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Guest Column – The Punky Reggae Party: A Personal View by Adrian Sherwood

Guest Column – The Punky Reggae Party: A Personal View by Adrian Sherwood
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Ahead of the release of a Sherwood At The Controls Volume 1: 1979 – 1984 – collection of early tracks he produced or remixed – on 6 April, producer and DJ Adrian Sherwood has turned dub detective for Q and in a guest column investigates the story behind the story behind Bob Marley’s (or is it?) 1977 12-inch single Punky Reggae Party and the time when artists from two musical cultures came together.

In 1975 at the age of 17 my mentor and elder partner, Joe Farquharson and I started one of the first Reggae distribution companies, JA, and by the end of ’75 had also been involved in setting up the label Carib Gems, both operating from Harlesden, North West London.

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1976 saw an election in Jamaica and violence reached alarming levels. In December an attempt was made to murder Bob Marley. All kinds of rumours circulated in London as to why? Not long at all after hearing the news and to my total surprise, my friend Junior Williams came into the office and said that Bob was at that very moment just down the road at Scrubs Lane playing football with The Sons Of Jah (a band from Ladbroke Grove) and some other friends. Even then this seemed quite surreal to me but in the coming months, Bob and House Of Dread playing football down the road started to become almost normal… The word around at the time was that he was “keeping his head down”.

Harlesden, Neasden, Shepherds Bush, the Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove all felt like home territory to us. The whole area was buzzing with musicians, record shops, sound systems, clubs and shebeens. There were also some great young reggae bands around – Shepherd Bushs, Zabandis, Freedom Fighters and, sharing rehearsal space above Gangsterville record shop on the Harrow Road, Aswad, Tradition and our own Creation Rebel.

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What happened next nationally was quite amazing to watch. It seemed that a massive backlash took place against the years of the indulgent crap that big record labels had been flogging to death. A whole DIY thing happened. Fanzines, record labels and bands feeling like, “so what if we only know two chords?”, at last they could shout out and be heard. Writing more from a Reggae viewpoint though, the arrival of Steel Pulse and their Ku Klux Klan imagery became very resonant. The whole British reggae scene started to find a voice of its own.

Undoubtedly totally inspired by Jamaican messages like Bob’s “I feel like bombing a church” or lets fight the Babylon system, the hypocrites and the oppressors, a lot of musicians in the non reggae world it seemed began to really share the same sentiments. The reggae crew who understood what “No Future” meant but would never buy into it, got to recognise what class struggle meant through different eyes and had shared feelings of oppression and injustice…there are many among us who would say that many things are not much different today!

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The Punky Reggae Party for me was the arrival of bands like The Clash, The Slits, The Pop Group, The Ruts and a whole “new wave” who followed, that were all influenced by Reggae. I would see members of each of these bands regularly in the audience at our gigs at the 100 Club, Acklam Hall, The Rock Garden, The Greyhound and Dingwalls. Our band, Creation Rebel with Prince Hammer, were invited to tour with The Slits and The Clash and the DJs travelling with them played Reggae throughout the evenings and introducing the music to their audiences.

A real hub was the 100 Club on Oxford Street. Tuesday nights was Punk Night which was run by Ron Watts. He also promoted The Nags Head in High Wycombe and a union venue in Uxbridge. Ron was able to provide a mini tour type thing for the Sex Pistols and lots of other bands all in striking distance of London. Thursday nights at the 100 Club however was Reggae Night run by an elderly Jewish couple, (another) Ron and Nanda. I would often see John Lydon who was far more likely to be knocking about on a Thursday night there than on the Tuesdays.

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A very significant moment was Lydon being invited onto Capital Radio to host a show. This was really eagerly anticipated and one of the first things he did was to play Dr. Alimantados Born For A Purpose explaining how he totally related to the lyrics… Around the same time Don Letts was playing reggae to the crowds between bands at the Roxy. I remember another night when Jah Woosh had to dash from a show at the 100 Club and do another one round the corner as a last minute replacement for Sham 69!

The Rock Against Racism organisation was another factor, very important and very much needed. Respect. If UKIP were around then I doubt many of their voters would have been at any of the RAR shows. The RAR events featured acts as diverse as The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers and Elvis Costello sharing the same stages with the likes of Aswad, Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots. There was definitely a bond between the two “cultures” and what with the SUS law, the Brixton, Notting Hill and Southall riots, a feeling of unity grew and was shared.

While on the subject of Punky Reggae Party, I’d heard a few different stories about how the track came about so I thought i’d look into it… Lee Perry will tell anyone that it was he who wrote the track. Knowing Lee as someone who prides himself on not lying I had no reason to disbelieve him but on the UK release of the track on the Island label it clearly lists Bob as both artist and writer! However, if you look on the Jamaican pressings (where it was issued on Bob’s own Tuff Gong and Lee’s Black Ark labels) the artist credit clearly reads Bob Marley and Lee Perry which I find interesting. It seemed a pretty good bet to me that Island boss Chris Blackwell had put them up to doing the track as he was always looking for tactics to promote Bob into the mainstream.

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I firstly spoke to the great George Oban (original Aswad bassist) and it seems the track was at least originally recorded in London. George told me that the track was started with Bob using Aswad as the band and Candie McKenzie on backing vocals. The session took place at Island’s studio in St Peters Square and apparently while preparing to record, The Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles walked into the control room. After spotting him, Bob said to George, “my youth mek Sibbles play the bass” and being, like all of us, a huge Sibbles fan, George handed him his Fender and sat next to him while it was recorded. Upon hearing the finished record it seemed to George and the band that Chris Blackwell must have taken the tape and wiped some peoples performances as they didn’t hear everyone from the session.

To get to the bottom of this I decided to call Lee Perry and ask the man himself how it went. At the time of writing I reached Lee by phone in Jamaica. He has always had something of a beef about this song so I asked him if he could put the record straight. Lee said that the track was then re-recorded, again in London and this time with the band Third World as the rhythm section. Still not satisfied Lee recorded the track again, this time in Jamaica at Joe Gibbs studio with Boris Gardner and other local musicians. He then arranged to meet Bob Marley in Miami where they voiced the track and then went back to Jamaica to mix it. Lee still maintains that he wrote it!

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Last mention for me must go to the person who championed so many and gave me the confidence and encouragement to crack on and who aired the whole Punky Reggae Party on national radio, night after night after night – the late, great John Peel. RIP both.

Adrian Sherwood@onusherwood

For more visit Adriansherwood.com.


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