the year of the punk rock explosion, it also saw the rise of another musical movement, intimately entwined with punk - a massive eruption in British reggae, which became the black counterpart to the white heat of punk. The Clash played reggae covers and Joe Strummer recounted his experience of reggae all-nighters in White Man in Hammersmith Palais. Rastafarian DJ Don Letts played reggae discs between punk bands at the Roxy. Even Bob Marley - who was living in London at the time - recognised the developments with his 1977 song Punky Reggae Party. But while the Clash and Marley have come to symbolise the link between reggae and punk, the huge growth in homegrown reggae in the wake of punk has become one of the era's lost treasures.
White kids had listened to reggae since the original 1960s skinhead movement embraced the music, but 1977 saw a common bond spring up between the punks and the rastas. Dub producer Adrian Sherwood - a white kid from Slough who fell in love with the "crazy intros" of the records played by his black mate's sister - remembers going round to Johnny Rotten's house and hearing reggae, not Generation X. Sherwood also remembers that the path to reggae enlightenment wasn't necessarily weed: "My Mum, bless her, wasn't the best cook on earth. I'd go round my mates and have fried fish, beans and rice. It was unbelievable." More important, though, was the sense of shared purpose the fans had. Although punk was fast and guitar-based and reggae slow and bass-heavy, the punk look (spiky hair, leather jackets and combat trousers) wasn't much different to Rastafarian chic (dreadlocks, leather jackets and combat gear). Visually and otherwise, punk and reggae audiences were seen as outcasts. "The bond was very simple," explains Peter Harris, a British reggae guitarist who played on Punky Reggae Party. "Blacks were getting marginalised." British Irish kids - like Rotten - and black youths were forced together because of signs on pub doorways that read "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs", which became the title of Rotten's autobiography. "The punks were the same," Harris argues. "They were seen as dregs of society. We were all anti-establishment, so there was a natural synergy between us."
Harris's father Dennis ran reggae labels with Matumbi's Dennis Bovell, a massively influential Ladbroke Grove-based Barbadian who - after inventing Lover's Rock - gave punk musicians a new sound when he produced the Slits and the Pop Group, helping them experiment with dub. Harris Jr remembers growing up in the Grove, where the Clash's Mick Jones ate breakfast at Bites cafe alongside rastas. Further bonding took place at gigs and in blues clubs like Notting Hill's House of Dread. But the punk-reggae bond went national - and attracted the interest of the big labels - when John Peel started championing both musics on the radio, playing entire sides of albums by Misty in Roots and Adrian Sherwood's Creation Rebel. "He was great, John Peel," says Sherwood, whose reggae fandom led to him first importing Jamaican reggae records and then operating the mixing desk for innumerable reggae greats. He remembers sitting in a car in Ladbroke Grove with the Jamaican legend Prince Far-I when Peel played the first three tracks of Creation Rebel's record: "The next day I had all those wankers like [Rough Trade's] Geoff Travis ringing me going 'I love it, man.' I said 'I played it to you three weeks ago and you turned it down.'" But suddenly Rough Trade was far from the biggest label with an interest in reggae. The majors were signing reggae bands almost as fast as punk groups. Ladbroke Grove's Aswad and Birmingham's Steel Pulse signed to Island; Virgin put out the Short Circuit compilation, which saw Steel Pulse share vinyl grooves with Penetration and Buzzcocks. But for young black people, the music went deeper than fashion.
British reggae established its own identity, independent of Jamaican reggae, when the bands started singing about their own experiences. Tunes like Tabby Cat Kelly's sublimely mournful Don't Call Us Immigrants offered the feelings of the first British-born generation of black kids: "What's a joke to you is death to me ... I'll respect your colour if you respect mine." Misty in Roots' singer Poko - who dropped his given name, Walford Tyson - remembers a shared "struggle in the music" with punk but particularly remembers the impact of reggae music on young black audiences: "It was pure emotion." Like Steel Pulse, Misty were young and angry. Poko, who was born in St Kitts, says British acts "no longer wanted to sing about love and women. We wanted to do progressive protest music." There was a lot to protest about, and top of the list was police oppression. Punks were picked on but black youths had it much, much harder. Gaylene Martin, a New Zealander who worked with reggae acts on Virgin Records, remembers attending a Peter Tosh gig at the Rainbow theatre in London with Jamaican friends: their car was followed and only the black occupants were questioned. "I was threatened with arrest so many times it became a joke," says Peter Harris, who opened a shop in Portobello Road and was arrested entering his own premises because the police assumed he was a burglar. He ended up crashing through the showroom fighting with three policemen. "My wife said 'What are you doing with my husband? He owns the shop!'"
