Dreadlocks In Derry (Lee Perry)

I didn’t really need an excuse to return to Derry, on my two previous visits not only friends but everyone I met seemed happy to see me & to share stories. It had been 10 months since the last time so a concert by Lee “Scratch” Perry, a musical legend whose influence extends beyond his chosen field of Reggae, was a perfect focal point around which another long weekend could be planned. The gig was on March 18th & apparently, I don’t keep up with these things, the day before is St Patrick’s Day, a rather big deal to the Irish. Shoot, it was a dead stone bonker that this would be hectic…so let’s go !

Image result for lee perry“Dub Revolution Part 1”, the first track on the 3 CD “Arkology”, the ultimate collection of Scratch’s work at his Black Ark studio round the back of his house in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. In this yard he practised nothing less than alchemy to pioneer techniques that anyone with a laptop now takes for granted & to produce music of unrivalled  imagination & quality. If ever I was exiled to a desert island & could only take one piece of music then it would be “Arkology”. Lee Perry’s rhythms demand that your hips sway, the conscious lyrics are from & for the heart & his Dub explorations hit upside your head. It’s a perfect package with sunshine in the grooves.If you could grow weed on that island then that would be nice but this music would still get you as high as that palm tree.

The gig in Derry was the day before Scratch’s 81st birthday so he probably wouldn’t be leaping around the stage (I know I won’t be at that age). Much of his best work was done in his producer’s booth. We were not sure what exactly we were going to get  but we would be sharing oxygen with Lee Perry, a legend, a man who’s bona fides justified the tag “genius” & that was enough. So, after Ireland’s surprise victory over England at rugby (I was the only Englishman in the packed bar. That was interesting, I thought these people were my friends!) we made our way to the Nerve Centre buoyed by an anticipatory buzz.


We were not disappointed, The 4-piece band played us into the room. They were the Upsetters, not Scratch’s original house  group but as his backing band they have the right. Back in 1969 the woman lucky enough to become my wife had spent the money from her Saturday job on “The Return of Django” by the Upsetters, Perry’s first UK hit, on the day I met her. It was Love at first sight…with the record, the rest came later. Reggae gigs smell  a little differently nowadays with the ban on smoking, the star of the night entered to acclaim from the big crowd. He’s a small man, big coat, big hat. He looked happy to be there & we were happy to see him.

One of the things about Lee Perry’s music is that he does the simple things beautifully. Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt So Good” (1975) is perfect Pop Reggae while Max Romeo’s LP “War Ina Babylon” (1976) showed that rather than setting the controls to the heart of the Dub, powerful, passionate music just needs strong songs & a wonderful groove. Tonight we got “Chase the Devil” from that record, “Police & Thieves” came around too & man that hit the right spot. What we didn’t get was an old man trying to recreate past glories note for note & word for word. He rode the rhythm smoothly, maybe chatting whatever came to him in the moment & he never missed a beat, a rhythm rapper, comfortable on stage, showing off his bright red hair. You could hear why Lee Perry is such a great producer, he knows what is in a song & he knows how that song goes.

Image result for lee perryOf course Scratch was instrumental in the early career of Bob Marley & the Wailers. His set included his versions of “Punky Reggae Party”, “Crazy Baldhead” & “Sun is Shining” before closing with a driving encore of “Exodus”. Again these were echoes of the tunes we know, with only a whisper of Dub. Lee Perry is the Dub Adventurer but that is for another time. We did see the natural mystic & we heard some great Roots Reggae. I don’t get around much anymore but if there are places where there are as many smiling faces as tonight at the Nerve Centre then perhaps I should be there too.

OK…so much things to say. My hosts & fellow concert-goers, Joe & Gayle, don’t need a shout out (oh, I just did !) I think they know just how much I value their company. On the bus from Belfast Laura & Shirley, two Glaswegians on a mission to drink Derry dry, insisted that I be included in their fun. The following day I was able to return the favour & they squeezed into a packed Sandinos bar to join my small circle of friends in celebrating St Patrick. They fitted right in.

