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.

Out On The Street (Notting Hill Carnival)

The August Bank Holiday means that it’s Carnival time in London. The rest of the world organise their “carne vale” or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) around the religious fast of Lent. The Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party, waits until later in the year & gives the unpredictable British weather at least a chance to make a positive contribution to the 2 days of celebration. The first Caribbean carnival cultural cabaret was an indoor event, organized in 1959 as a reaction to race relation problems & riots in West London. In 1966 a children’s street party became a procession when the steel band went walkabout. Such a spontaneous idea was too good a time to remain as a one-off & by 1975 the word was out about the best thing happening in London on a Bank Holiday weekend.

My first time at Carnival was in 1976. We joined a stream of people walking down the Portobello Rd from Notting Hill Gate to Ladbroke Grove & encountered an exhilarating blur of colourful costumes, steel pan music, dancing & people having a good time. Under the Westway flyover dub rhythms ricocheted off the concrete walls. Every street corner sound system was spinning the reggae hit of the summer, Junior Murvin’s seductive, ominous “Police & Thieves”, an instant classic produced by the master Lee Perry. After a great & different day out, in the fading light, we made our way up Ladbroke Grove. The streets were being left to the (predominantly) black youth & an increased police presence. Back then we were regulars at football matches, we knew when things were about to go off. Sure enough the next day’s banner headlines told of riots & attacks on police. 150,000 people enjoying themselves at a street festival is not news. 66 arrests (with 2 eventual convictions for carnival-related offences), that’s enough to cause a moral panic.

My wife shot a bunch of photographs of the day & developed them as colour slides (ask your grandparents). She taught in a Birmingham school with the highest proportion of Anglo-Caribbean pupils in the city & when the kids saw these photos they wanted to know just where they had been taken. After 20 years of residency their own community was still largely invisible in the mainstream media, these young Black Britons were unaccustomed to seeing their own culture celebrated. The racist shibboleth “Send them home !” was meaningless when “home” was a 50p bus ride away. “Inglan is a bitch” wrote Linton Kwesi Johnson, a multicultural one & people had better get used to it. The Notting Hill Carnival was more important than just a good day out.

In the 1980’s I was living in London & Carnival became a fixture of my (ahem !) social calendar. Attendance numbers continued to rise & every year I went with different people & had a fine time. Like “Police & Thieves” there was always a big tune that the sound boys adopted as the event’s anthem & in 1983 Arrow’s “Hot,Hot,Hot”, an irresistible soca hit, reflected Carnival’s wider Caribbean roots. It was that year we, Jackie, Mitchell & myself, made our way through the packed crowds in All Saints Rd to Meanwhile Gardens over Westbourne Park way to see Aswad play. When we arrived at the small community space there was just enough room left for the 3 of us. We were in the right place.

Aswad, Brinsley, Drummie & Gad, were a Notting Hill band. I have seen them play great sets at festivals, a Sunsplash, even the Royal Albert Hall. This was their manor, their crowd & their songs often reflected life in “a concrete situation”. Man, didn’t the hometown boys make good ! Reinforced by a veteran brass section Aswad were confident & assertive & so were the audience. I’ve never known such a connection between performers & their public. Jackie & I danced madly to the fine, fine music  with new friends (Mitchell didn’t…he don’t dance !). We left Meanwhile Gardens on a night lit up by smiling faces. The following year I saw a repeat performance in the same venue but this gig, documented on the “Live & Direct” LP, was just the greatest thing.

Through the 1990’s things had changed. Notting Hill, more than any other area in London, was super-gentrified. The eponymous movie made the place an unlikely tourist attraction. There are not too many black faces hanging out with Hugh Grant (maybe Divine Brown ?) & Julia Roberts. Carnival organisers & police, having to deal with up to a million visitors over the 2 days & concerned with an enduring reputation for disorder, introduced crowd control barriers, invited sponsorship, even considered a move into Hyde Park. The music was changing too. Under the Westway first Rap then House, Garage & Jungle was replacing the Reggae rhythms but, of course, you could still find the sounds you wanted just around the corner.

In 1997 I attended with Sue (we had first shared the experience back in 1984) & the rammed crowds on the parade route seemed more like spectators than “revellers”. We chose to spend the afternoon round & about DJ Norman Jay’s sound system, a fixture at Carnival. Norman (my favourite MBE) had been on the radar since his Shake ‘n’ Fingerpop parties, then a fine show on pirate radio Kiss FM before, in 97, joining Greater London Radio. His sets always included prime grooves, rare or otherwise, spanning all labels & decades of Black dance music. That year’s feelgood hit was the “NuYorican Soul” LP by production team Masters at Work, “Little” Louie Vega & Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez. A mix of revamped classics & new material, “It’s Alright I Feel It” by Jocelyn Brown, a great singer from back in the day, was just one of the stand out tracks. We knew that Norman would play this new anthem & so, it turned out, did half of his crowd. The place was joyous, dancing in the street, waving our hands in the air, waving like we just don’t care. Sue & I had a great day, ate some good food, saw Soul II Soul & had this Carnival moment that we had come for.

While writing this memoir I haven’t ignored the incidents of crime & disorder which prove to be so newsworthy. I lived in South London so I guess I was a tourist in Notting Hill too. I was aware of the problems between Black youth & the police, had friends who were victimised because of their colour. Plenty of times I’ve wanted a riot of my own. In 1984 the event passed off peacefully while the police were otherwise engaged with striking miners…just saying. I only bought weed at Carnival once (going unprepared), it was cool & it did the trick. There were times when I or my companions felt that we were probably in the wrong place but these were a few minutes in the many hours we were there. I would rather remember hundreds of thousands of people getting along, organising themselves & enjoying themselves, celebrating the culture of a community that has contributed so much to London’s & Britain’s life. I now live 150 miles from London & my old bones ache if I dance for too long. When August Bank Holiday comes around I wouldn’t mind getting down there & getting down one more time.