I’m so old that I can just about remember when billionaire, tax-dodging, publicity hungry beardo Richard Branson, recently asking for other people’s money to bail out his ailing airline businesses, was kinda cool. Back then Virgin was a mail order concern selling discounted records through ads in the weekly music press. You could actually send in unwanted vinyl with your order, a reduction would be made & they would send you the new stuff. “Hippie Capitalism” maybe but if Virgin were happy to make a deal then everyone else was. At their Oxford Street shop shuffling longhairs had worn a path on the carpet of the shoe shop you passed through to get to the stairs. The old Birmingham store, on Corporation St, you knew it, there were aircraft seats, ashtrays, headphones & a Space Invaders machine. I once helped a guy trying to get his Grateful Dead tee shirts stocked there by offering to buy whatever he had in his bag! Virgin started their own record label in 1972 & the first release was Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, a phenomenon, 287 weeks on the UK Album chart. That’s like 6 months or something.
So that’s when Branson’s money pile got started. Virgin’s subsequent catalogue was mainly British & German Prog Rock alongside mavericks like Kevin Coyne, Captain Beefheart & Ivor Cutler. In 1975 they picked up U-Roy’s “Dread In A Babylon”, recorded & originally released in Jamaica, their first incursion into Reggae. Island Records had always carried the swing with regard to Jamaican music. Founder Chris Blackwell, raised on the island had local connections & after moving to the UK had supplied & then nurtured what was still a niche market. His own efforts & his company’s distribution of the Trojan label raised awareness of Reggae & his signing of both Bob Marley & the Wailers & Toots & the Maytals signalled ambitions for further growth & for Reggae to go international. Virgin used some of the Oldfield cash to invest in Jamaica’s flourishing Roots Reggae scene. Most of the albums they licensed for UK release were by artists unfamiliar to a wider audience so they compiled a sampler album, 10 tracks from 7 new records for just 69 pence (86 cents). Again if Virgin were happy with the deal then so were we, “The Front Line” became the biggest selling Reggae LP in the UK.
Oh yes, the Gladiators, “Looks Is Deceiving”. ” Goat never know the use of him tail till the butcher cut it off”. The Gladiators had been around for a while & a successful time with “Sir” Coxone Dodd at the producer’s Studio One persuaded Virgin to finance “Trenchtown Mix Up” their debut LP. Originally a vocal group, they became a band, the songs written by they founder/singer/guitarist Albert Griffiths. “…Mix Up” has great harmonies, fine upfull lyrics of Rasta philosophy & the struggle against Babylon. The competition was fierce back then & it was more distinctive music, Culture, Burning Spear & the now separate Wailers who caught wider attention. This track & the other included on “The Front Line”, “Know Yourself Mankind” still do it. The Gladiators have continued to tour & record, Albert having handed over the reins to his two sons. “The man laugh first, him nuh laugh yet the man laugh last get it full”.
Our favourite indie fleapit, the pre-gentrification Ritzy in Brixton, South London, didn’t stage many gigs. There was that Legalise Cannabis night, “Reefer Madness”, two good bands & hoping that we won the cake in the raffle because rocking down to Electric Avenue with a four foot high bong at 1 am could be awkward. I have no idea how, in the early 1980s, the Gladiators came to be booked there but it wasn’t one to miss & a fine group of friends showed out. There wasn’t the expectation we felt when going to see one of Jamaica’s superstars. We didn’t know all the tunes, we did know the Bob Marley tributes though & there was a great energy in the room & a connection between band & audience. Good live Reggae music, an informal venue, dancing in the aisles & the Ritzy’s honey, melon & stem ginger ice cream all round. A high time was had by all.