Finally Derry has lost two of its favourite sons in the past 48 hours. Martin McGuinness was radicalised by the growing demand for civil rights in his community & the violent response by armed forces employed by the British government in the late 1960s. Until January of this year he served as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. His struggle & his progress embodies that of the community into which he was born. Ryan McBride was born in Derry in 1989, different times. On Saturday he captained the city’s football team, the Candystripes, to victory & was found dead at his home the next day. Out here on the perimeter of my country, Derry has an individual, often troubled history. It welcomes strangers with an open hand & with respect. It keeps a special place for those of their own who make a difference because it is a special place.


Music and movies (Reggae)

In 1995 a group of young French film makers showed a side of Paris, a city known for culture & romance, that few tourists or cinema-goers had seen before. “La Haine” (The Hate) is about the lives of young working class youths living on the grim estates, the “banlieues”, on the periphery of the city. It is a cold eyed, beautifully filmed, life in a day of 3 friends in the aftermath of a riot. The opening credits set the tone.

Despite the disruption, even devastation, in your own neighbourhood there’s a sense of empowerment for a community involved in a riot. People who burn & loot act out of frustration, seeing themselves excluded from & discriminated against by those who make decisions which affect their lives. In 1981, even though I lived in the area, I had little involvement in the Brixton riots. I am white, I had a job, I could walk the streets at night without fear of police harassment, it was not my fight. The people I knew who were out on the streets felt that a point had been made.  The racist policies of the police would not stand, it was time to get up, stand up.

“La Haine” captures that time when choices are to be made. A youth with an attitude knows that getting hold of a gun changes his optionsHis friend, sick of violence met with violence, knows that it is time to speak his piece. It’s a gritty, grainy movie, as tough as it needs to be. Writer-director Mathieu Kassowitz captures the cultural & racial mix of modern France while we also got to see the talent of Vincent Cassell for the first time. In 2008 Cassell had his de Niro moment in the double header “Mesrine” movies. Those of us who had followed him since “La Haine” knew that he was one of the great cinema actors of his time. The dread, beat & blood of “Burning & Looting” establishes this uncompromising, militant & modern European movie.

In 1990 I had that riot of my own when a massive demonstration against the Poll Tax was, at first, badly supervised & then physically attacked. As we fought & won running battles with an outnumbered police force there was an exhilaration around Central London. I felt no desire to damage property or to steal from shops but I did want to assert my right to live in my own city on my own terms. The defeat of the police, violent defenders of an unpopular government tax, made the world look a little different when we walked through the middle of our city the next day. We did not know it at the time but our first female Prime Minister was taking her first steps as a dead woman walking that day.

Now your English skinhead movie is obviously not going to be as serious as the bloody French one. It sure isn’t “American History X” either. The opening montage of “This Is England”, a 2006 masterpiece by Shane Meadows, has plenty of social division, violence & war with enough footage of the recently deceased instigator of social disintegration & conqueror of the Falklands. There’s also Roland Rat, Space Invaders, Rubik’s Cube & a Royal Wedding. The shiny distracting baubles waved before us while those who create the wealth by their labour get shafted. I could spin you one about bread & circuses, about how nothing has changed in 30 years but I could put it no better than our Scorsese of the English provinces, “This Is England”.

So while “54-46 Was My Number” has Toots & the Maytals singing about life in prison it is not chanting down Babylon. It’s a dance yourself dizzy, skinhead boot stomp. Now your roots reggae hits the hips as well as the head but your Ska is more don’t think just dance. & that’s no criticism. British youth cults have always had their own dance music. The Ska revival of the early 1980s excavated & made its own great sounds. I can say little about “This Is England”, a film set in 1983 with a connection to such wonderful earlier British films as “Kes” &  “Scum” while still apposite to the personal & political in the 21st century. It has got to be seen.

