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Reggae Britannia

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Jeremy Marre | 11:09 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

385 Willesden High Road is tucked away behind a row of dilapidated 19th century houses, its entrance obscured by high locked gates and a walled yard. But 385 is a treasure trove of reggae history. It's called Theorem, Music Village, and it's where we're recording several artist interviews for Reggae Britannia. As we arrive, there's a band in the studio rehearsing a romantic Lovers Rock number, there's a man up a rickety ladder painting the walls and another mopping up from an all night dance in the 'functions room' with its damp lino and garish red felt walls.

T-Jae, the tall soft-spoken proprietor of what was once called BBMC (the Brent Black Music Cooperative) helps us with our camera gear. He's got coffee brewing in the kitchen beside an open can of condensed milk. Before T-Jae's time this was a leisure centre filled with rattle of pinball machines and the click of snooker balls - now replaced by the drum 'n bass of reggae rhythms leaking from the studio.

We're here to interview Dave Barker, one half of the Dave and Ansell Collins vocal duo who set the teenage mods alight, back in 1971, performing a novelty number called 'Double Barrel'. Dave's a quietly spoken man with a hint of a stammer. He tells us how, when he first came to this country (and he stayed here ever after) he peered out through the window of his BOAC plane as it banked over the smoking chimneys of the snow-covered houses below and wondered 'how come they have so many bakeries in England?' On the drive from the airport he was shocked at seeing white men digging the road and taking out garbage: 'Wow man, that was strange, you didn't see those things in Jamaica'. Nor dogs wearing winter vests, nor steak and kidney pies, nor that little sparrow he spied pecking the top off a milk bottle. He can't help himself: Dave sings a refrain from Matt Munro's 'Born Free' and segues into 'Summer Holiday'.

Dave arrived in the U.K exactly ten years before Theorem opened its doors to top British and Jamaican reggae artists passing through. Today, there's the legendary Max Romeo sitting on bench in the winter sunshine, his grey locks neatly tucked into a woolly beret. In 1969, Max brought his wicked song 'Wet Dream' to Britain and its risqué lyrics - which got it banned in clubs and on the BBC - made it an anthem for skinheads in dance halls all across Britain. He sings a few lines, diffidently explaining how it caused an 'upstir' among the rebellious youth of the time. He's a little ashamed of it now because, by the mid 70s, Max had embraced the wisdom of Rastafari. That was when he wrote and recorded some of reggae's most powerful and memorable music in the Black Ark studio of Lee Scratch Perry: 'War In A Babylon' and 'Chase The Devil'. When those songs arrived here, first as pre-releases and then remixed by Island Records, they inspired our fledgling roots reggae bands and then the punks and then Bob Marley too. Max intones a few lines from 'Chase The Devil', an ironic, cautionary tale that has been covered or sampled by dozens of musicians - including Jay-Z in 'The Black Album' - and was featured in the video-game Grand Theft Auto.

Dave Barker and Max Romeo - by Irfhan Mirza

Dave Barker and Max Romeo - by Irfhan Mirza

'I'm gonna put on an iron shirt and chase Satan out of earth' he sings. 'I'm gonna send him to outer space to find another race'. Max explains: 'The devil is the negative within the psyche. Chasing the devil means chasing the negative out of your mind.' There are people wandering in and out while he speaks; musicians carrying drums and guitars into this studio that's cold as a morgue, or dropping off an amp or a heavyweight speaker, or they've come to pay their respects to the master, with a hug or a high-five.

T-Jae comes sauntering by with a piece of carpet under his arm to help our sound recordist dampen the 'live' acoustic of the room (yes, we still have a sound recordist on our crew) and he tells me that among the band members in the studio today is none other than Bigga Morrison. Bigga's not a front man like Max, but a keyboard virtuoso and music director of renown. Reggae royalty. The band take a another break for a smoke in the yard and Bigga, immaculate in pin-striped suit and brogues, describes growing up in this country as a second generation West Indian:
'My parents had experienced troubles and threats on the streets, back in the '50s, with the Teddy Boys and such, but they wouldn't discuss those things because they wanted to keep you free from the pressures. But as we grew up, we took our message and our fight onto the streets with the roots and culture music we played in bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad.'

