Reggae on the dole (part two): ... to Birmingham, via London.
The Bristol Riots were also eponymously covered by London’s Lion Youth, a quality act who was born in London, schooled in Jamaica and then returned to the UK's capital in 1980 to make his name. He also observed how bad unemployment had become in the early part of that decade with ‘Three Million On The Dole:
It's worth taking a detour out of our main themes to appreciate his total classic, 'Rat A Cut Bottle' and its superlative version:
Perhaps the most well-known London underground reggae group of the time was Misty In Roots, largely through their heavy involvement in Rock Against Racism and their co-operative mentorship with popular second-wave punk band The Ruts, which included releasing the latter’s somewhat dub-influenced debut single, ‘In A Rut’, on their own People Unite label. However, they were a world-class act themselves, and wrote about the privations of the times in songs such as ‘Poor And Needy’:
A few Jamaican reggae innovators saw promise in coming to Britain themselves, and 1973 saw 'Ghetto Dentist' Keith Hudson moving to London. Despite making his name in his native land recording old and then new legends such as Ken Boothe and Big Youth, he was initially unable to continue earning a living from his music in his new home. This couldn't stop such a forceful original and he released The Black Breast has Produced her Best, Flesh of my Skin and Blood of my Blood – the first reggae concept album – on his own Mamba imprint at the end of 1974. Its unique homespun sound and DIY aesthetic may well have been one of the earliest lingering embers to influence the post-punk tsunami at the end of that decade:
London also produced one of Britain’s best performance poets in Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose work and career achievements are too profound to summarise here succinctly, and whose take on the plight of the fresh-off-the-boat West Indian immigrant in the UK saw him gain a huge audience among white Britons, as well as black south Londoners. Here’s ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’ from his third LP, Bass Culture, released by Island Records and featuring a session cast with impressive reputations and finessed production by Dennis Bovell, who is now also respected for his important productions opening up the sound of several post-punk bands, including Bristol’s The Pop Group:
Arguably the most important British reggae band of the late 1970s was Steel Pulse, who – on top of their fertile songwriting and playing skills – had lyrics completely baked in the culture of their home area of Handsworth in north-west central Birmingham and a knack for attention-getting and incendiary stage costumes, including dressing up as the Archbishop of Canterbury and fully hooded and cloaked Klansmen. Here’s their most clear statement of time and location, Handsworth Revolution, taken from their eponymous debut LP, as important to its time as any new wave or punk album:
What is now the most famous British reggae band of the time was also from Birmingham and named after the identification card given by the DHSS which had to be presented every time its holder was scheduled to ‘sign on’: UB40. Like other very successful British reggae bands such as Aswad and Black Uhuru, their mainstream and continued success somewhat obscures how radical they seemed at the time – with a multiracial line-up and an original sound that emerged in tandem with the more musically backward-looking Two Tone – and the high quality social concern of the songs on their debut LP, Signing Off. As a reminder – or mind- and ear-opener – here’s ‘One In Ten’ from that LP, released in 1981, a melancholy reflection on the near 10 per cent unemployment rate of the West Midlands at the time: