Photo: Helge Øverås
Though British punk never really accomplished social and political upheaval, it did achieve many wonderful things that are worthy of being celebrated. One such achievement was its ability to bring together unfamiliar cultures by an incorporation of foreign styles, such as ska and reggae. But how did reggae and punk happen to become intertwined, and what effect did this have on both genres and their fans?
In 1948, Britain suffered a labour shortage due to the losses sustained in World War II. This led to an appeal for workers from the Commonwealth and the British Empire, with ads appearing overseas to actively promote migration to the “mother country”. In the same year the Windrush, an ex-cruise ship, landed at Tilbury near London, carrying the first group of Afro-Caribbean migrants. They were promised work and a new way of life, but instead were subject to prejudice and racism from the indigenous British.
What followed over the subsequent decades were a series of race riots, with Afro-Caribbean individuals protesting their poor treatment by the white establishment.
But whilst this was happening, a cultural exchange was also occurring elsewhere between Jamaican migrants and the white working classes. This was in part due to Trojan Records, a record label founded in 1968 that specialized in rocksteady, reggae and dub. This label helped to develop the Trojan skinhead subculture that revolved around ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul.
Don Letts is a British filmmaker, musician, and DJ, who would later introduce many followers of punk to reggae and ska.
He comments: “People forget that there was a movement before the punky reggae thing, which was the skinhead movement. We’re talking about the fashion version, not the fascist version. They’d grown up on early reggae, particularly the records released on Trojan records.”
This cultural exchange between the skinheads and Jamaican migrants was the result of an interaction between working class white and black youths living in areas like Brixton, Notting Hill and Tottenham. This would lay the groundwork that would allow punk and reggae to intersect in the following decade.
In the 1970s, SEX, a shop owned by Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood helped launch the punk subculture. It did this with the help of another store on the King’s Road, Acme Attractions, which was being managed by Don Letts.
Acme Attractions was responsible for introducing many punks to reggae music. In addition, it was also a hangout for punks who were already knowledgeable about the genre, individuals like Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer from The Clash, and John Lydon from the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.
Through his connections in the scene, Don Lett was offered a job DJing at a new punk club called The Roxy. On January 1st 1977, The Roxy club in London opened its doors. In his role as DJ, Don Letts would once again be instrumental in introducing reggae music to a white British audience. As there were no punk records released at the time of its opening, he would instead play proto-punk, dub, and reggae for the audience to dance to in-between the band’s sets.
“What’s funny is that the punks used to say to me ‘look don’t worry about all that [proto-punk] stuff Don, just keep playing the reggae’, which is quite funny, you know. A lot of good things came out of that cultural exchange.’
Not all of the punks that visited The Roxy had grown up in areas where they had been exposed to black culture. Don Letts’ sets were in some cases the very first experience that the white audience had of listening to dub and reggae music.
In addition to his residency at The Roxy, Don would also pass around mix tapes that he had made to his friends to educate them. These friends included the Americans Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Lenny Kaye, a member of the Patti Smith Group.
Asked what made reggae so appealing to the punks, he argues: ‘That’s easy. It was very anti-establishment, and the songs had a musical reportage quality, so there singing about things that they could relate to – you know, songs like The Mighty Diamond’s ‘I Need a Roof Over My Head’, because housing was a big problem in the seventies.
“Chant Down Babylon’ is also in the same spirit as ‘White Riot’ and ‘Anarchy in The UK’. They used to be soundbite type lyrics that reggae had that kind of appealed to kids back then. It was anti-establishment and they loved the bass lines.
“People like Strummer, and Simonon were already listening to black music, particularly reggae, which had been set up by the whole skinhead thing. The people I turned on to listening to reggae were people who didn’t live next door to black people, and in the mid-seventies that was a lot of people.’
This cultural exchange between black and white music became more obvious as the decade drew on, with punk bands like The Slits, and The Clash incorporating reggae elements into their sound. This is evident on tracks such as ‘Instant Hit’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’ respectively.
All of this interest in Jamaican music was reciprocated in 1977, when popular reggae artist Bob Marley released the track ‘Punky Reggae Party’. This track celebrated musicians like The Clash, The Jam, and Dr Feelgood, who were involved with the punk movement.
In 1976 Bob Marley had been shot prior to performing at ‘Smile Jamaica’, a concert organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley. This incident led him to temporarily relocate to London, in order to recover from his injuries. Whilst there, he met a young Don Letts, who had become involved with the punk scene.
Asked how Bob Marley became aware of punk, Don recounts: ‘He was living in London at the time…and he had heard all the negative press. The tabloid press was portraying punk rather negatively; that’s what he picked up on initially. What happened was I went round there to collect some money off him. I had like bondage trousers on, and he started to [make fun of me]. I said ‘look, you’ve got it wrong. These guys are my mates. They’re like-minded rebels.’ He basically told me to [go away], but I held my ground, which was a big deal for me then because I was young.
“Anyway he’s in London and over the coming months he gets somewhat more familiar with the whole punk scene, primarily through a lot of journalists…who were interviewing him at the time. They’d be telling him what was going on with the punk scene. He picked up on it, a little bit later than some of us obviously – then again he was from Jamaica – and was moved to write that song ‘Punky Reggae Party’, in which he actually name checks several punk bands including The Clash.”
The scope of the reggae and punk crossover is truly astounding, and hard to encapsulate in so few words. Even today music is constantly being informed by Jamaican sounds, whether it be hip-hop, rock, or punk.
Reflecting on the legacy of this crossover, Don states: “It feels to me that it’s still evolving. I don’t think that it did peak, because it is an ongoing part of so much. It’s all over the place. The idea of pushing the bass to the front, that’s from reggae. That’s not gone anywhere. That’s still a major driving force.
‘The whole DJing, MCing, rap they call it now, that also started in Jamaica. That isn’t going anywhere. The space in dub, and the idea of using a mixing desk as an instrument, is still a major part in electronica and dub music, and dance music too. The 12” remix came out of Jamaica. I don’t see any of these things as having peaked. What they do is they keep evolving and morphing into other things.’