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British Reggae History

385 Willesden High Road is tucked away behind a row of dilapidated 19th century houses, its entrance obscured by high locked gates and a walled yard. But 385 is a treasure trove of reggae history. It’s called Theorem, Music Village, and it’s where we’re recording several artist interviews for Reggae Britannia. As we arrive, there’s a band in the studio rehearsing a romantic Lovers Rock number, there’s a man up a rickety ladder painting the walls and another mopping up from an all night dance in the ‘functions room’ with its damp lino and garish red felt walls.

T-Jae, the tall soft-spoken proprietor of what was once called BBMC (the Brent Black Music Cooperative) helps us with our camera gear. He’s got coffee brewing in the kitchen beside an open can of condensed milk. Before T-Jae’s time this was a leisure centre filled with rattle of pinball machines and the click of snooker balls – now replaced by the drum ‘n bass of reggae rhythms leaking from the studio.

We’re here to interview Dave Barker, one half of the Dave and Ansell Collins vocal duo who set the teenage mods alight, back in 1971, performing a novelty number called ‘Double Barrel’. Dave’s a quietly spoken man with a hint of a stammer. He tells us how, when he first came to this country (and he stayed here ever after) he peered out through the window of his BOAC plane as it banked over the smoking chimneys of the snow-covered houses below and wondered ‘how come they have so many bakeries in England?’ On the drive from the airport he was shocked at seeing white men digging the road and taking out garbage: ‘Wow man, that was strange, you didn’t see those things in Jamaica’. Nor dogs wearing winter vests, nor steak and kidney pies, nor that little sparrow he spied pecking the top off a milk bottle. He can’t help himself: Dave sings a refrain from Matt Munro’s ‘Born Free’ and segues into ‘Summer Holiday’.

Dave arrived in the U.K exactly ten years before Theorem opened its doors to top British and Jamaican reggae artists passing through. Today, there’s the legendary Max Romeo sitting on bench in the winter sunshine, his grey locks neatly tucked into a woolly beret. In 1969, Max brought his wicked song ‘Wet Dream’ to Britain and its risqué lyrics – which got it banned in clubs and on the BBC – made it an anthem for skinheads in dance halls all across Britain. He sings a few lines, diffidently explaining how it caused an ‘upstir’ among the rebellious youth of the time. He’s a little ashamed of it now because, by the mid 70s, Max had embraced the wisdom of Rastafari. That was when he wrote and recorded some of reggae’s most powerful and memorable music in the Black Ark studio of Lee Scratch Perry: ‘War In A Babylon’ and ‘Chase The Devil’. When those songs arrived here, first as pre-releases and then remixed by Island Records, they inspired our fledgling roots reggae bands and then the punks and then Bob Marley too. Max intones a few lines from ‘Chase The Devil’, an ironic, cautionary tale that has been covered or sampled by dozens of musicians – including Jay-Z in ‘The Black Album’ – and was featured in the video-game Grand Theft Auto.

Dave Barker and Max Romeo – by Irfhan Mirza

‘I’m gonna put on an iron shirt and chase Satan out of earth’ he sings. ‘I’m gonna send him to outer space to find another race’. Max explains: ‘The devil is the negative within the psyche. Chasing the devil means chasing the negative out of your mind.’ There are people wandering in and out while he speaks; musicians carrying drums and guitars into this studio that’s cold as a morgue, or dropping off an amp or a heavyweight speaker, or they’ve come to pay their respects to the master, with a hug or a high-five.

T-Jae comes sauntering by with a piece of carpet under his arm to help our sound recordist dampen the ‘live’ acoustic of the room (yes, we still have a sound recordist on our crew) and he tells me that among the band members in the studio today is none other than Bigga Morrison. Bigga’s not a front man like Max, but a keyboard virtuoso and music director of renown. Reggae royalty. The band take a another break for a smoke in the yard and Bigga, immaculate in pin-striped suit and brogues, describes growing up in this country as a second generation West Indian:
‘My parents had experienced troubles and threats on the streets, back in the ’50s, with the Teddy Boys and such, but they wouldn’t discuss those things because they wanted to keep you free from the pressures. But as we grew up, we took our message and our fight onto the streets with the roots and culture music we played in bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad.’

