29 January 2024

My thwarted career as teenage reggae music journalist : 1972 : Jamaica

 I blame Jesse James. Though cowboys and westerns held zero interest for me, something about the record ‘Jesse James’ appealed, much as an Israeli novelty song ‘Cinderella Rockefella’ the previous year had possessed sufficient charm to become my first ever vinyl single purchase. Now, having heard this reggae tribute to the outlaw played on ‘BBC Radio One’ or ‘Radio Luxembourg’, I placed my order at the record counter on the first floor of ‘Harveys’ department store in Camberley and, within a fortnight, it arrived. There was no song, merely Laurel Aitken shouting ‘Jesse James rides again’ with gunshot effects over an incessant rhythm. Nevertheless, I had just purchased my first reggae record [Nu Beat NB 045] and I loved it. It was 1969.

After that, my reggae buying accelerated as fast as pocket money would permit. There was the intriguing instrumental single ‘Dynamic Pressure’ [London American HLJ 10309] recorded at Federal Studio, but so-named as the original had been cut by Byron Lee at his Dynamic Studio. I inexplicably bought the terrible cover version by Brit studio band The Mohawks of ‘Let It Be’ [Supreme SUP 204] for reasons I cannot recall. A recently opened second Camberley record shop in the High Street displayed a rotating stand of reggae albums from which I bought ‘The Wonderful World of Reggae’ [Music for Pleasure MFP 1355] because it cost only 14/6 for twelve tracks. I had been unaware it actually comprised (half-decent) cover versions by London session musicians of recent reggae songs heard on the radio.


In 1970, I bought several reggae singles that had reached the UK charts, including ‘Young Gifted and Black’ [Harry J HJ 6605], ‘Montego Bay’ [Trojan TR 7791] and ‘Black Pearl [Trojan TR 7790], all of which I was to discover later were cover versions of American songs. During this era prior to Jamaican sound engineers’ creation of ‘dub’, most B-sides were straight instrumental ‘versions’ of their A-sides. However, it was the occasional exceptions that offered my earliest insight into the remarkable creativity and fresh ideas issuing from Jamaica’s (and London’s) recording studios:

The B-side of ‘You Can Get If You Really Want It’ [Trojan TR 7777], a straight cover of Jimmy Cliff’s song, was a Desmond Dekker original ‘Perseverance’ with great lyrics over an amazingly fast rhythm track that came to unexpected abrupt halts. I still love it more than the A-side.

The B-side of ‘Leaving Rome’ [Trojan TR 7774], an exceptionally haunting instrumental laced with strings, was another instrumental ‘In the Nude’ with trumpet player Jo Jo Bennett double-tracked improvising over an urgent rhythm. This must have been the first ‘jazz’ recording I had heard and I loved it.

The B-side of ‘Rain’ [Trojan TR 7814], a cover of the Jose Feliciano song, had ‘Geronimo’ wrongly credited to singer Bruce Ruffin but consisted of a man shouting ‘Geronimo’ and ‘hit it’, echoed over a rhythm I later learned was by UK band The Pyramids. It was bizarre but fascinating.

Most significant was the B-side of ‘Love of The Common People’ [Trojan TR 7750], another cover version with a string arrangement overdubbed in the UK by ‘BBC Radio 2’ doyen Johnny Arthy’s orchestra. The instrumental ‘Compass’, credited to producer Joe Gibbs’ studio band ‘The Destroyers’, could not have been more different than the unrelated smooth A-side. It literally changed my life. Essentially it was a jazzy solo saxophone workout, but over an instrumental track drastically different from anything I had ever heard. The walking bass was turned up loud but had been deliberately dropped out of the mix on occasions. The continuous rhythm track had been filtered to leave only its high frequencies and then echo added, making the result impossible to determine which instruments were playing. The whole thing was bathed in enough reverb to sound as if was recorded in a bathroom.

