Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Duff Review: X-O-DUS "English Black Boys" (reissue with bonus tracks)

Factory Benelux

(Review by Steve Shafer)

While Factory Records was much more synonymous with legendary UK post-punk acts like Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, and Durutti Column, in 1980 Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus released the first and only reggae release on the label (with a instantly recognizable sleeve by in-house Factory graphic designer Peter Saville) from ace Mancunian reggae act X-O-DUS. "English Black Boys b/w "See Them A' Come" was produced by the extraordinary Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell and featured Janet Kay (of "Silly Games" Lovers rock fame--another Bovell production) on back-up vocals. The band, which was founded in 1977 and played a number of Rock Against Racism and post-punk bills (including several Factory shows) in Manchester over the years, became one of a number of excellent, late '70s home-grown Black UK reggae acts, alongside Matumbi (Bovell's band), Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, Black Slate, and others.

X-O-DUS was brought to Factory's attention by Joy Division (and later New Order) manager Rob Bretton, which was immediately interested in working with the band (Tony Wilson: "Factory and Rob were always obsessed with the black music scene in Manchester"). Even though these tracks were recorded in spring of '79, X-O-DUS' single wasn't released until fourteen months later, due to delays in both Bovell and Factory's production schedules. Nonetheless, the record received positive reviews in Sounds, Melody Maker, and NME, and did quite well on the independent singles charts (John Peel dug it). A follow-up 7" single and LP with Factory was agreed upon, though with the condition that X-O-DUS produce the recordings themselves, as they didn't feel that Bovell's extended, dubby versions of their songs accurately represented their tighter and more rock and jazz-influenced live sound. While the band recorded seven songs for their debut album in 1980 at Drone studio, Factory's resources for the remainder of that year were devoted to capitalizing on Joy Division's success (and their transition to New Order, post-Ian Curtis). By 1981, X-O-DUS had split (with some members going on to form reggae act Partecs), and their album was shelved by Factory (the Drone tracks first emerged on CD in 2012 and can be listened to here; this reissue is the first time five of those terrific cuts have been released on vinyl).

Dubbed "rainy day reggae" (a nod to their gray, crumbling industrial necropolis), X-O-DUS' two tracks for their fantastic Factory debut single were concerned with the experience of being a native Black Briton at a time when many of your White countrymen refused to recognize you as a fellow citizen and human being. Written in reaction to the rise of the fascist National Front, the sparse, rootsy "English Black Boys" is about questioning one's identity and place in society--being literally disoriented--when your mother country rejects you based solely on the color of your skin.

My skin is black
What difference is that?
We're an English breed
With an English dream

My school days were innocent and smooth
It's where I learned all the English rules

But now that I'm a man
An English black man
But now that I'm a man
I don't know who I am

Now they talk about repatriation
To make this country an all-English white nation...

Similarly, the heavier and more combative "See Them A' Come" (not a Culture or Misty in Roots cover) is a defiant response to the oppressive stop-and-frisk policing of young Black Britons via the despicable Sus laws, where the state expressed its racism by giving the coppers the legal cover to regularly harass and humiliate Black people for merely existing--see the movie 1980 Babylon. (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 arrestable offense.) 

I see them a' come every day
But I not go run
Said, I see them come every day
But I not go run

For every day I say
There is war
But policeman going to learn
That with war he's got to stay far

'Said only the innocent suffer
The wicked they always recover

The Drone demo tracks (which are much more polished than many typical demo tapes) certainly reinforce the notion the X-O-DUS was justifiably unhappy with Bovell's production. All of the cuts here are punchier and showcase other facets of band's sound, including some spectacular Lovers rock ("Take It From Me") and amazing post-punky reggae that's not too far afield from The Ruts and New Age Steppers

"Society" is certainly a comment on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's regressive conservative policies that favored the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else (she privatized many government services and industries, made deep cuts to the social safety net--during a time of record unemployment--and waged war on the unions).

What we want is equal opportunity
Times are changing
Not for the better, but for the worse
The rich keep on making all the money
For them, their days are always sunny

The Basement 5-sounding "Leaders"--which should have been the lead single off this album--advocates for solidarity in the wake of Thatcher's cruelty and indifference:

The people are fighting for freedom
The government opposes, they don't see them
Three million unemployed--who's gonna save us?
The thing we should do is love one another

So what are we gonna do, now that the time is near?

Anyone interested in '80 Black UK reggae--that sounds just as vital and relevant over 40 years later--shouldn't sleep on this essential reissue.

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