U-Roy, the Originator, the Godfather of Rap, or just Ewart Beckford had spent the 1960s as a DJ with popular sound systems who played at dances throughout Jamaica. There he perfected the art of toasting, rhythmic, sometimes improvised chatting over the hit songs of the day. His first recording, in 1969, for Keith Hudson, another artist featured on “The Front Line”, was over a John Holt song. The following year, having transferred to Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, his treatment of a Paragons hit from 1967 was a hit on the island. On “Wear You To The Ball” the transition between vocals & chat is seamless. You hear the original now & you certainly anticipate U-Roy’s commentary & interjections, “Chicka-Bow-Wow-Wow!”. He opened the door for other toasters to follow. First Dennis Alcapone & I-Roy then young guns like Big Youth, Dillinger & Trinity became known as recording artists rather than sound system guys.
Virgin did well out of “Dread In A Babylon” & it was followed by “Natty Rebel”. For the title track producer “Prince” Tony Robinson put U-Roy on to the Gladiators’ cover of the Wailers “Soul Rebel”, a track he also produced. The album is more upbeat than “Dread…” & whether his chat is philosophical, militant Rasta or jaunty & funny (“Natty Kung Fu”), U-Roy is a master of all moods, riding every rhythm perfectly. He was a pioneer, an innovator, an influence on & a virtuoso in a genre of Jamaican music. You can make further claims for U-Roy that reach beyond the island into modern 21st century music & they are probably true too.
Finally an all-time classic by Johnny Clarke who, in 1976 had been voted Jamaican artist of the year for the second successive time. Young Johnny had sung around the talent shows & with various producers before hooking up at Channel One studio with producer Bunny Lee. They began a prolific & successful partnership. A mix of conscious Rastafarian lyrics & covers of love songs established him as the foremost vocalist of the time. With studio band the Aggrovators, including Augustus Pablo, Earl “Chinna” Smith, Robbie Shakespeare & drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis, “Striker” Lee finessed the “flying cymbal”, a drum sound first heard on Johnny Clarke’s hits which quickly became the very thing in Reggae. “Declaration of Rights” with its direct lyrics of an historic reality had been a hit for the Abyssinians. It received the Johnny Clarke treatment on the rather special “Rockers Time Now” LP. In the late 1990s a workmate had grown up in Jamaica, leaving for England when he was 30. I was a willing audience for his stories about the Kingston music scene & he was surprised when I asked about Johnny & “Declaration…” one of his favourites too. I told him about “The Front Line” album.
There were four albums released by Johnny Clarke in 1975 & again in 1976. There’s plenty of his fine music to discover so don’t hang about! Mr Lee would record his tracks then send them over to the Waterhouse studio of King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock) who would work his alchemy & create a Dub version. Tubby’s Home Town Hi Fi was a top sound system before, in 1975, the police attacked & destroyed the set-up at a dance. He retreated to the controls of his small studio & his pioneering “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown” with Augustus Pablo moved Dub to the forefront of Reggae music. I do love Dub but prefer the exploratory “versions” alongside classic tunes. Click on the track above & enjoy the experience of Johnny Clarke & King Tubby together.
The success of the budget sampler encouraged Virgin to start the Front Line imprint exclusively for Reggae records. Branson went to Jamaica accompanied by the lead singer, a big Reggae fan, of his star turns the Sex Pistols. They signed some great artists & released some enduring albums. I’m going for Big Youth’s “Dread Locks Dread” but it could have been Culture, Prince Far I or either of the Roys, U & I. It didn’t last but there was no doubting the influence of the original “Front Line” sampler in spreading the word about Roots Reggae. Volumes II & III followed & now you can buy a box set of 4 CDs with the same name for £50 ($62). I’ll stick with the one for under a quid thanks.
As a lockdown bonus here’s one of the 350 singles that Johnny Clarke has released. It’s another Johnny/ Bunny Lee/King Tubby creation, from 1975, just before his bigger hits. “Rock With Me Baby” isn’t one of his conscious, cultural songs, it wasn’t all natty this, natty that, chanting down Babylon there had to be a little sweetness to nice up the dance. I knew the song from Ronnie Davis, part of his contribution to the brilliant 1979 “Gregory Isaacs meets Ronnie Davis” LP, I’ve only recently found this version & well…get on it & enjoy.