Some time in 1970s Birmingham, in an off-Broad St fleapit (the Futurist ? Anyone ?), I saw Perry Henzell’s film “The Harder They Come”. Handsworth had come to the city centre. A packed audience, raised on Dirty Harry Callahan & Bruce Lee cheered Jimmy Cliff as rough, tough, survivin’ Ivan in a gritty, fresh vibrant snapshot of Island Life. Any chat about reggae in movies has to include this great film & a soundtrack LP in everyone’s Top 10 list. But…don’t watch that , watch this.

Director Ted Bafaloukos went to Jamaica to make a documentary about reggae culture. “Rockers” (1978) was given a thin Bicycle Thieves meets Robin Hood storyline & was released at the pictures as a drama. Studio One drummer “Horsemouth” Wallace starred in this cool, intimate portrait of life in JA, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Robbie Shakespeare & others may not be the best actors but are great musicians.

This outstanding clip captures one of the island’s legends. Winston Rodney, known as Burning Spear, is one of reggae’s most spiritual artists, his connection to Africa in both his lyrics & his rhythms closer than most. Here he performs an acapella version of “Jah No Dead” a song from the “Social Living” LP, one of the outstanding run of records he released. To see the young Spear, to hear his sinuous passion. Well praise the divinity of your choice that someone was around to point  camera at this incredible performance. me, I’ll go with Jah because if Burning Spear believes that Jah lives then I’m not arguing. Nominated for best musical performance at the Academty Awards ? In our dreams.

Two Aquarians

Today, February 6th, is the birthday of two people who have been an influence upon my life. My mother, Rita Wright (nee Copson), was born on this day in 1933. She was just 19 years old when I was born, the first of 5 children. As I became aware of new ideas, of a world outside of my small provincial town & of the possibility of my own participation in these, Mum was ancient…at least 35 !

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I left home when I was 18 with the blessing of my family, the first of the extended family to attend university. I was assembling my wordly goods with Mum just days before my departure & sensed that she was a little quiet. I asked if there was anything wrong & she said “Well, you’re going aren’t you”. I was surprised, I knew she was proud of my academic achievements &, even though I was a little caught up with my own adventure, I thought that one less body around our crowded house would make her life a little easier. I explained this last part & she said, “But you have always been here”. And so I had & so had she. I stepped outside of my teenage narcissism & recognized the constant & important presence we were for each other.

There had, like all eldest sons, been rough times with my Dad in my teenage years, probably rougher for me than for him. Years later my Dad told me of the frustration he felt & how, late at night, he would voice his criticism of my  often willful behaviour (an inheritance from…well, guess where). He said, still surprised, that Mum would always defend me, always take my side. This was as open as Dad had ever been with me but I could only reply, “Dad, don’t you know that I already knew that”.

I have often been confused by the relationship between my friends & their parents. This is because I was raised in a hectic family where sharing & laughter were essential parts. It did not have to be said out loud but all 5 of us grew up knowing that we were loved. At the heart of this happiness was a woman who, I think, was a wonderful human being. This, I remember, was one of her favourite songs.

Image result for bob marleyOK, it’s the birthday of Bob Marley too. I first saw the Wailers in 1973, on their first tour of the UK. I love reggae, love to find little-known dub plates & I’m still finding terrific songs from the 1970s which I have never heard. Without Marley this militant, conscious, righteous music would not have spread around the world. In the Summer of 1977 “Exodus” was everywhere, on the radio, from passing cars & on the turntable of everyone I knew. It is music of passion & beauty that makes the world a better place to be, This tune is no assertive indictment of oppression because today is a day for love songs.

Wisdom Is Found In The Simplest Of Places (Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer)

I was on a train from Manchester to Birmingham, an old school “Strangers On A Train” train with compartments for 6 people. The other young guy in there  didn’t speak but our quiet journey was interrupted at Stoke when we were joined by 3 black kids, a Rasta (it was a fashion at the time) and his younger acolytes. They immediately got down to it and began to build a couple of spliffs. I was not going to miss an opportunity to smoke up the collie with the bredren so put my hand in the way and intercepted the joint as it was passed across. A little presumptive on my part maybe. I had better produce some credentials and sharpish. From my bag I took out an LP that, at the time, went everywhere with me. Any problem with this cheeky white bwoy was solved.