Later during the interview, I asked Bigga to show us how the British reggae producers, back in the early 1970s, added violins to the Jamaican imports to make them sound 'more classical'. Unfortunately, he's lost his glasses and so can't read the score. Tee Jay's on hand to send for a replacement pair. Bigga fills in time by playing us a delightful new track by his band the Skatronics, but when the glasses arrive, they're all wrong for Bigga. He wears them anyway, and peers astigmatically at the music for 'Young Gifted And Black' which is layered in symphonic-style strings. Bigga (educated at Trinity College of Music) explains how Jamaican reggae gradually transformed into a British musical experience, first through the dub sounds and conscious lyrics of hardworking roots groups like Aswad and then by the bands that went platinum: the 2 Tone crowd, UB40 and The Police.
Bigga's being called back to rehearsals now, so we break for a late lunch. It's a choice of The New Golden Duck Chinese Take Away or the Caribbean place half a mile up the road. We do the walk and settle for salt fish and akee. Or rather, the others do. I choose the goat curry on plantains and soon regret it.

Bigga Morrison

Bigga Morrison

Back in Theorem, Bigga's at the keyboards and a couple of pretty female vocalists are delivering more saccharine Lovers Rock. And that's where we see Big Youth, in among them, gyrating his hips to the pounding bass and chugging upbeat of the guitar. He's chaperoned by a petite Italian lady from an artists' agency called Roots Rockers. She's Trish, and she's exhausted because they've only just returned from a nightmare flight from Spain. Trish is a miracle of calm and efficiency in the maelstrom of the struggling reggae business and it's clear all the artists adore her. Trish has offered us the opportunity to interview Big Youth, the toaster who excited British reggae fans with his revolutionary, rasta-inspired lyrics in the mid '70s. He's on top form today, his wiry body twisting and swaying in the interview chair as he sings lines from 'Hit The Road Jack', telling me how the great Ray Charles called him up one Christmas-time to admit that Big Youth's version was just 'the best'. 'Big Youth stole the scene,' he concludes. Modesty isn't one of Big Youth's virtues. But I can vouch for his status, and integrity. I first met him inside Randy's Record shop in Kingston Jamaica back in '77. He was checking out the sales of his album - visiting these record stores was about the only way an artist could tell how many were selling. He was as big a name as Marley at the time, and revered both on the island and over here. We met again - by chance - in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was on the run from some unscrupulous promoter. He's older and greyer now, but with no loss of energy, showmanship or sharp humour. And the red, gold and green implants in his front teeth are still there.

The filming days at Theorem haven't only been productive for our ninety minute programme, they've also been enormous fun. Maybe it's the familiarity and affection the artists have for this building, or maybe it's what they call 'the spirits' of the house: a combination of all those sounds and experiences imbedded in the cracking plaster walls, the creaky floorboards which once the feet of hallowed artists trod, or the reverberating bass you can hear down Theorem's honeycomb of corridors.

We'll be back here later in the week to interview the fiery, bubbly Lovers Rock singer Sylvia Tella, from Manchester; and Tippa Irie who came to fame DJing for the Saxon sound system, and maybe Dennis Bovell, the multi-talented producer/song writer and bass player, who did so much to anglicise reggae music in this country. Oh, and Trish says Dennis Alcapone's coming by, the dapper, bowler-hatted vocalist who brought a whole new style of toasting to these shores with songs like 'Guns Don't Argue': 'Don't call me Scarface, my name is Capone, C-A-P-O-N-E!'

For him, we'll haul our equipment boxes down the dark corridors of Theorem (we never could find the light switches, thriftily hidden away in recesses above door frames). Because we'll place him in a room, behind the studio, which is every reggae fan's dream, an Aladdin's cave of antique tape machines and mixers, and an expansive crimson casting couch. The wood-trim Rainderk desk dates from the early '70s when Reggae first exploded onto our pop charts with songs like 'Young Gifted And Black', bringing an upbeat musical thrill not just to those of Caribbean origin and the packs of skinheads who followed them around the country, but to the whole nation. This mixing desk was donated by Pete Townshend of The Who. It has made history since, recording reggae artists like The Wailers, Gregory Isaacs, Aswad, Janet Kay, Maxi Priest ... and so many more.

The traffic's slow on Willesden High Road as we leave the studios and T- Jae waves us into the evening gridlock and shuts the gates. Back-in-the-day, Theorem would be filling up with dreadlocked musicians and their natty entourage, ready for another all night session. Sometimes it still does, but with the proliferation of cheap home studios and a music industry in crisis, it's a whole lot quieter now. No sessions tonight. Just the rattling pipes, the whispering corridors, the vacant studio and the ghosts of British reggae history.

Jeremy Marre is the Producer and Director of Reggae Britannia which screens Friday February 11 at 9pm on BBC Four.

Watch more clips and interviews from Reggae Britannia on the BBC's Music Showcase.


  • Comment number 1.

    10/10 What an amazing documentary. I'm so proud of our multi-cultured society that enabled Reggae to take root and thrive in the UK the legacy of which is a richer more diverse society today!

  • Comment number 2.

