Just finished a captivating and, to my mind, long overdue book, which covers the history of black music in the capital spanning (almost) 100 years, the recently published ‘Sounds Like London’. By bringing all the threads together, its author, Lloyd Bradley has made a telling contribution to our understanding of how British black music evolved, following the lineage of its direct influences in the Caribbean and Africa, in juxtaposition with the impact of African-American innovation throughout the 20th century.
As I’ve said many times before, one of the great cultural tragedies of recent history is that the story of British club / dance culture has never been properly told from a black perspective. Back when I was originally a DJ, from the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s, I only came across one black journalist on the club scene, a guy from Liverpool called Raphael Parkinson, who was writing the odd review for Groove Weekly, a small London based Soul and Jazz-Funk fanzine (for whom I was the Northern correspondent for a while). Whilst white dominated scenes like Northern Soul and Rave are documented in all their finer details, as in many other areas of life back then black people weren’t being given the opportunity to write about the culture unfolding around them. White journalists with a deep passion for black music, like Bob Killbourne and Frank Elson at Blues & Soul and Lindsay Wesker at Black Echoes, played a key role in promoting the black music scene, but, apart from James Hamilton’s Disco column in Record Mirror, the main weekly music magazines (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds) largely ignored black music. Things changed for the better as dance and Hip Hop were in the ascendancy during the 80’s, but the black experience was rarely highlighted from a first-hand perspective.
As a writer on dance culture myself, I can speak from my own experience of being a part of the scene as a specialist black music DJ, playing to a predominantly black audience in the early 80’s, but as I’m not black myself I can’t speak from the viewpoint of someone who experienced the day to day frustrations of a society in which their skin colour constantly put them at a disadvantage. Despite this weighty handicap, it was black people in this country, along with the more adventurous white kids that, as we might say back then, knew the score, who strove to break down the barriers of prejudice via music and dancing, eventually overcoming the odds and greatly enriching Britain in the process – a gift that has never been properly acknowledged. Without the importation of sound system culture, the unlicensed blues dances and shabeens, the rise of Reggae and Dub (and the British offshoot of Lovers Rock), the Soul and Funk nights of the 70’s, followed by the Jazz-Funk scene and its All-Dayers, and on into Electro-Funk and Rare Groove in the 80’s, the British musical landscape would be vastly different, and incalculably poorer.
But it all goes back much further, and Bradley’s dissection of the Trinidadian forms of Calypso and Steel Pan in the capital is a real eye-opener. Calypso provides one of the defining moments in black British history, with Lord Kitchener, introduced as ‘The King Of Calypso’, stepping off the Empire Windrush in 1948 to sing ‘London Is The Place For Me’ to a waiting Pathe News reporter, whilst it was thanks to the Steel Pan lineage that the Notting Hill Carnival would emerge in 1966, following an impromptu parade through the streets of the area 2 years earlier, led by The Russell Henderson Steel Band. Then there’s the often overshadowed African influences, not least the contribution to the British Jazz scene of the 50’s and 60’s, in addition to the introduction of West African musical forms such as Highlife, Palm Wine and Juju. In reading about this early history we learn that the record company Melodisc played a crucial role in promoting a spectrum of black music – having begun trading in London in 1949 it continued to release records by Caribbean and African musicians (along with various US artists) right through until the 70’s. In these ways the foundations were laid.
It was good to find out more about Osibisa, who really made their mark in the early 70’s. Founded in London in 1969, and consisting of both African and Caribbean musicians, the band would cross over into the UK chart with their 1971 albums ‘Osibisa’ and ‘Woyaya’, both of which would peak at #11. Produced by Tony Visconti (whose other clients during this period included T. Rex, then the biggest Pop sensation in the UK, and an up and coming David Bowie) and complete with distinctive Roger Dean sleeves, Osibisa endeared themselves to the Progressive Rock audience. Credited with helping open up the ‘World Music’ category, Osibisa left a solid legacy. They’d also enjoy a chart swansong in 1976 with a couple of good vibes hit singles, ‘Sunshine Day’ and ‘Dance The Body Music’.
Cymande were another notable Afro-Caribbean combination, and although they didn’t receive commercial success in their adopted homeland, their track ‘The Message’ was a Top 20 US R&B hit, whilst another cut from their self-titled 1972 debut album, ‘Bra’, would be played by seminal Bronx Hip Hop DJ’s, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and eventually reach a new audience in 1989 when sampled on the De La Soul track ‘Change In Speak’ (‘Bra’ and ‘Brothers On The Slide’ were also staples on London’s Rare Groove scene). In 1996, ‘Dove’ was sampled on the title track of the multi-million selling Fugees album, ‘The Score’. On a more modest note, ‘The Message’ was sampled on ‘And It Wasn’t A Dream’ by Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins, a 1990 track I produced myself that was hailed at the time as the best British rap release to date – the choice of ‘The Message’, recorded by UK immigrants, tying in with the theme of the rap, which focused on how the previous generation of British blacks had arrived in this country with hopes and dreams that would be shattered by the harsh realities of a largely inhospitable post-war Britain. This has subsequently been named by Mojo magazine as one of the ’50 Greatest British Tracks Ever’ (alongside inclusions like ‘Penny Lane’ by The Beatles, ‘Itchycoo Park’ by The Small Faces, ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols, ’Ghost Town’ by The Specials, ‘Common People’ by Pulp and ‘A Certain Romance’ by Arctic Monkeys – the criteria being the quintessential Britishness of the subject matter).
