It was punk's "summer of hate", 1977, and the required pose was a sneer, a leather jacket and something hacked about – a spiky haircut, a ripped T-shirt, a sawn-off school tie. And, of course, no flares, the despised flag of hippiedom. But at the cold, concrete roots of Britain a very different aesthetic was also in the ascendant, one calling for an oversized tam, dreadlocks and a display of "the red, gold and green", the colours of Rastafari. Flares? Fine!+ + + +
The two looks represented the different worlds inhabited by young white and black Britain, worlds which a year previously had been remote from each other but which by the summer of 1977 were unexpectedly and often uncomfortably rubbing shoulders. At Hackney town hall, under portraits of whiskery Victorian aldermen, I watched the Cimarons chant down Babylon while Generation X snarled their way through "Wild Youth". In Brixton, I gaped as the Slits, the acme of unruliness, shared a stage with Birmingham's Steel Pulse, the most militant of Britain's proliferating reggae bands.
More than just the "Punky Reggae Party" Bob Marley had playfully celebrated on disc that summer, these were gigs that signalled the birth of a new Britain, one in which the neofascist National Front was consigned to the margins and musical cross-pollination became the norm. Rock-reggae bands such as the Police, ska revivalists such as the Specials and home-grown reggae acts such as Janet Kay would soon occupy the charts. Further down the line would come UB40, Culture Club, Soul II Soul and then the current era in which, to quote Soul II Soul singer Caron Wheeler: "You can't distinguish between colour any more – it's just people."
These days, punk is to be found in the cultural academy, in lecture halls, art galleries and fashion history books. By contrast, British reggae remains half-forgotten and little praised, represented mainly by the Specials' "Ghost Town" as the default tune for any retrospective on the bleak, Thatcherite early 80s.
Here's the BBC4 trailer for "Reggae Britannia":
Wicked Big Youth at Reggae Brittania....caught the dread DJ at his best! photo by Pogus Ceser
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