If there appears to be an air of trepidation hanging over tonight's Blog it's because I'm wading into uncharted musical territories and writing about music that I'm not 100% au fait with. I can easily write about Indiepop or Crass or The Monkees without any fear of the Pop Pedantry Police coming knocking at the door, but tonight I am writing about Reggae and in particular that form of Reggae that evolved in the early 1980s known as 'Toasting'.
Thanks to John Peel and the coalition with Punk, I'm not entirely ignorant of Reggae and do like a fair amount of it, but in no way could I ever claim to be a connoisseur of the subject, and therefore if my Blog tonight is riddled with inaccuracies and blatant naivete then I apologise up front about any discrepancies or signs of ignorance. I hope that you will understand that I compose this Blog, like all my previous Blogs, purely through pashernate love of the music covered.
As this is a 'Musical Prozac' Blog, all the songs featured are songs that bring a big Cheshire cat grin to my rather dour chops, thus being my main reason for covering them tonight.
We begin with the rather superb 'Here I Come' by Barrington Levy.
Now, rather oddly, I was introduced to this track by Tony 'Dead Eyes' Blackburn way back in the Autumn of 1984. I had just started my first job and was working Saturday mornings, the first time I had seen Saturday mornings probably since Primary School. In those days Tony Blackburn used to do a show between 8 and 10a.m and I would always catch the last hour or so. One Saturday he played 'Here I Come' by Barrington Levy and completely out of the blue I was hooked. From it's bizarre (to my young inexperienced ears) "skiddlydiddlydiddlydiddlydiddly way-oh-oh" intro, right through it's hypnotic pounding main section, through the "broader than broadway, sizer than sizeway" throwaways, the whole song sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, but something I knew I had to own. As soon as I finished work at around 12:30 I headed up to local Vinyl Emporium 'Groundbeat' rather pessimistically assuming there would be no way on Earth they would have it.....BUT, there it was on the wall, a 12" picture sleeve with 'Greensleeves Records' emblazoned all over it. I bought it immediately, took it home and played it to death. When we all discussed which records we had bought or loved that week when we gathered together in our local under-age drinking hostelry, rather shamefacedly I failed to mentioned the purchase of this fine disc in fear of ridicule or of being thrown out of the Indiepop Club!
All these years later I still get a jolt of deep joy whenever I hear the track begin, and it still remains my favourite Reggae song of all time. Or rather favourite Reggae song of all time not recorded by Althea & Donna....if you get my drift!
As I'm sure must be obvious to everyone, I was one of those typical teens who hid under his duvet with a tiny radio and a singular mono earpiece, listening to John Peel when I was supposed to be asleep. In those days I was mainly listening to John for Punk, Post Punk and New Wave records but, as anyone who listened to John will verify, he played masses of Reggae in those days, especially that homegrown British Dub music that seemed to be every where then (except on mainstream radio!).
One particular artist that John championed in those days, and who to my under-the-duvet-inexperienced-naive ears, sounded beamed in from another planet entirely, was Eek-A-Mouse.
Over the most laid-back, sweet sounding dubbiest Reggae, Eek-A-Mouse would deliver all kinds of odd sounding "biddlydebiddlydeboing" skanking that, to me, sounded SO alien it didn't sound possible that any human could be making these weird noises.
When I was on Thatcher's exploitation racket the Youth Training Scheme, there were several older boys who all seemed purveyors of "Jazz Cigarettes" and who seemed to know the entire recorded output of Eek-A-Mouse down to a tee. Though never a fan or user of herbal fags myself, I would often spend time with the guys learning more about Dub Reggae and the likes of Eek-A-Mouse.
I can't claim that the examples of his music below are typical or not, but they are perfect snapshots of the overall sound of his that attracted me in the first place.
In the Summer of 1985 there hadn't been much to laugh or smile about; football had suffered the double whammy of the Bradford fire and the Heysel Stadium disaster, both of which played out on live TV and both of which I had the misfortune to witness unfold in front of me. Music also suffered with the Live Aid concert which saw not only the death of everything Punk had sought to eradicate from the bloated pomposity of music, but also the birth of the careerist Rock Star. Throw into the mix the fact that it was one of the coldest, greyest, wettest Summers on record and you'll agree it was a pretty bleak time all round.
One shining example of upbeat, unconventional, dazzlingly provocative music was Smiley Culture. Again, championed by John Peel, Smiley (real name David Emmanuel) brought a mix of satirical stories mixed up with almost incomprehensible toasting wordplay, years ahead of Dizzy Rascal (in every sense).
Smiley has scored a huge cult hit with 'Cockney Transaltion', a song so diverse and bewildering to the masses that it failed to get any mainstream airtime or chart action, yet was still massively popular amongst left field music fans.
Follow up 'Police Officer' however couldn't fail and, thanks to the video receiving several plays on The Tube, as well as Smiley himself appearing regularly on the show, the song sailed all the way up to Number 12 in the charts, quite a big deal for an unknown Reggae artist back in those days. 'Cockney Translation' also entered the charts on the back of this success.
Smiley would bother the charts one more time with the song 'Schooltime Chronicle', another Reggae record I bought and which received a huge boost being featured on a series of videos sold to Pubs in the days before they were allowed to show MTV!
After that, Smiley still recorded but remained a cult artist, although he kept his profile high by turning in acting performances and appearing on TV shows.
Earlier this year we were saddened to hear of the tragic death of Smiley Culture, killed in a police drugs raid. The irony of his biggest hit lost on nobody! Smiley's death remains a bit of a mystery, killed by a single stab wound in a house filled with police officers. Very little official information has been released and his family and friends are campaigning for justice. You can find out more about the campaign here , and below you can enjoy his three biggest hits....
Finally, as a bit of an addendum; it was 9 years ago this very week that myself and my then girlfriend/now wife moved into our own house together. We moved in on the Friday and then on the Saturday we set about putting the new house into order. All that day we had the music center playing and one song that seemed to keep coming around again and again, virtually soundtracking the whole day was 'Ali Baba' by John Holt, which was on a CD given away with Mojo magazine that month.
Once again I have to proclaim this as one of my favourite Reggae songs and the one song that evokes the Proustian rush of that first day in our new house.
Like I said at the start of the Blog, I realise that this Blog may be full of errors that will have Reggae fans going apoplectic over, but I write this only through my love of these songs. I hope that that, above all, shines through.