    Why was there no mention in the programme of the consistently militant and popular band Misty in Roots? They played more anti-racist events than any other band of any musical genre. They refused to work with big record companies and maintained a strong independence of thought and action. This omission was particularly serious when compared to the time given in the programme to The Police, UB40 and Boy George.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful documentary. Such an eloquent rebuttal to the claim of our PM that multiculturalism has failed. It was also a twitter sensation too!

  • Comment number 4.

    This was an excellent documentary that brought many memories of my youth club days listening to the early sounds. Two tone was more my younger brother's era but the programme showed what a wide variety of styls we have had and how the music has developed to create a unique UK sound. The concert at the barbican following was also great - pity I missed going to it.

  • Comment number 5.

    Agree with cjdmll. Too many important omissions to let it go. At first I thought, Oh well any program of this scope has to be selective, but as they piled up it began to look more and more like sloppy research or deliberate exclusion. Little or no mention of :
    Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames role in popularising bluebeat, the Pink Flamingo in Wardour Street.
    Mist in Roots and UK roots rasta reggae - there's a whole film to be made about them and the Ruts and the reaggae punk integration in Southall in the face of Thatcherism and racism in the 70's.
    The whole reggae scene in Bristol possibly UK's oldest black community ; Horace Andy still wowing them at Womad last year.
    Greensleaves records in West Ealing - biggest ever reggae catalogue.
    David Rodigan ; the most respected and influential Reggae DJ evr in the UK - his radio London Program - surely some archive available.
    Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Ken Boothe's effect on the UK youth through the 12' single market.....
    oh I can't go on its too depressing. It wasn't a bad program - Black Uhuru? .........

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with previous comments about the seemingly poor research.
    Reggae music was not, as reported in the programme, 'ignored by the
    Rock Press' or treated as 'idiot music'.
    One particular music paper which was around in the late 60's and early
    70's never seems to be referred to or get a mention.
    Top Pops which became Top Pops and Music Now, finally becoming Music
    Now, had a circulation of over twenty one thousand, publishing a reggae
    chart on a weekly basis, they also had regular features on reggae and
    ska music including Sapphire's Reggae Page.
    Writers included Roger St. Pierre and Karen de Groot (Sapphire) along
    with the papers other notable writers among which were Maxi Waxi and
    Tony Norman.
    Trojan advertised in the music paper and the PR's of all the bands at
    the time would send promo's, and demo discs would be sent to the record
    reviewer on the paper.
    Chris Blackwell seems to have holes in his memory!
    Reggae and ska music was treated very seriously by this music paper and
    it was a good promotional tool for the bands who would otherwise
    struggle to get airplay on the radio.
    Jeremy Marre, your programme is factually incorrect in this area and
    Miss Karen de Groot (journalist, feature writer and record reviewer)
    would like it known that she is understandably not very impressed by
    your level of research.

    As a side note, this paper covered all types of contemporary music at
    the time and conducted interviews with many different artists such as
    Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Status Quo and countless others, yet for all
    this it never seems to get a mention in any of these programmes on the
    music, sounds or culture of the time, despite its then influence.

    Poor research?.....I think so!

  • Comment number 7.

    With the sad decline of general interest in reggae in the UK over the past 10-15 years and continued problems in the domestic industry, here was a rare and welcome opportunity to highlight this still vibrant and creative musical force and remind the wider public of its rich heritage on national TV. I've been moved to comment.

    The documentary started well enough though it soon became apparent that the format was to be (the now well over-used) music-historiography. The programme narrates the development of UK reggae from its earliest beginnings as imported by the West Indian communities, through its growing popularity in general society, to its direct influence on the homegrown ska and urban genres that followed and centres around interviews with various reggae, ska and rock luminaries. Despite some great footage, the music is sometimes given too little opportunity to tell the story itself with a predictable over-emphasis on narration. Short musical samples fade in and out, sometimes inappropriately, but one can only, nonetheless, enjoy seeing and hearing such musical greatness on telly...

