(Review by Steve Shafer)
While the extensive liner notes for this sensational Greensleeves-centric roots reggae compilation do a pretty good job at explaining how the British punk and reggae scenes became so intertwined in the mid '70s, they don't really delve as to why these songs were relevant to both white punk and black reggae bands and fans.
Of course, both groups had the common experience of living on the fringes of British society and culture--and the rebel/outsider stance of much of the roots reggae coming out of JA and being produced locally in the UK was clearly appealing and relevant, as it reflected their viewpoints and realities to varying degrees. In his autobiography (written with Daniel Rachel) "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat," the late and very much missed Ranking Roger--who before joining the aforementioned band was one of Birmingham's only black punks and also a fan of reggae--recalled, "I remember hearing John Lydon on the radio talking about how punks should listen, not necessarily to the music, but to what the reggae artists were saying. He said, 'They're saying exactly the same thing as what we're saying. We're fighting the same struggle.' I thought, 'Whoa! That's put it right there.' Reggae was saying 'Chant Down Babylon' and punk 'Anarchy in the UK.' They shared the same attitudes about working-class people being in control, instead of the establishment."
For punks circa 1976, these roots reggae tracks about pushing back against/seeking deliverance from Babylon (i.e., white Western governments, societies, and their systems--or, as Peter Tosh so aptly put it, the shitstem) worked partly on a metaphorical level, as punks were self-imposed outcasts rejecting the mainstream British society and culture of that time, which offered far too few opportunities for working class youth to do much of anything apart from being on the dole. The signifiers of the punks' "otherness"--their choice of garb, attitude, music, living arrangements (squatting!), etc.--publicly conveyed their outsider status (and often drew harassment from institutional and cultural groups who enforced conformity and compliance, like the police and Teds). Though since much of this was a matter of dress, music, and lifestyle choices, it all could be fairly easily shed (and they'd be reabsorbed by the dominant white society). No matter if they were "punk for life" or simply going through a phase, they always maintained their privileges as white Britons; even if they occupied a low rung of the British class system, their status was still higher than that of black Britons and immigrants from the former British colonies as a whole. As well, these roots reggae songs of rebellion were stand ins of sorts--they were punk records in attitude and message at a time when there was an explosion of punk bands, but a dearth of actual punk records (which was why Don Letts was spinning so much roots reggae at The Roxy during punk shows throughout his two-year residency there).
A number of punk fans and musicians (like Paul Simonon and John Lydon) had grown up in inner cities with the children of the Windrush generation and all the truly fantastic Jamaican music that had immigrated with them to the UK as a result. Some punks were old enough to have been fans of the skinhead reggae that had dominated the UK charts in the late '60s and early '70s--or perhaps they had listened to their older siblings' Bluebeat 45s from when they were first gen mods or skins--which certainly made them predisposed to liking the genre's evolution to roots reggae by the mid-'70s. Though for many others, the early punk scene itself became a gateway to a wealth of incredible reggae music--Don Letts was recently quoted in an article about this on the ABC News site in Australia: "The kids that I actually turned on to reggae in the late '70s were those that did not live next door to black people or have any interaction with black people. And back in the mid-to-late '70s, that was a lot of fucking people! Every person who came out of the suburbs to The Roxy, and there was a lot of them, they'd never heard reggae before and they're the ones I hipped to the sound."
Reggae (and punk, once the first crop of punk singles were released) was very much underground music, largely absent on the radio (with the exception of John Peel), and only encountered in clubs, blues dances, at sound system clashes, specialty record stores, sometimes in print, and definitely via word of mouth. As Letts notes, at the time much of one's knowledge about reggae depended on one's proximity to black people and communities of Jamaican immigrants. And roots reggae, of course, heavily influenced many punk musicians, including bands like The Clash, who collaborated with Mikey Dread and Lee Perry (who also wrote and produced Bob Marley's "Punky Reggae Party"; Marley didn't really know much about the punk scene, but identified with their status--Marley, from an interview with music journalist Vivien Goldman: "Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas. So they are bound to defend what we defend"); The Slits worked with Dennis Bovell; and The Ruts were on Misty in Root's label, People Unite, supported their multicultural arts/community center in Southall, and frequently played Rock Against Racism shows together; fun factoid: in 1977 Generation X was the first punk band to release a dub version of one of their tracks: "Wild Youth Dub"). However, one would be hard pressed to find any British reggae acts who were musically influenced by punk.
