Hold Them Marcus Hold Them (Burning Spear)

Who feels it, knows it…Indeed.

Burning Spear came to us as part of the roots reggae abundance after Bob Marley & the Wailers had trailblazed for the Rasta rhythms. Marley’s “Live !” was the gift to give or to get for Xmas 1975. Before Bob the only reggae LPs you were likely to find in your friends’ collections were some of the 8 “Tighten Up” compilations from Trojan or “1000 volts of (John) Holt” a sweet & dandy reggaefiction of the middle of the road. Island Records, with a Jamaican owner, had a head start &  some fine artists. Virgin went over there &, seemingly, signed up everyone else. . Their “Front Line” sampler, just 69p ($1.15), included classics by the likes of U Roy & Johnny Clarke. New LPs by Max Romeo (“War In A Babylon”) & Burning Spear had such a unity (inity…anyone ?) of musical confidence & lyrical commitment that you could not help but know that something interesting was happening in Jamaica.

Reggae had never been reticent about idiosyncratic expedition but Spear’s album “Marcus Garvey” had a distinctive, special  otherness. The cream of the island’s players made their way to Jack Ruby’s place at Ocho Rios, the only studio outside of Kingston. Not a journey or a note was wasted. The music had an earthiness but it was not  simple or unsophisticated it was passionate. It was double pastoral, of the pasture & the pastor. A relentless logic in the rhythms, an assertive spiritual urgency in the lyrics. The closest to Africa of these new sounds. Boy, “Marcus Garvey” was irresistible. When Winston Rodney sang “Give me what is mine” it was time to hand it over.

The LP captured our heads, hearts & hips & then, just 4 months later, “Garvey’s Ghost” was released. Dub Reggae was no “what’s it doing & what does it want ?” alien strain of music. We knew about this stuff, knew that when reggae stretched out it was about the drum & the bass. There had been dub records in the Top 10…Skanga ! In 1976 “Garvey’s Ghost” & “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” brought the dub from the blues party down the road  into your living room where it has remained a welcome guest. I know the record was mixed in the concrete jungle of Hammersmith, a suburb of Babylon. I know that there is dispute & divergence about who did what to the final release mixes of both “Marcus Garvey” and its dub “Ghost”. All we had was what was on the vinyl. The shadow versions sounded more than fine as a stand alone record but the reference points of the original record made this rhythmic recycling a delight. I spent too much time in need of a third hand trying to drop the needle on the record & press “play” on the cassette machine aiming for the perfect tape mix of these tunes.

This burst of Rasta reggae did get heard. The next 2 summers were soundtracked by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & “Exodus”. Don Letts, DJ at the Roxy club started a punky reggae party, a braid of anti-establishment, militant musics which spread around UK punk hangouts. Black American music had almost given up on the Funk, hitching its wagon to the shiny, smooth dance-yourself-dizzy Disco Train. The lovely, liquid, stoned chug of Dreadlock Reggae convergent with militant, conscious, sectarian lyrics triumphed on twin fronts, sustaining a tradition of great floor-filling tunes which were talking loud & saying something.

Burning Spear seemed to be part of  the tradition of Jamaican vocal trios. The music made by Curtis Mayfield with the Impressions, soulful, spiritual harmonies were very influential on the islands singers. Spear, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds & others were coming up to join a long distinguished list topped by the Heptones, the Wailers & the Maytals. “Marcus Garvey” & the next release “Man In The Hills” credited the harmony vocals of Delroy Hinds & Rupert Willington though it was the rich, fervent lead of Winston Rodney which made the songs distinct & impressive. Winston Rodney became Burning Spear and he still is. His next LPs featured his righteous hymns to Rastafari, direct truths concerning both joy & oppression which I would love to squeeze in here but hey, we have not got all day…soon come.

Just as listening to & appreciating the militant funk from black American musicians did not make you a Black Panther a fathoming of this music needed no homage to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, conquring Lion of the tribe of Judah. This was never a matter of cultural tourism. If you lived in a British city at this time then you heard this music in clubs, at friends’ houses, from the open windows of passing cars. Among your friends, those children of immigrants, the first generation of Black Britons, all considered the relevance of Rasta to their experience of growing up in a racist society. My workmate Horace, who previously sported a Jackson 5 ‘fro, showed up with baby dreads one Monday…yeah man ! White guys with locks ? I spit in their general direction, follow fashion monkey losers ! Burning Spear was in the vanguard of conscious, eloquent, purposeful music which was given a fair hearing becuse those qualities, combined with cool, deadly dance rhythms are just what you need. Good (& high) times.




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.