In 1976 we went up to the Notting Hill Carnival, the Bank Holiday celebration of Caribbean culture, for the first time. West London was rammed, a riot of colour & noise, people dancing in the street to the tune of the Summer, Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves”. There was tension bubbling between the youth & the police as we left & the headlines the next day were of riot & trouble. The Clash left that day wanting a riot of their own. We had a fine day out & knew we would return for more of this good stuff.
At this time my wife was teaching in a Birmingham school in which the pupils were predominantly of Afro-Caribbean origin. She took her photos into school to show the kids. There were two reactions. The girls wanted the phone number of a friend of ours who they thought was cute. They also wanted to know where the photos were taken. They did not make the connection between the sight of so many people who were the same colour as they were and the country in which they lived. These children were the first generation of Black Britons & just down the road, in Handsworth, a young group of musicians were adroitly expressing this experience in their tunes.
Steel Pulse were Birmingham’s boys, formed by friends from the Handsworth Wood school. I worked with their sound guy, Horace, & would see him sleep-walk through the mornings after late-night returns from gigs. He brought me the “Nyah Love” single on Anchor Records & the 1977 “Live at the Hope & Anchor” LP on which the band had a track among the pub-rockers & the punks. A contract with Island Records followed & Horace left our office with a contract in his back pocket…the school band done good. The first LP, “Handsworth Revolution” (1978), was just the ticket. There was anger , conviction & some seriously good tunes. “Tribute To The Martyrs” followed, it was so great that a young British reggae band were this good. Punk & Reggae were a good fit, the band found a wide audience.
Steel Pulse went international, the sound got bigger, the songs, while still roots reggae, a little less specific, more universal. This clip of the first single “Ku Klux Klan”, a warning about the dangers on British streets for young black men, shows that Pulse had got it going on right from the beginning. I always loved to hear them dub it up in concert & they do ir here so smooth & sweet. Last year I bought their “Reggae Greats” compilation on Island & reminded myself of just how good they were.
Fast forward to Carnival 1983. We are in a packed park, Meanwhile Gardens. An afternoon of people watching, eating dancing and osmosing the vibes was geared towards arriving at the park in time to see Aswad. Another group of school friends who played reggae about the British experience. Aswad took a little longer than Pulse to make their mark but Notting Hill was their manor, their crowd. As dusk became night Aswad played to their people. The group had added a horn section (including veteran players Vin Gordon and “Tan Tan Thornton) which reinforced the confidence, the assertiveness of the music. These attributes were shared by the audience. There was delight and celebration that the local boys were this good. Every tune was a winner. Extra percussion arrived onstage for a soca tune, it was received with such abandon that the band played it twice. The Rockers Medley of hits inna Aswad style added to the feeling that this night was unique. As we danced and cheered together I have never known such a connection, a unity of audience and musicians. When it was over we said our goodbyes to people we had danced with and would never meet again. It was more than smiles that lit the August night it was the glow from a tiny patch of West London.
An LP “Live & Direct” was released of the gig, a fine memento. I have seen Aswad play at festivals, on the night of my 30th birthday, at a Sunsplash & one superb night when the roots rockers went uptown to the Royal Albert Hall. They never disappointed but that August night was unforgettable.
We were spoiled in London in the 1980s. We came away from Aswad shows convinced that we had seen the best of British reggae & then we would see Misty In Roots. Their 1979 “Live at Counter Eurovision” LP had a lot of airplay on John Peel’s radio show & deservedly so. Misty, from North West London were a wonderful live band. This clip is too short but it was pretty much this gentle, uplifting chug all the way. It was truly a spiritual thing, no show just a heartfelt exposition of their truth. Man, you could not get a Rizla paper between them & Aswad when they were at their best. One night I saw Misty steal a big show at the Brixton Academy from Johnny Osbourne with a great set. On a summer Sunday afternoon, after a free concert in a Brixton park, I would have floated all the way home if I could only remember where I lived.
I saw many of the great Jamaican artists, listened to more of them. These homegrown acts all made some equally fine music (a mention here for Dennis Bovell & Matumbi), we were able to see them more often. Seeing Steel Pulse in Birmingham & Aswad in West London were absolutely exhilarating times as their crowds celebrated the local boys made good.