For black British reggae bands and fans, these same roots reggae songs of resistance had a much more direct and powerful significance--it wasn't an adopted stance and style, but immediately relevant to their lives. The oppression of Babylon was being expressed in real time through the pervasive institutional, economic, and societal racism directed at black Britons on a daily basis (the 1980 movie "Babylon" so realistically depicts the ubiquitous racism in Britain that it might as well have been a documentary; in fact, some of the storyline was based on real life--the police raid on the sound system clash came straight from Dennis Bovell's life). It was particularly expressed through police policy toward black youth, as the cops utilized the despicable and outrageous Sus law to regularly harass them (Sus allowed the police to stop and search anyone an officer merely suspected was behaving in a criminal manner and that they suspected had the intent to commit an arrestible offense--this also is horrifyingly played out in a tense and ugly sequence in "Babylon"; also see The Ruts blistering "S.U.S."--"Down in the street, just waiting for a bus/This cop pulls up, they're giving me the SUS/They said, 'Hey sonny, I think you're in our file/Well, you better come with us for a while/We got you on SUS/You look too obvious/You better come with us...'"). One could easily understand how a song featured on Step Forward Youth like Gregory Isaacs' sublime, Lee Perry-produced "Mr. Cop" (which bears more than a passing resemblance to The Congos' "Children Crying") would be so popular in this pervasively hostile environment: "Meat be in market, marrow in a bone/What don't concern you, please leave it alone/'Cause the grass was made for the cow and ass/And the herb on this land for the use of man/Tell 'em, Mista, tell 'em/Cool down your temper, Mr. Cop, cool down/We're just licking a cup, I said/Cool down your temper, Mr. Cop, cool down/Say we are just sipping a cup."
Even if punk rock didn't musically influence reggae, in the wake of pointed, establishment-challenging, norm-smashing punk rock tracks like "God Save the Queen" and "White Riot," the UK acts featured on Step Forward Youth were absolutely inspired by the punk bands to be more direct and blunt in their socio-political commentary when addressing the rampant racism they were experiencing from their fellow white Britons and British institutions. Steel Pulse's "Ku Klux Klan" was aimed at the British neo-Nazi political group the National Front, comparing them to the despicable American white supremacist Klan (at the time, Steel Pulse wore white KKK hoods when they performed this track--an act of shocking political theater, as well as a brilliant subversion of this symbol of racial terrorism). The Barry Ford Band's fantastic "Rebel" (which nicks a bit from Keith Hudson's incredible "Turn the Heater On," also included on Step Forward Youth) is a hymn to the Rock Against Racism and other anti-racist activists/NF counter-demonstrators who protested countless times during the late 70's/early '80s: "You see him every day on the streets/Using up the leather on his feet/Marching into battle, because he knows no retreat/Words are his only weapon/Love is his self-defense/He's fighting mankind's aggression/He's existing on common sense."
No doubt inspired by Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" as well as the 1976 Notting Hill carnival riot in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood of London (which Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon experienced and inspired Strummer and Mick Jones to write "White Riot"; in addition, the riot was forever memorialized with the photo of Don Letts walking in front of a line of Bobbies on the cover of Black Market Clash), Have Sound Will Travel's gem "Police and Youth in the Grove" questioned who the police were serving during their rampage beating black people: "...Violence a cook on the stove/The wicked men were having fun/And I and I bredren were on the run/Why were they there in force?/Pretending to protect I, of course, but from who?...Oppressor is his name/Discrimination is his game/But I and I will survive/Just the same."
(And UK reggae artists were paying attention to what was going on in the punk scene--see Militant Barry's "Pistol Boy" on Step Forward Youth, which expressed doubts that Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel--and must have been recorded before Sid's overdose while on bail--produced by Keith Hudson and using his "Rhodesia"/"I'm Not Satisfied" riddim.)
