12/02/2011

Reggae Britannia - "I've been wanting you for, so long it's a shame"

Didn't get to bed until the wee hours of the morning hence the lateness of this blog. I was busy clearing up the broken glass, post my attempts to hit Janet Kay's famous high note in 'Silly Games', during BBC4's documentary on Reggae Britannia. (Available on BBC iPlayer if you missed it).


90 minutes of listening and viewing pleasure, intertwined with snippets of some of the most amazing music, the documentary charted Reggae's influence on British music and youth culture and to and extent politics, from the 60's to the 80's. For me, it also charted the soundtrack to my parents and my youth. Featuring the likes of: Aswad; Steel Pulse; Big Youth (time for a name change Manley Augustus Buchanan "Big Youth" at 75 is just silly...); the Specials; UB40; Bob Marley (of course), the list goes on - I had been looking forward to it from the moment I heard it was going to be on. I was not to be disappointed.


It started with Jamaican imports in the '60s, where reggae was given a hard time in the press. As Jerry Dammers, (of The Specials and founder of the 2-Tone movement), indicated the music press regarded it as "idiot music..some kind of weird kind of novelty music". That view was shared by radio and the music industry in general. Even after Desmond Dekker scored the first UK number 1 in 1969's with 'Israelites', Reggae music was still pretty much absent from mainstream radio. I was disappointed that there was no mention of the marvellous David Rodigan, who's radio show, Reggae Time on a Sunday afternoon - (and later Roots Rockers on Capital) - was mandatory in our house. To be fair though, it was aired on Radio London, so wouldn't have reached a wide audience outside of the Capital.


The documentary touched briefly on issues artists faced over artistic control and the ability to release what they believed in, plus the additional problems faced if you were a women. To explore these issues properly, we would need a whole documentary series, but it did give the opportunity to air the excellent Matumbi's "After Tonight' and Carol Thompson's "Hopelessly in Love'. Both firmly of the Lover's Rock genre that emerged exclusively out of the Black British Reggae scene. Gwan! (Side note: Does anyone else think Smiley Culture ('Police Officer no give me Producer'!!), must have a portrait rotting in an attic somewhere? He looks EXACTLY the same!)



Despite all the obstacles, Reggae music took root. As well as providing a crucial link to the Caribbean heritage of British born blacks, Reggae was a way to voice frustration and discontent of black (and an increasing number of white) youth. Steel Pulse’s ‘Ku Klux Klan’ told British youth to stand up to the anti-immigrant rhetoric at the time - basically, stating that "we're here and we're here to stay". Later, The Specials' 'Ghost Town' was a reflection of the impact on the country of Thatcher's Britain. With Jerry Dammers commenting that Margaret Thatcher was like Al Capone, shutting everything down because her mob wasn't getting paid! The confluence of Punk and Reggae and what Reggae brought to that genre was also touched upon. It also, talked to the importance of that alliance to bringing Reggae to a wider audience.


Interestingly, British Reggae faced its own form of discrimination, with Sound Systems (the main distribution channel for the genre) giving precedence to Jamaican imports. Ultimately, one sound system, Saxon, plus determination from home grown artists, helped push the British sounds. The respected poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, allowed an 'in' for the documentary to talk about Dub and it's influence on the genre. Dub is essentially and emphasis on drum and bass that reverberates throughout the body and was adapted by mainstream bands such as The Police.

Reflecting on the diverse audience as well as artists, the documentary showed what an influence Reggae music had in bringing British society together and helping to remove the strict social divisions that existed before. At a time when: the British National Party are having more electoral success; The English Defence League march and; in a shockingly badly timed speech, Cameron declares multi-culturalism to have "failed", it was nice to hear The Selecter's Pauline Black insist that "Multiculturalism rules".

The documentary series continues, check it out, whether you are a fan of the music or not, it's part of this country's cultural history.

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