For me, ‘Compass’ was a really radical production, emphasising the bassline and using studio effects to contort other instruments into sounds that were unrecognisable and ethereal. The sound engineer (likely Winston ‘Niney’ Holness at Gibbs’ studio in Duhaney Park, Kingston) had transformed a typical reggae rhythm track recorded (for an unrecognisable song) onto four-track tape into something completely different and incredibly creative, using only a standard mixing desk and some basic electronic effects. It was the first example I had heard of a ‘mix’ that had not tried to reproduce musical instruments as they sounded naturally, but to have deliberately distorted them into unnatural noises that created a whole new audio experience. It was the first track I had heard that stripped a recording down to so few elements: a pumping bass, a bizarre ultra-tinny ‘clop-clop’ rhythm and a booming saxophone. ‘Compass’ was a harbinger of ‘drum and bass’ mixes which reggae would soon pioneer (the first occasion I saw this term used was the B-side of Big Youth’s 1973 single ‘Dock of The Bay’ [Downtown DT 497]).

More than anything, it was ‘Compass’ that hooked me onto reggae at the age of twelve. I played that B-side at home hundreds of times but was desperate to hear more recordings like it. Not easy when you live thirty miles outside of London. Instead, my reggae research started in earnest. From the ‘Recordwise’ record shop owned by Adam Gibbs opposite my school in Egham, I collected weekly new singles release pamphlets distributed to retailers and stared longingly at the many titles of new reggae releases, more of which were issued in the UK during this period than all other music genres added together. I joined the shop’s ‘record library’ which loaned vinyl albums to customers for a fortnight for a small charge. I soon ‘worked’ in that shop during lunchtimes as my knowledge about popular music was becoming encyclopaedic. But, above all, I became obsessive about reggae.

I wrote to ‘Trojan Records’, one of London’s two major reggae distributors, requesting information and was invited to join the newly created ‘Trojan Appreciation Society’ run by two female fans. For my subscription fee, I received monthly Roneo-ed newsletters, some free records and a huge gold metal medallion imprinted with the company’s logo attached to an imitation gold chain, which I wore to school every day under my white school shirt and striped tie for the next five years … until the gold paint had worn off on my chest. I had a fold-out double-sided A2 sheet of all Trojan’s past releases, listed by each of its myriad of weird and wonderful record labels, which I would peruse in awe for hours. I so wanted to hear all this wonderful music, but how?

My luck was in. I was already an avid fan of ‘BBC Radio London’ when it launched Britain’s first ever reggae radio show, ‘Reggae Time’ hosted by Steve Barnard on Sunday lunchtimes. To the chagrin of my mother’s attempts to serve our family’s Sunday dinner, I would sit listening with headphones plugged into our hi-fi system, cataloguing a list of every record played each week from the very first show, recording songs onto cassettes. It was my much-needed window into the world of reggae and enabled me to enjoy almost two hours of new releases weekly, interviews with artists and dates of sound system events (inevitably all in London). Doing my homework on weekday nights, I would listen to my cassettes over and over again until I knew the songs by heart. From then, my pocket money was used to buy less well-known reggae records beyond those in the charts and played on mainstream radio. My personal reggae ‘wants list’ inevitably grew longer and longer.

Somehow, I discovered the existence of a music and entertainment magazine published in Jamaica named ‘Swing’. I may have finally identified its address in an international publishing directory in the local library, sending them cash for a subscription and henceforth received monthly copies by air mail. Along with interviews and features, it published advertisements for record shops and record labels in Jamaica, offering a first-hand insight into the island’s reggae industry. I devoured each A4 colour issue and treasured them like valuable artefacts.

My parents’ hands-off attitude to childrearing allowed me to pursue my interest in reggae without interference. From the Camberley High Street record shop, I bought another 1970 compilation ‘Tighten Up Volume 3’ [Trojan TTL 32] for 15/6, this time comprising twelve amazing original recordings. It became the first of many album purchases on ‘Trojan Records’. When I Blu-Tacked onto my bedroom wall its daring poster of a full-length naked woman daubed with the album’s song titles, my parents did not even blink. My mother even liked some of the reggae records I played loudly on the hi-fi system in our open-plan living room, particularly ‘Leaving Rome’.