Of course, one of the catalysts cementing the naturally simpatico alliance between punk and reggae was Rock Against Racism (RAR). Created in reaction to Eric Clapton's racist and nativist on-stage tirade where he also expressed support for racist Tory Enoch Powell in August of 1976 in Birmingham ("Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back")--made in the midst of increasing incidents of racial violence/killings and the alarming possibility of the National Front becoming a powerful and governing UK political force--photographer and ex-mod Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, and many of his fellow Social Workers Party (SWP) colleagues wrote a letter to the NME decrying Clapton's outrageous, bigoted statements (made by an artist who had made gobs of money off playing black music and who was currently enjoying a massive hit with a cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff") and announced the founding of a new anti-racist organization, Rock Against Racism.
Using their political organizing/campaign skills and fortuitous connections to the music scene, RAR (often in collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League) sponsored dozens of small and large concerts, carnivals/marches, and tours through 200 RAR chapters across the UK; published their own zine/newsletter "Temporary Hoarding," which, according to one of its writers/editors Lucy Whitman was, "a dynamic combination of photos, posters, interviews with bands, provocative collages and photo-montages, hard-hitting polemic, letters from supporters, and news and views from local RAR groups, all lovingly presented in a fierce anarcho-punk aesthetic which perfectly captured the spirit of the times." The first issue of "Temporary Hoarding" featured RAR's mission statement on its cover, written by David Widgery: "We want Rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock Against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism."
RAR's goals were twofold: To convince white, working-class youth not to be racist (to make a break with the racism they had been taught in their home, at school, and in the greater British culture and society), as well as recruit already anti-racist youth to be active allies in RAR's anti-racist socio-political cause; and to thwart the National Front at the ballot box. It was part social marketing campaign--it's cool/desirable to be anti-racist--with a political campaign at its heart (and it was ultimately successful in completely deflating the NF as a political party--though by the end of the '70s, the racists found a new, more "respectable," mainstream candidate to support who shared/co-opted many of their bigoted aims in Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative party).
RAR was pointedly not about organizing black or South Asian youth for anti-racist action (they were already doing it themselves--see the Southall Youth Movement and others). Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson stated in Daniel Rachel's phenomenal book "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge," "Rock Against Racism was the white man saying, 'Racism is our problem. We have to deal with this and address white people.'" RAR organizer John Dennis added, "We weren't targeting black kids. We needed to get to the white kids. They were the potential National Front members."
For black reggae artists, RAR and the white punks and bands were allies in fight against racism (as well as a new, expanded audience for their music). But the involvement of the black British reggae acts--and the implicit message it sent with them on stage with white punk acts--was vital to the success of RAR. Aswad's lead singer (and star of the movie "Babylon") Brinsley Forde recalled in Daniel Rachel's book, "Ordinary working-class people heard for the first time the there was another melody playing. We were writing and singing about our experiences and hoping that people related to or identified with it: not satisfied with the life we're living. People were going, 'Yeah man, I understand what you're saying. I don't have to be black to identify with that'...Suddenly, a black person wasn't this alien, and it was music that started to break the barriers down. That's what reggae did for punk and what punk did for reggae. You'd done punk gigs. You'd been accepted by the punks and viewed them as people so there wasn't this divide. Music had brought everybody together. That was the most dramatic thing about it. People going, 'But I love this music so these people can't be that bad.' That is what Rock Against Racism really did. It's no good preaching to people who know. You have to get into the lion's den to make that change happen."
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Just take one look at the Step Forward Youth track list and you'll see that it's a terrifically strong compilation of mid-to-late '70s roots reggae by some of that era's top acts. Well-versed ska and reggae fans will mostly likely have a good number of these songs, but there are enough rarities for this collection to still be quite enticing. One only wishes that the abridged vinyl version of this release had been expanded to at least a double LP, as the single LP pretty much sticks to the hits and there are loads of tracks that one would want on vinyl, too.
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For more on Rock Against Racism, check out the great "Who Shot the Sheriff?" documentary by Alan Miles (and note how the National Front's rhetoric is disturbingly similar to what is coming out of the White House these days...).
Who Shot The Sheriff? PART 1 from Alan Miles on Vimeo.
Who Shot The Sheriff? PART 2 from Alan Miles on Vimeo.
Who Shot The Sheriff? PART 3 from Alan Miles on Vimeo.
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Absolutely nailed it - a fantastic run down of the whole RAR scene. Kudos to you, Steve, as always. Now let's see RAR make a raging return right now in the US!
Thanks so much for your kind words, Selector JBo!
It would be fantastic to see RAR reactivated in the US. We need it!
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