“Blackheart Man” is the first LP Bunny Wailer released after leaving the Wailers. The story of the three Wailers is told in Colin Grant’s fine book “I and I: The Natural Mystics”. As in Lloyd Bradley’s earlier history of reggae “Bass Culture” the social and political development of Jamaica is inevitably entwined with the music. The story of these young men, as close as brothers, is a fascinating one. They presented a united front against tribulation because they shared a belief in and a passion about the music they created. When the wider world came calling  there were differences about how to deal with Babylon. Bunny decided to stay in Jamaica then Peter Tosh left the group which had become Bob Marley and the Wailers. Spurred, I’m sure, by the desire to prove they could each stand alone each man delivered an LP which marked the point that reggae music had to be considered around the world not just in Jamaica and the UK.

This title song “Blackheart Man” tells of the fable warning children to “tikya” of strangers making a parallel with the ostracism of Rastafari by Jamaican society. Bunny’s lyricism, his calm, almost understated, declaration of his own beliefs makes it a powerful, convincing and uplifting work. The guy on the train handed my LP to his younger mates, “This”, he said, “tis a spiritual ting”, and he was right.

Bunny had provided harmonies and percussion in the Wailers. It is the attention paid to these flourishes which make the music on “Blackheart Man” more mellifluous than the anthems of Bob Marley (which are sweet enough). While no less an advocate of Rasta and opponent of oppression than his militant, proselytizing confederates, lyrically he concerned himself with a revolution of the spirit as much as of worldly things. Three of the 10 songs are concerned with the possibility of an ideal way of living. A fresh take on the gospel classic “This Train” closes the LP. “Dreamland” is a reverie on a Rasta African homeland and this track “Fig Tree” is a similar reflection on finding a paradise on earth. Now I’m a cynical man firmly anchored in the material world but songs as open and as fresh as this will make me think. I am not the first to make the point but there is a touch of William Blake, of the romantic visionary, about Jah Bunny.

“Fig Tree” contains the lyric “every man is a man and every mickle mek a muckle”. For years I admired this integration of Jamaican patois into the song. I was watching the great 1962 film “Billy Liar”, set in West Yorkshire, and was surprised to hear that very same phrase used. Say what !…this Scottish/Northern English saying was first recorded in the writings of George Washington in 1793 ! And I thought it was a Trenchtown thing y’knaa.

Bunny Wailer continues to make music and has made other great LPs but “Blackheart Man” is, in his own opinion, the most complete realisation of his musical and lyrical concerns. It is one of the great LPs, not just in reggae. My own admiration for him as a man and musician has endured for a long time now and will continue to do so. Listening to “Fighting Against Conviction” with it’s positive vibrations despite the struggles of life, with it’s sinuous Wailers’ groove and harmonies from brother Peter Tosh, makes a point more succinctly than I could ever hope to.

So, our conversation on the train was cut short as we entered the outskirts of Birmingham. We said our goodbyes as the boys were riding the rails and left to jump from the train before it reached New Street station. The compartment was filled with a lovely fug of marijuana smoke and I smiled to myself at the welcome and unexpected turn the journey had taken. Now I would have to get my stoned butt into shape to negotiate a crowded Friday night commuter crowd…oh shit. I took a few deep breaths and tried to centre my chakras, or whatever was necessary for me to put one foot in front of the other, when I was asked about the Bunny Wailer record. What the f…? There had been someone else in the compartment all the time. He had pulled his newspaper around his head and made himself invisible as soon as the others had joined us. He had done a good job too…I had forgotten about him. I was polite and answered his query but come on. There was a smoke to be shared, some good talk about life and music with some strangers and he had chosen to hide. That is not the way to live. As Bunny sings in “Reincarnated Souls”, “he who has eyes to see, let him look yonder”. Peace.



Kinky reggae believe it, Kinky reggae now.