The excuse the police needed to target black youths was marijuana, and they used the Sus law to stop and search. The crackdown saw reggae clubs closed, and the key figures in the scene facing prosecution. Dennis Bovell was jailed for drugs offences after police raided a soundclash - where reggae sound systems would compete with exclusive mixes in front of fans, who followed sound systems like football teams. The sentence was quashed on appeal six months later. Harris - a non-toker - admits there were times when bands were lucky not to attract the law's attention: "I was in a car once and it was so full of smoke, the driver couldn't see through the windscreen." But increasingly, long-simmering and deep-rooted tensions erupted in violence.
Harris was in Notting Hill when the area erupted in the riots of 1976, which inspired the Clash to sing that they wanted "a riot of their own" in White Riot. He remembers "an amazing sunny day. I saw policemen holding dustbins. The police got a right kicking. There were thousands of angry people who were fed up being treated like dirt." Over the next few years rioting spread across the country (Steel Pulse sang of civil unrest in Handsworth Revolution in 1978, the riots following in 1981). "There was all this going on across the country and reggae was the soundtrack," Harris says.
Punk was, too. Southall punk band the Ruts wrote their reggae-based song Jah War, which told how Misty manager Clarence Baker was knocked to the ground by the police's Special Patrol Group during anti-National Front protests in 1979 that saw a schoolteacher, Blair Peach, die as a result of police brutality. Baker was luckier, but it was close. "They coshed him," remembers Poko. "Nearly killed him, man." Jah War documented a growing sense of outrage over such events - and also repaid mates Misty for issuing the Ruts' first single In a Rut on their People Unite label, another way in which punk and reggae united. It was a confused time and Mykaell Riley remembers black skinheads, white skinheads who weren't racist and others who would say: "We like your music, it's black people we don't like." But increasingly, people realised that music itself could fuel change.
Steel Pulse wrote a song called Ku Klux Klan about the racist movement. The radio shunned it because it was provocative but the black band had an enormous impact when they donned the KKK hoods onstage. Even though the KKK was an American phenomenon, British audiences recognised the power of the imagery and would often fall silent. "It was us saying 'We're in control now and we're not afraid of you'," remembers Riley. "In terms of our punk audience that was a powerful statement." When a group of musicians and activists started putting punk and reggae bands on together and called the gigs Rock Against Racism, "RAR" became a national movement. Bands as diverse as XTC, Aswad, Generation X, Tribesman, the Slits, Joy Division and Misty came together to oppose the rising National Front. The biggest gig, headlined by the Clash and Steel Pulse in east London's Victoria Park in 1978, was attended by 80,000 people. "The British public - certainly the youth - totally came out against the NF," says Riley. "They were turning up in massive numbers and telling them they could not make headway with this stance."
Almost three decades on, sitting in Southall's community centre - where Misty used to play before the council introduced noise restrictions - Poko laments the Southall of his youth, which resisted the NF. "We had such strength," he says. "We felt we could do anything." But he shouldn't be downhearted, because as a result of the anti-racist campaigners' efforts, the Front were finished as a mass political force and police racism was exposed. But did reggae change perceptions of black music? In the 80s, black acts were still told to water down their sound to get hit singles, but reggae crossed over into pop with the Police and Culture Club. A more direct legacy of punk and reggae's fusion came in multiracial acts such as UB40, and the chart dominance of bands such as Madness and the Specials in the early 80s - acts now regarded not as reggae or ska bands, but great British pop groups. Of the original pioneers, only Aswad - who scored a No 1 in 1988 with Don't Turn Around - became British household names, but Misty and Steel Pulse still tour and are renowned worldwide. However, their music resonates everywhere: the sound systems laid down the roots of remix culture and the rhythms gave birth to drum'n'bass. And 1970s British reggae still sounds great today. "The question was always: 'Is your reggae authentic?' says Mykaell Riley, who is now a lecturer at the University of Westminster. "But it was a cumulative experience of growing up in the UK in a different skin. That's what made what we did different."
Note; Steel Pulse will be playing some gigs in the UK in September but to-date the official website has not released the dates. I see the Birmingham Carling Academy on Thursday 6th September and the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London on Friday 7th are already advertising tickets. And of course, they are at WOMAD on July 29th.
Thursday, July 26, 2007