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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 4

Trojan Explosion

My father ran a sound system called ‘Duke Letts Superstonic Sound’ - but it wasn’t the kind of sound system that people know today. It was a means for the immigrants to come together after church to exchange news and find out what was happening back home in Jamaica. For Jamaicans, music was an integral part of their day-to-day life, and not just something the kids did, as was horse racing. My father was named Saint Ledger after the famous horse race - only in Jamaica. One of his favourite records was an LP called Fire Corner by King Stitt released by Trojan in 1969. Trojan provided my first soundtrack and a musical map where I could trace my roots. British blacks—black British, easy to say now but in those days this was a confusing concept—trust me. The sounds of Trojan struck an understandable chord with a lost tribe growing up in England with a confused duality, and its impact was crucial. I was fourteen in 1970, a rude boy, well an Anglicised version of the Jamaican real deal and part of the first generation of British-born blacks. It was during the Sixties that the Jamaican recording scene became established and the post-colonial optimism in Jamaica reflected a new sound from the recording studios - Ska. I could probably fill the rest of this book with the names of all the people who have said that they invented Ska in ’59, ’60 or ’61. The most likely candidate was an employee of Clement Dodd called Cecil Campbell, better known to you and I as Prince Buster. It was Prince Buster who told his guitarist to accentuate the offbeat that created that unique ‘chug’ sound that powered the sound of Ska. It’s good time feel fitted in perfectly with the mood after Jamaica gained independence in 1962.

Dad

St.Ledger Letts Superstonic Sound-System

Ska was quickly embraced by the Jamaican immigrants in Britain. By 1963 it had leaked out of the Ladbroke Grove shebeens and was becoming one of the country’s most popular underground sounds. Back in Jamaica however, Ska had already dominated the culture for half a decade and by the mid sixties the people and musicians wanted something new. That change would be Rocksteady. One of the reasons that Ska evolved into the slower tempo of Rocksteady was due to the social climate, although it is said that a particularly hot summer was also partly responsible for slowing down the groove. At the start of the sixties there was a measurable increase in tension and violence in Kingston’s dancehalls. The rude boys were Jamaican youths who had come to Kingston after independence, hoping to better themselves and found nothing. Consequently they became outsiders and turned to crime to survive, whether on their own or with street gangs. The arrival of the rude boy came to play a part in this musical evolution. Rocksteady’s characteristic slower rhythm meant dance moves were slower and people were more rooted to the spot and therefore more aware of what was going on around them. The change in tempo also reflected the mood in Jamaica. Following independence in ’62, the party was now over and there was a political and social hangover to deal with.

Don Letts Trio

Kevin, Don & Collin at The Lansdowne Club, Stockwell, 1970

The mighty Trojan Records started out in July ’67. The Trojan name was taken from the trucks that Reid used for carrying his sound system. In those days it was strictly vinyl 45s, LPs were too risky. Albums would need to be all killer and no filler before punters would part with their hard-earned cash. Trojan was ghetto-wise and released the Tighten Up compilations  which I picked up on in 1970 at the age of fourteen—as did the skinheads. These compilations featured the best singles and Tighten Up Volume 2 came with that risqué artwork that pleased most male teenagers like myself. It’s extraordinary to think that this music ended up being the soundtrack to a particular period in British sub-culture. That was the thing about Trojan: the tunes dealt with themes that the youth on the street—both black and white—could identify with. Well, the youth on my street anyway. Trojan also provided a soundtrack for a new UK tribe, skinheads, predominantly white working class youth who weren’t down with the hippy thing. But they did latch onto Ska and the Trojan boom, snapping up the Tighten Up series and helping to propel the singles into the charts.

Don Letts Solo

A pose with the clothes 1971

Now you got to understand that there was a radical difference between the ‘fashion’ skinheads of the sixties and the overtly racist skinhead movement of the late seventies. Many of the late sixties skinheads were growing up within multicultural areas. Paul Simonon the bass player with The Clash was one of them. The relationship between skinheads and West Indians was a strange one. They aligned themselves with Trojan music, adopting it as their own and black culture was a definite influence on certain elements of their dress code, like the West Indian style of suits, narrow hitched-up trousers and Trilby hats. They combined these with Dr Marten boots and braces, which were strictly working-class attire and there was also an Americana influence with the penny loafers and Harrington jackets. I can still remember walking around the streets of London around 1970-71 in my Crombie coat; brogue shoes; Levi’s Sta-Prest and a slim cut shirt. By the close of 1968 a new wave of producers spearheaded by such luminaries as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee and King Tubby pioneered a new sound that would take the music world by storm. Reggae was slower than rocksteady and a product of multi-track tape machines coming into the equation. Trojan Records continued to import Jamaican tunes to the UK scoring hits with Ken Boothe, John Holt and a host of others. On the back of this some even dubbed Studio One as “Jamaica’s Motown” at that time. Who would have guessed that an island that itself was the product of colonialism would end up culturally colonising the world with this new sound and its attitude?

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