Student gigs could be pretty free form in the early 70s. A benefit for the cause of the week could have 20 bands in two adjacent venues running for 15 hours. You could spend all night walking between them vainly looking for something listenable. There were also the great ones. Dr John, in full Night Tripper regalia seemed to enter from another more magical world. At a time when sitting cross legged and nodding along was the norm I saw, the J. Geils Band demand that we dance and play a storming set of soul blues. My girlfriend and her mate recovered their admission picking up money spilled from carelessly abandoned clothing.
You had to expect the haphazard and the unexpected though. Syd Barrett (I think & hope it was him) stormed off stage after a row with a roadie just as he was about to start his set. Captain Beefheart and the “Clear Spot” Magic band had a P.A. the venue could not handle (Yes I have known heartbreak in my life). John Martyn took a spliff from the audience, broke a string and was too wasted to change the bloody thing !
The campus had empty halls and anyone who wanted could put a gig together. The film Society ran one on Tuesday May 8th 1973. Three movies and a band , all night, on a Tuesday , lovely, a multi-media extravaganza. The chairman of the society was a good mate. I stayed at his home in Willesdon many times. His Irish mum never let me leave without a full Irish fry up in my belly and the bus fare in my pocket. I adored the woman. Frank booked a band cheaply, they were having trouble getting bookings because they were thought to attract a skinhead following.
So I watched two movies one of which was “Quiet days In Clichy”. “ Joey and Carl fuck, suck and eat their way through Paris” (Time Out) .Refused a UK certificate but we were a private society so we could see private parts. Then I saw the band .Bob Marley and the Wailers… the bloody “Catch A Fire” Wailers. The Marley/Tosh/Livingstone Wailers walked onto a bare stage. Five of them gathered around a small man who played bongos .They invoked inspiration with the primordial “Rastaman Chant”. Audiences were open- minded in those days. The unexpected is often the best. We appreciated it respectfully. The small man who I now know as Bunny Wailer, an inspiration to me for half my life, put down the bongos and the band took up their places on stage.

Reggae had been along with Motown the youth club/disco music of my youth. I loved to dance to it. We now heard the more mature conscious reggae which has become so much part of our musical lives. I would love to tell you that I recognised “ Lively Up Yourself “ and “ Get Up Stand Up”. Six years later I saw Tosh play “ 400 years” and thought I was in heaven. The only tune I really knew was “Stir It Up”. The sound then had the wacka-wacka guitar at its core, the change to Family Man’s bass drive, key to making the music more commercial, was yet to come.
But what a band they were. The rimshots from Carlton Barrett filling the spaces in the loping rhythm. The harmonies of the three singer-bredren. The Impressions with a Trenchtown filter. At the centre a small man, woolly hat over his early dreads, leading his gang into strange new territory because of his belief in the strength of the music they were making and could make in the future.
The only link between the band and the audience was the drug of choice. Hashish for the watchers, a herbal version for the musicians. I was accompanying the most striking Scottish woman. Seriously batting above my average there. We danced to the whole set. Can you imagine these white students dancing to these new rhythms ? If you do you will not sleep well tonight. It was 3 maybe 4 a.m. and life gets little better than a beautiful dance partner and a bit of Bob. I found that out this night. Repeat of similar dosage never failed to delight.
The last movie was “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones”, the antidote to Altamont. Jagger being very careful to not summon up the Devil this time around. When we left it was morning. Spring in the air and in our step. We didn’t know we had seen a future superstar but had enjoyed a different music , a new rhythm.

Frank , the organizer, was a dude. He introduced me to London, to the films of Bunuel & to conscious reggae. All of these things have had a major influence…cheers mate.
I saw Bob Marley’s last appearance in Britain at the Crystal Palace Bowl. His reggae on steroids anthems now filled stadiums on every continent on the planet. We went to see an icon and we got one. It was a good day but I thought back to when it started and a bit of the Kingston dance hall had thrilled our lecture theatre. I think I preferred that.. JAH RASTAFARI !