One of the issues with the post Kindle years is that there are a bunch of books that I bought in a 99p offer frenzy that have never risen to the top of the tsundoku pile. After the novelty of tablet reading wore off, the instinct to pick a book off of the shelf took over rather than trawl through an electronic device.
So now and again, I fire up the device and see what’s kicking around. In the midst of spring heatwave in the UK, Lloyd Bradley’s history of Jamaican music took my fancy. Two weeks later, the weather’s turned biblically wet but the book was still evoking the Caribbean.
Published in the 90s and refreshed in 2001, it is now almost twenty years on from its most recent update. It takes us from the mento of colonial Jamaica through ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub and leaves the story at digital dancehall just before the millennium.
It’s entertaining and informing. I’d tried to read Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which ran in parallel for much of Bass Culture’s timeline. I’d struggled with the internecine web of CIA intervention, Jamaican political corruption and Trenchtown gangsterism. Bradley’s book makes all of this clear from the economic turmoil on the island driven by the 70s oil crisis and bauxite production from aluminium to the lack of trickledown from gated all-inclusive hotels.
Bradley sees the death of Bob Marley and the rise of dancehall as being the point where the island’s musical trail goes cold. His take on both is interesting. Marley was the highest profile Jamaican musician in the world, possibly the highest profile musician period. Whilst he was respected in the island’s musical community, he wasn’t seen as an innovator or a figurehead. The problem that Bradley identifies is that for most of the (white) record-buying public beyond the scene, once they’d bought Marley’s Legend greatest hits album, they’d completed the reggae section of their record collection.
The dancehall problem was a lack of nuance. Previous Jamaican musical strands had been driven by the skill set of the musicians, schooled in jazz and R’n’B. Roots, sufferation and respect were key to the music. Dancehall was based on oft-repeated digitised Casio rhythms with DJs essentially aimed at fuelling the debauchery of a hot Saturday night in Kingston.
There’s a great deal of fun to be had before that. The secret codes for buying music for one’s sound system in a record without your rivals knowing what you think is hot was hilarious. Lee Scratch Perry is as colourful as you would expect. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid are consistently intertwined into the story. Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Horace Andy – all there. Sly and Robbie are a constant feature, the go-to guys for Dylan, the Tom Tom Club and Grace Jones as well as the Jamaican reggae scene.
For someone growing up in Wolverhampton in the 70s, its evocative of Ruby Red Records in Cleveland Street and the Liquidator being played as Wolves ran out to play on a Saturday afternoon. Bradley comes back to the Windrush generation and their progeny. how they shaped Britain in the 70s via Trojan, punk and Two-Tone.
So do yourselves a favour – pick up a copy of Bradley’s book plus two choice CD’s – the Tougher than Tough 4CD set released by Island a few years ago plus a dub reggae compilation from either Blood and Fire, Soul Jazz or Pressure Sounds and you are good to go.
You’ll end up with more than Legend in your record collection, that’s for sure.