John Scott makes the most of the sunshine (well, it was shining when he started to write this) and listens to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1980 reggae classic.   

Despite an early fondness for Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, I found myself in my late teens with a distinct lack of interest in reggae music.  I’d loved the live version of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ No Woman No Cry – who couldn’t love that? – but tracks like Could You Be Loved and Three Little Birds from 1977’s Exodus album struck me as lightweight.  Similarly, Third World’s hit Now That We’ve Found Love did nothing for me.  I needed a way in; something that I could relate to and in the Summer of 1980 I found it in Lynton Kwesi Johnson’s Bass Culture album.

Now don’t get me wrong: I was a young white kid from a small mining town in south east Scotland; I wasn’t fooling myself that I had anything in common with the challenges that life as an Afro-Caribbean immigrant in one of Britain’s inner cities presented.  But, I was a fan of both Bob Dylan and John Cooper Clarke who both, in very different ways married together poetry and music and Linton Kwesi Johnson, or LKJ as he was known, seemed to be doing something similar.LKJ_bass_culture

Born in Jamaica in 1952, LKJ moved to Britain in 1963.  He attended school in the London borough of Lambeth where he joined the Black Panthers then graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1973 with a degree in sociology.  He seemed destined for a career in education, receiving a C Day-Lewis Fellowship and becoming Lambeth’s writer-in-residence in 1977 but some work writing sleeve notes and advertising material for the Virgin record label’s reggae releases led to label boss Richard Branson funding an album, Dread Beat An’ Blood by Johnson and musician Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell.  Credited to Poet and The Roots, the album featured Johnson’s poems set to Bovell’s music and would set the template for  LKJ’s subsequent releases.

Dread Beat An’ Blood was released in 1977 and was followed the next year by Forces Of Victory.  LKJ’s poems reflected the racial tension that was prevalent at the time between the authorities and the Black community and this theme was carried over into 1980’s Bass Culture.  At this time the “suss” law gave stop and search powers to the police and this power was generally seen as being abused when it came to policing within areas with a high Afro-Caribbean population.  Notting Hill’s annual Carnival would regularly erupt into riots. London Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group – the SPG – seeming had total autonomy to take a heavy-handed approach to crowd control.  This lead to the death of New Zealand-born special needs teacher Blair Peach during an Anti Nazi League demonstration in 1979.  This is Bass Culture’s reality.

In title track Bass Culture, LKJ places reggae music at the heart of his culture.  “For the time is nigh, when passion get high, when the beat just lash, when the wall just smash, and the beat just shift and the culture alter.  When oppression scatter.”  One way or another, a change is coming.  This is muscular music, the bass at its core, driving it on.  Drums knocked into the beat, horns and organ adding texture.  Blackbeard at the controls spins guitars skywards.

Street 66 takes things at a funeral pace.  A harmonica foreshadowing dread. A house party in the early hours, relaxed and high.  A knock on the door…the police.  “Step right in and take some licks.” What happens next is left to our imagination, but it is all too easy to guess.

Reagan Fi Peach opens with celebratory horns.  The story of Blair Peach’s death at the hands of the SPG. A tribute and a tragedy. “Everywhere you go it’s the talk of the day, everywhere you go you hear people say that the special patrol them a murderer, we can’t mek them get no furtherer.”

Inglan Is A Bitch pulls no punches in spelling out the disillusionment of Commonwealth immigrants who came to Britain in search of opportunity and found a life of racial hatred and discrimination instead.

Lorraine is possibly the album’s only misstep.  Serving as light relief, it feels out of place.  LKJ knowingly parodies Tin Pan Ally moon, June, spoon rhymes but I’m not sure that it quite works.  Fortunately, the song is rescued by a dubby instrumental fade out.

The final two tracks provide the most successful melding of LKJ’s poetry with Bovell’s music.  Reggae Sounds is exactly what it says while Two Sides Of Silence is an almost avant-garde, free jazz tone poem, breaking down everything that has preceded it into pure expression.

As great an album as Bass Culture is in its own right, you really need to have the dub versions of these songs as well.  Dub, where the music is stripped back to its essential elements, often just bass and drums with other instruments and vocals being flown in and out of the mix, twisted with heavy, creative use of echo effects, is a reggae tradition and there is, for me at least, nothing better than hearing these songs being followed by their dub versions. Some of the dub versions are available on the LKJ In Dub album, along with dubs of songs from Dread Beat An Blood and Forces Of Victory and LKJ In Dub is a great listen – Iron Bar Dub, the dub version of Sonny’s Lettah from Forces Of Victory is worth the purchase alone.  Johnson’s compilation album Independent Intervenshan goes one better and has almost all of its tracks followed by their dubs, as they rightly should be.  This might be the only time when I would recommend the purchase of a compilation over its parent albums.  It really is a must-have.

Bass Culture paints a picture of Britain at the end of the 1970s every bit as vividly as Never Mind The Bollocks or the first Clash album.  You need it in your collection.

John Scott

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