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Reggae on the dole (part one): from Bristol ...

Before Two Tone (which will be covered at length in On The Rock’n’Roll) hit the mainstream, unemployment benefits had provided the spawning ground for a widespread number of British roots reggae acts, with mixed-race and second-generation Jamaican bands finding initial popularity at local dances, gigs and clubs, and then quickly among left-wing political activists and the nascent and growing regional punk scenes. Many had musical abilities that could have seen them performing in Kingston if it weren’t for an accident of birth, but the best had a homegrown sensibility that directly reflected the hard times of the mid to late 1970s and the privations of the musicians’ own lives.

Immigrants arriving on the HMT Empire Windrush (formerly a German troopship in the Second World War, the MV Monte Rosa) and other ships in the 1950s had already originated a rich homegrown calypso, rhythm and blues, soul, jazz and bluebeat music, but their kids had taken Jamaican culture and run with it, encouraged by plentiful imports of original releases being available in the major English cities in which their parents had settled.

Here’s a quick survey of what was an exciting and prolonged partial insurgency into the mainstream that emerged hand-in-hand with punk, but was overshadowed by its louder, more music-press friendly cousin.

The key city of Bristol had a notably fertile and multiracial scene, the ripples of which continue to expand concentrically today, creating hybrid and original music ever-redolent of time and place. The music released by the bands and DJs in the late 1970s and early 1980s has been compiled on several LPs – a sampler of which is available here – and some acts, like Talisman, who prominently toured with The Clash, directly addressed unemployment and life on welfare payments in songs such as ‘Dole Age’:

Other Bristolian acts such as 3D Production sang of the poor community relations, strongly exacerbated by racist policing and governmental policies, which resulted in protests and rioting well into the 1980s; here is the straightforwardly titled ‘Riot’:

The city’s Bunny Marrett had a more broad-brush take on the tumult of the day in ‘Times Are Getting Harder’:

Further north, Liverpool’s small but fertile scene produced Cross Section’s ‘The Dole’:

… while Manchester’s Harlem Spirit had a local hit protesting about the heavy handed ‘sus’ laws, under which police were entitled to stop anyone they deemed suspicious under the Vagrancy Act 1824; should you be merely “deemed a vagabond and a rogue”, as were many black kids roaming their own neighbourhood, you were committing an offence punishable by up to three months in prison. Here’s ‘Dem A Suss In De Moss’, a reference to Manchester’s inner-city Moss Side with its large and longstanding Caribbean population, and with a police siren intro very reminiscent of The Clash's 'White Riot':

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