In 1972, my father announced that he had booked a family winter holiday for the five of us to Jamaica, paid for with cash proceeds from dodgy property deals with his latest business partner Bill Beaver. He had shown no prior interest in my music and probably had no idea this was where reggae originated. It was just a lucky coincidence. Until then, the furthest our family had vacationed was Spain, making this our first long-haul destination. I was over the moon. While my family sunbathed on the beach, MY objective would be to travel to Kingston and explore the reggae music industry. I started to write out an address list of all the recording studios and record shops whose names I had found printed on record labels, album sleeves and in ‘Swing’ magazine.

As an avid reader of Charlie Gillett’s column in ‘Record Mirror’, I had ordered his 1970 book ‘The Sound of the City’ and been amazed to realise it was possible to write about popular music in a scholarly and meticulously researched format. Establishment voices then considered ‘pop music’ frivolous and worthless, condemning it as ephemeral, while their favoured classical music was deemed valuable and enduring. Gillett’s paperback opened my eyes, became my musical ‘bible’ for years to come and changed my life’s direction. I wanted to write about reggae in the same passionate yet factual way that Gillett had documented American black music so brilliantly. I already knew the names of reggae’s producers, recording studios, record labels and artists. A ‘research’ trip to Jamaica would complete the jigsaw puzzle.

I owned a Bush portable cassette recorder with microphone I would take with me to record interviews. I had a Kodak Instamatic camera and I might be able to borrow my father’s Canon Dial 35mm camera. Although I had no contacts in Jamaica, my plan was to find and hang out at the addresses I had researched. At that time, almost no journalist in Britain was writing about reggae music. Although I lacked formal training beyond my English GCE, I was already a competent writer and believed, on my return to Britain, I could approach music publications to interest them in my unique content. I could be a young reggae music journalist. I might have been a na├»ve fourteen-year-old, but it seemed an exciting prospect.

Then, weeks before we were due to fly to the Caribbean, my father suddenly told us he was leaving our home. I had observed my parents’ relationship recently dogged by shouting, arguments and violence, but he offered no explanation of where or why he was going. Only afterwards did we learn from our gobsmacked neighbour Mark Anthony that my father had run off with his recent teenage bride to set up house in a posh part of Weybridge. As suddenly as it had been announced, our family holiday to Jamaica was withdrawn. My father did take the vacation, but without his (former) family and instead accompanied by who knows. I was left with my list of Jamaican addresses and a working holiday plan that was in tatters.

In the years that followed, reggae was suddenly ‘discovered’ by the mainstream music press that sent journalists, sometimes knowing next to nothing about the music, to Jamaica to report on the industry there. Weeklies ‘NME’ and ‘Melody Maker’ splashed reggae artists on their front covers. More knowledgeably, Carl Gayle wrote excellently in the ground-breaking ‘Black Music’ magazine launched in December 1973. Dave Hendley started a ‘Reggae Scene’ column in fortnightly ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine. An amazing A5 fanzine ‘Pressure Drop’ was launched from Camden in 1975 by Nick Kimberley, Penny Reel and Chris Lane with a penchant I shared for lists, such as its original discography of Big Youth singles.

I read all these writers’ reggae articles avidly and was pleased to see my favourite music now exposed to a wider audience. However, my appreciation was tinged with sorrow that I had no involvement in this ‘movement’ despite the knowledge I had acquired since buying my first reggae record in 1969. It was hard not to occasionally entertain the jealous notion that 'it should have been me' (as the song goes). Instead, my time and resources were diverted by unexpectedly bearing the mantle of eldest of three siblings in a one-parent family while my mother held a full-time day job and cleaned offices during evenings. My ambition to write about reggae had to be put on hold until attending university in 1976 … by which time reggae music had suffered press overkill and ‘punk’ was the next big thing.

My passion for reggae continues to this day. Listening to ‘Compass’ now still makes me shiver. Four decades after buying that single and playing it to death, I accidentally discovered its original vocal version was ‘Honey’ by Slim Smith [Unity UN 542], a truly unremarkable song that had masked a remarkable rhythm track. For me, that remains one of the enduring wonders of discovering reggae’s multiple versions.

[Click on the record labels to hear their music. I curate several reggae playlists on Spotify.]

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