    The earliest phases, sound system, the Trojan years, the advent of roots music and the emergence of a UK reggae sound are well reported but as ska, punk and 'white reggae' gained prominence in the 70s, so our attention is drawn more and more to that music. While The Specials, The Clash, The Police, Eric Clapton, The Beat, Pauline Black and others made undeniably superb music and contributed massively to our social integration, British reggae artists tend to be overlooked. We see crucial early footage of Aswad, Steel Pulse and UB40 but other leading groups, legends like The Cimarons, Matumbi, Black Slate, Misty In Roots, Black Roots, Pablo Gad, King Sounds, Pato Banton, Macka B, Mad Professor, Bloodfire Posse, Papa Levi, The Naturalites & Realistics, Creation Roots (the list goes on) are not even mentioned. Cho!! We gain solider ground once lovers rock and Fashion/Saxon are highlighted. Dennis Bovell reminds us that ''lovers rock is the UK sound'' and we see some irie clips of Sugar Minott, Janet Kay and Carol Thompson but, again, so many are overlooked... Peter Hunningale, Louisa Marks, Sandra Cross, Don Campbell, Kofi, Amazulu, even Maxi Priest! Good to see Tippa Irie in action on Saxon though its a shame no mention is made of the late-80s raggamuffin sound wars and no connection made to house music and the birth of rave, jungle, bassline & grime sound systems. The popular UK dub scene of the 90s is also totally ignored as is pirate radio. Adrien Sherwood's On-USound label and bands like Dub Syndicate, African Headcharge and RDF deserve a mention also.

    There is, in fact, nothing at all said about UK reggae beyond Jazzy B and Soul II Soul (sic) in 1988 and the dismal closing statement reads ''... and though reggae as we knew it had passed away, its musical descendants survive and flourish''. This mirrors Lloyd Bradley's assertion (in his book Bass Culture) that quality reggae more or less died with Bob Marley, highly contentious in the eyes of most followers of Jamaican-rooted music. Such views would only be aired here in Britain. Reggae is as relevant and popular worldwide as ever. Stage shows and festivals are regularly well attended by ever widening audiences and the business is better funded in Europe, Latin America and the US (and money is made too). It is puzzling as to why decline, characterized by the demise of Jet Star Records and buyout of Greensleeves, has been so marked in the UK or why the major broadcasters fail to spot and promote any of our contemporary British reggae talents. Why do our first rate artists, people like Lloyd Brown or Roger Robin,, The Rasi-Ites Band and rising stars like Guppy Ranks not even make it onto late night TV & radio shows like Joolz? We have very few UK artists of their vocal caliber in any musical genre, style or fashion on telly, innit! London used to be the 2nd capital of Reggae. It is now a backwater. Reggae Britannia sheds no light on this.

    This golden opportunity to really push the music and get the message out, that reggae is a current and continuous movement here in the UK, one that reaffirms and builds on its great past. That we need to embrace it as an important segment of our musical spectrum and give it the coverage it deserves (and badly requires). And that we have major reggae talent here in the UK now, has been squandered. This over-Anglicised presentation tells it from a big label viewpoint and places way too much value on commercial success, condemning UK reggae to the 'musical history' recycle bin. My disappointment is complete. We need a genuine, grassroots exploration of the subject, one that really promotes the contemporary and places it in a proper global perspective. Maximum respect to those who continue to support the music.

    The BBC concert that followed was good to watch but hardly crucial. It was great to see legends like Dave Barker, Dennis Alcapone, Big Youth and especially Ken Boothe once more. For me the special highlight was seeing Brindley Forde. Bwoy, its been too long... Winston Reedy, Rico, Nevelle Staples, The Selector and Ali Campbell were also there. There is little musical improvisation (apart from strings and an occasional big horn section) and a general big people's music vibe - a trip up memory lane, that, while pleasant enough, only goes to reinforce the idea that reggae is old music for old people. Once again, where were our younger artistes?

  • Comment number 8.

    Wot, no Bim Sherman? One of the true masters of reggae quietly lived in the UK for 20 years and made some groundbreaking Indian reggae fusion. I think its hard to get it right with a film like this, but it does appear that the filmmaker has only a surface level knowledge of the subject.
    No mention of the UK digital roots/steppers scene, which has influenced soundsystems all over the planet. And On-U Sound? Surely 35 Years of exploring the outer limits of bass surely can't go unmentioned?
    It was great to see some of the vintage footage being aired, but I feel this documentary highlights the need for someone to do a proper job of this incredible story. Independent filmmakers out there... a great opportunity for you still exists to set the record straight.

  • Comment number 9.

    Just watched Rocksteady: The roots of Reggae. In short, very disappointed! Not a mention (unless I missed it) of Duke Reid.

  • Comment number 10.

    It was nice to see that rare non performing clip of Birmingham band Beshara in 'Reggae Britannia'.

  • Comment number 11.

    OK, so finally watched Reggae Britannia. Overall I enjoyed it. Dennis Bovell is total legend. There was way too much UB40. Same for The Police. Both warrant a mention and no more. Glaring omissions included MIsty In Roots, Greensleeves, the techno/reggae crossover (e.g. Shut Up and Dance, Dreadzone), The Ruts, David 'Ram Jam' Rodigan, John Peel's unstinting support. All in all a bit lazy but still well worth watching.

  • Comment number 12.

    And On-U, of course.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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