Later during the interview, I asked Bigga to show us how the British reggae producers, back in the early 1970s, added violins to the Jamaican imports to make them sound ‘more classical’. Unfortunately, he’s lost his glasses and so can’t read the score. Tee Jay’s on hand to send for a replacement pair. Bigga fills in time by playing us a delightful new track by his band the Skatronics, but when the glasses arrive, they’re all wrong for Bigga. He wears them anyway, and peers astigmatically at the music for ‘Young Gifted And Black‘ which is layered in symphonic-style strings. Bigga (educated at Trinity College of Music) explains how Jamaican reggae gradually transformed into a British musical experience, first through the dub sounds and conscious lyrics of hardworking roots groups like Aswad and then by the bands that went platinum: the 2 Tone crowd, UB40 and The Police.
Bigga’s being called back to rehearsals now, so we break for a late lunch. It’s a choice of The New Golden Duck Chinese Take Away or the Caribbean place half a mile up the road. We do the walk and settle for salt fish and akee. Or rather, the others do. I choose the goat curry on plantains and soon regret it.

Bigga Morrison

Back in Theorem, Bigga’s at the keyboards and a couple of pretty female vocalists are delivering more saccharine Lovers Rock. And that’s where we see Big Youth, in among them, gyrating his hips to the pounding bass and chugging upbeat of the guitar. He’s chaperoned by a petite Italian lady from an artists’ agency called Roots Rockers. She’s Trish, and she’s exhausted because they’ve only just returned from a nightmare flight from Spain. Trish is a miracle of calm and efficiency in the maelstrom of the struggling reggae business and it’s clear all the artists adore her. Trish has offered us the opportunity to interview Big Youth, the toaster who excited British reggae fans with his revolutionary, rasta-inspired lyrics in the mid ’70s. He’s on top form today, his wiry body twisting and swaying in the interview chair as he sings lines from ‘Hit The Road Jack’, telling me how the great Ray Charles called him up one Christmas-time to admit that Big Youth’s version was just ‘the best’. ‘Big Youth stole the scene,’ he concludes. Modesty isn’t one of Big Youth’s virtues. But I can vouch for his status, and integrity. I first met him insideRandy’s Record shop in Kingston Jamaica back in ’77. He was checking out the sales of his album – visiting these record stores was about the only way an artist could tell how many were selling. He was as big a name as Marley at the time, and revered both on the island and over here. We met again – by chance – in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was on the run from some unscrupulous promoter. He’s older and greyer now, but with no loss of energy, showmanship or sharp humour. And the red, gold and green implants in his front teeth are still there.

The filming days at Theorem haven’t only been productive for our ninety minute programme, they’ve also been enormous fun. Maybe it’s the familiarity and affection the artists have for this building, or maybe it’s what they call ‘the spirits’ of the house: a combination of all those sounds and experiences imbedded in the cracking plaster walls, the creaky floorboards which once the feet of hallowed artists trod, or the reverberating bass you can hear down Theorem’s honeycomb of corridors.

We’ll be back here later in the week to interview the fiery, bubbly Lovers Rock singer Sylvia Tella, from Manchester; and Tippa Irie who came to fame DJing for the Saxon sound system, and maybe Dennis Bovell, the multi-talented producer/song writer and bass player, who did so much to anglicise reggae music in this country. Oh, and Trish says Dennis Alcapone’s coming by, the dapper, bowler-hatted vocalist who brought a whole new style of toasting to these shores with songs like ‘Guns Don’t Argue’: ‘Don’t call me Scarface, my name is Capone, C-A-P-O-N-E!’

For him, we’ll haul our equipment boxes down the dark corridors of Theorem (we never could find the light switches, thriftily hidden away in recesses above door frames). Because we’ll place him in a room, behind the studio, which is every reggae fan’s dream, an Aladdin’s cave of antique tape machines and mixers, and an expansive crimson casting couch. The wood-trim Rainderk desk dates from the early ’70s when Reggae first exploded onto our pop charts with songs like ‘Young Gifted And Black’, bringing an upbeat musical thrill not just to those of Caribbean origin and the packs of skinheads who followed them around the country, but to the whole nation. This mixing desk was donated by Pete Townshend of The Who. It has made history since, recording reggae artists like The WailersGregory IsaacsAswadJanet KayMaxi Priest … and so many more.

The traffic’s slow on Willesden High Road as we leave the studios and T- Jae waves us into the evening gridlock and shuts the gates. Back-in-the-day, Theorem would be filling up with dreadlocked musicians and their natty entourage, ready for another all night session. Sometimes it still does, but with the proliferation of cheap home studios and a music industry in crisis, it’s a whole lot quieter now. No sessions tonight. Just the rattling pipes, the whispering corridors, the vacant studio and the ghosts of British reggae history.

Jeremy Marre is the Producer and Director of Reggae Britannia

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