Another main feature of the book is the elevation of Guyanan born Eddy Grant to a status more suited to this dynamic force in the development of black music in this country. Grant’s multiracial band, The Equals, topped the UK singles chart in 1968 with ‘Baby Come Back’ (the first #1 by a British born black artist had been ‘As I Love You’ by Cardiff’s Shirley Bassey, recording with Wally Stott & His Orchestra in 1959, whilst the very first – also the first by a black artist living in Britain – was ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ by Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell in 1954), and followed up with 2 further Top 10 hits, ‘Viva Bobby Joe’ (1969) and ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ (1970), but it was as a solo artist with a commercial touch, but often a politically conscious edge, that Grant would become best known, with a string of hits during the 5 year period 1979-84, including ‘Living On The Frontline’, ‘Do You Feel My Love’, ‘Can’t Get Enough Of You’, ‘Electric Avenue’, ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’, and the chart topping ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’. However, what’s not widely known is Grant’s work behind the scenes, helping other black artists get onto the recording ladder via his Coach House Studio in London (said to be the first black-owned recording studio in Europe), which he set up after having suffered a heart attack and collapsed lung in 1971, and where he often offered advice and financial assistance in forwarding the black music cause. Bradley should be commended for highlighting Grant’s spirit of endeavour, for this is an artist who provided a strong black British role model via the music he made and the messages within it, not to mention his business acumen. Even the name, The Equals, made a powerful statement in a time of blatant inequality within this country, a time when the majority of Brits were in basic agreement with Enoch Powell’s repatriation mantra, Eddy Grant being just the type of person they thought this country should ‘send back’. By topping the chart and appearing, white men alongside black, on Top Of The Pops, and within the pages of the music press, just a matter of weeks after the infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech, The Equals represented an inclusive philosophy, the opposite side of the coin to what Powell and his supporters advocated: http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/01/confused-misused-and-in-the-dark/
Whilst The Equals and Eddy Grant quite rightly pick up props in the book, by way of contrast, conspicuous by their absence (bar a couple of passing mentions) are the hit machine that was Hot Chocolate, led by Jamaican born frontman, Errol Brown. This was another multiracial group with mainstream appeal, which originated in Brixton during the late 60’s. They marked up a notable chart feat by recording at least one UK hit per year between 1970-84, a mammoth 30 singles in all, a dozen of which reached the Top 10 (including a #1, ‘So You Win Again’, in 1977). Further to this they made it onto the US Top 10 on 3 occasions with ‘Emma’ (1974), ‘You Sexy Thing’ (1975) and ‘Every 1’s A Winner’ (1978) – the latter 2 also big US R&B hits.
Bradley is particularly thorough in his documentation of the sound system and its journey from Jamaica to the UK, not surprising when his best-known work is the 2001 book, ‘Bass Culture – When Reggae Was King’. The sound systems, and what went on around them, inform so much of the capital’s relationship with black music, including the evolution of Lovers Rock, Norman Jay’s ‘Good Times’, Soul II Soul, plus the growth of a whole host of genres – Jungle, Drum ‘n’ Bass, UK Garage, Grime and Dubstep amongst them. There’s a mine of information on this subject, with the author illuminating stuff I was previously unaware of, enabling me join a few more dots. When people talk about specialist black music nights in the clubs of the 70’s and 80’s, this encompassed Soul, Funk, Disco, Jazz-Funk, Jazz, Electro, Boogie, but not Reggae (bar the rare venue, like The Timepiece in Liverpool) – the 2 scenes were separate and, as A Guy Called Gerald once put it; “everyone was classified as either a Dub head or Funk head.” That was something that played itself out within the black community, on the streets or in the blues, not in the city centre clubs in which I worked, so, not having come up around sound systems, the nuances of this culture, and how it eventually collided with Hip Hop and Rave to create the then new British hybrid of Jungle in the 90’s, illustrating how life moves in strange circles and cycles, especially when you take into account that it was another Jamaican, Kool Herc, who introduced the sound system to the Bronx, unleashing Hip Hop in the process. It’s these fusions and fusions of fusions that have led to the success of contemporary artists like Dizzy Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk to name but a few, and ‘Sounds Like London’ has done a brilliant job in outlining the connectivity between what’s happening now, what happened back then, and the road in between.
It’s so easy to fall short in these attempts to highlight hidden histories, as DJ Trevor Nelson found a decade ago when his Channel 4 series ‘Soul Nation’ was soundly slated from various directions, having largely failed to recognise the contributions from outside of London, as well as a few from within. Lloyd Bradley made a wise move by concentrating on the capital alone, rather than attempting to tell the wider tale of British black music, and although you can nitpick over some of the details / omissions, as with any overview, it would be churlish to do so when considering the wealth of previously shrouded information that Bradley has admirably unearthed. Hopefully it will inspire other writers to build upon this, adding further depth and detail to the various aspects he’s highlighted, whilst shining light into still obscured corners.
Lloyd Bradley Wikipedia: