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The British Reggae Revolution

Stumbled on a wonderful programme today by Don Letts, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00wr7rw, documenting the story of British reggae. Letts noted the enormous impact of British reggae on white British rock, and is not the first to point out that people like Madness, the Police and UB40 seemed mysteriously able to get sales and radio play in far higher numbers than their black bredren; nor of the important overlaps between punk and post-punk and British reggae.

His job, of course, was to record an important first-generation immigrant story rather than document its impact on ‘indigenous’ white culture. But one point wasn’t made about this that certainly echoes my own experience: ‘white’ British music in the late 1970s was many things – omniverous, experimental, angry/isolated, often as inspired as it was amateurish – but spirituality was not on its emotional radar. For many of us, this gap was filled by roots reggae, with its strong influence from Rastafarianism, and the discovery that there was a pop music that was also cross with the world, experimental and inspired — but which heartily embraced its own form of mysticism — was a very important one.

The ramifications of this are considerable: I wonder, for example, how many white Britons first discovered both the riches of the Old Testament and the significance of Black consciousness and Black history via the music of Misty in Roots, the Congos and Burning Spear. But among other things, I’d suggest the results were crucial in their turn to the coining of a British music of black origin which transmuted the emotional intensity of religious feeling into an equally deeply felt reaction to the realities of urban Britain.

To these ears, that transmutation can first be heard in the extraordinary final minutes of the Clash’s cover of Police and Thieves (CBS, 1977), where Joe Strummer scats about bombed tube stations as if he is witnessing the coming Armagideon Time (as well as serving time on the Clash’s own early three-chord anger-posed-thrash). And it reaches its apogee on their (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais (CBS, 1978), which takes the strangeness and uncanny depth of Lee Perry and recoins it for an age of uncertainty, a religion of faithlessness, the spirituality of lonely Saturday nights in W11. This is decades before people like Tricky and musics like Drum n’Bass and Dubstep made an entire genre out of the urban sublime, the violent concrete epiphany of the car park and the drum machine.

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  1. mac
    January 3, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Why do all the links to this program lead to an unrelated radio play?

    Why are so many of the Buzz links to Far Right Fascist matereial?

    Is this deliberate??

    When can we listen again to this program?

  2. January 3, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Don’t ask me, I’m just a bystanding blogger… however a quick peruse of the BBC’s website reveals that the Listen Again link is known to be incorrect — but provides no information about whether they will do anything about this. A shame, I thought, so I’ve dropped them a message on the subject.

    As for the Far Right links, there now seems to be no ‘Buzz’ other than my own (which is nice to see): so the Beeb seems to have put this right, at least.

  3. keith wilde
    January 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Really unhappy that iplayer doesn’t link to the right programme. \please auntie beeb sort it out!

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