Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 8
Tuesday, 15th May 2012
Soul Shake Down Party
During the mid seventies I often went to places like the Q Club on Praed Street, Columbos, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, The Trafalgar, Union Tavern and the Lacy Lady in Ilford. In those days you only ever ventured on to the dance floor if you had style and the right moves. The way you looked and your dance moves were the currency of the day—and what you got with that currency was girls. But the soul scene began to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It had started to develop its own prejudice. People started to look down on those who didn’t dress the same; the scene had become elitist and I wasn't really comfortable with that. Just listening to the music and emulating the black American blueprint wasn’t working for me. It didn’t exactly translate to my life, which was something of a dilemma. Luckily around the same time I began to discover Rastafari through reggae and sound-systems like Jah Shaka, Moa Ambassa and Coxsone. Sound-system was a way of imparting information; spiritually, politically and culturally. Up until the early seventies singers like John Holt, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs ruled in Jamaica, but then reggae began to change. ‘Deejay’ music—a rapping style created for the sound-systems developed led by the mighty three I-Roy, U-Roy and Big Youth. When Bob Marley’s album Catch a Fire hit town in 1973 that was a major revelation. It explored a more radical and political side of reggae and was definitely more of an album than a collection of singles. Even the packaging, with the Zippo Lighter sleeve, was also something different. Up to that time most of the reggae sleeves looked like cheap Jamaican postcards.
Dub really came into its own during the early 1970s. On the B-sides of Jamaican Rocksteady singles the word ‘Version’ began appearing—describing an instrumental remix of the A-side that had begun as a test for sound levels (and for somewhat obvious economic reasons was pressed on the B-side as it saved recording another song). Dub was the next logical step, essentially born from a studio technique where drum and bass took centre stage. Utilising two-track, and sometimes four-track set-ups, people like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb and echo delay to shape the sound and took the giant step of using the mixing desk as an instrument in itself. Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) was an engineer at Duke Reid’s studio and began to cut dub plates of tunes with bits of the vocal left out to play on his sound system. He originally did this to offer his audience different versions of their favourite tracks. These fragments of vocals were ‘flashed in’ either from the A-side or a deejay would do an intro and just ‘ride the riddim’. They created a sound that was then pressed onto dub plates (one-off acetates) and played by the local sound systems via valve amps and towering bass bins live and direct to the people. Then there was Big Youth, a former cab driver in Jamaica, who served his apprenticeship with sound systems around Kingston before becoming known as the ‘master deejay’. Big Youth (Manley Augustus Buchanan) was one of the first to include Rasta chants with his militant deejay lyrics. His first recording with Keith Hudson as producer, “Ace Ninety Skank”, was a number one hit in Jamaica. It was his album Screaming Target from ’73 that caught my attention. Little did I know, people like Paul Simonon and John Lydon were also listening to that album. Shortly our own two cultures would clash.
I went to Bob Marley’s legendary gig at the Lyceum in ’75 which was released as a live album. It was the closest I have ever got to a religious experience and the single most exciting music moment of my life. The full impact and reality of what we had heard on his records all came together in that show. It was no longer an abstract thing that you could interpret one way or another. Here was the man onstage delivering it live and direct. It gave me the confidence to be myself. Bob Marley brought the politic to the forefront of reggae with a militant Rasta rebel vibe. After the gig I followed Bob Marley in my car back to his hotel in Harrington Gardens, off Gloucester Road. I don’t know what possessed me, I marched into the hotel with all the other Rasta brethren. Everyone was sitting down and I found a little spot in the corner. Bob was holding court in his room and was smoking and ‘reasoning’ with all the Rasta elders. Finally, it was three or four in the morning and Bob had out-reasoned and out-smoked everybody. He looked around the room and saw me with my baby dreads and my pathetic little bag of smoke. I was called to the table and ‘reasoned’ with him until sunrise. A few days later I went back to get a picture of Bob with myself before he returned to Jamaica. I had a Polaroid camera and all the band and Bob were like, “Bloodclaat instant picture”. Polaroid technology had not yet reached Jamaica. Everybody wanted a picture of themselves and Bob. Ten pictures down, I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Jeannette was there and she ran out to get some more film. Sure enough, another packet of Polaroids had gone and I still had not got my picture of me and Bob. Finally, with the third packet of Polaroids I got my picture.
A year or so later, when Bob Marley was staying in Oakley Street off the King’s Road after he had been shot in Jamaica, I went round to his house to collect some money he owed me wearing my bondage trousers. He was to all intents and purposes in exile over here and we ended up having an argument about punk. On seeing my bondage trousers, he exclaimed, “What ya deal wid Don Letts dem nasty punk rockers, yu look like a bloodclaat mountaineer!” To which I replied, “Dem crazy baldheads are my mates Bob”—or words to that effect and took my leave. But y'know I always figured I got the last say because when Bob became more familiar with the real deal (as opposed to the Daily Mirror version of punk) during his UK stay, he was inspired to write and record the tune “Punky Reggae Party” a few months later.
You can read all posts by Don Letts HERE