The West Midlands played a key role in the spread of reggae’s popularity from the 1960s onwards in at least two respects, with an interest in early forms of Jamaican popular music first generated by the starting up of record shops devoted to imports from Jamaica as well as UK copies. This in turn stimulated an interest among 1960s musical tribes that became known as mods (through reggae was not their only sphere of influence, gritty soul and even jazz 45s being among other interests) and early skinheads (those who were inspired by the rude boys of Kingston). Brian Harris was one shop owner who played a pioneering role in popularising reggae music in its earliest manifestations and a decade later he was at the forefront of the roots reggae emergence in that he launched a label, Mango, that would release classic Jamaican roots music such as Yabby You. Another fledgling label, Black Wax, would follow suit and release Wayne Wade’s ‘Black is our colour’, another classic roots production from Yabby You. This access to the then latest sounds coming out of Jamaica enabled a younger generation of British born youths of West Indian heritage to take on board the musical developments there and start to perform their own brand of roots music which created the genesis for a home grown UK reggae sound. It is the latter that is the subject of this extremely well documented anthology of early roots sounds from the mid-late 1970s. Birmingham, as the largest city in the West Midlands conurbation, played a pivotal role, but it should be stressed that it was not alone and both Coventry and Wolverhampton had their own important role, for the former in a new form two-tone that took elements of the past in ska and fused that with the infectious DIY enthusiasm of punk and the Specials and the Selector influenced a new generation of youths in turn irrespective of ethnic origins.
If one West Midlands group gained an international reputation in reggae circles above all (with UB 40 as the more pop friendly the other Birmingham group that should be mentioned, though their first album and dub companion stands the test of time as a roots inspired release), then it was Steel Pulse whose 1978 album ‘Handsworth Revolution’ on Island records is a seminal slice of UK reggae that compares favourably with anything that was coming out of Jamaica at the same time. However, that and subsequent releases were on national labels whereas the first 45 included here, ‘Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku’ , was on a small DIP Concert Jungle outlet. It takes a leaf out of the close vocal harmonies of groups such as the Abysssinians and is a fine example of early Steel Pulse. The instrumental version complete with dub effects is included. Another group that would enjoy pop chart success in the 1980s is featured and their sound will surprise some. Musical Youth came to fame with ‘Pass the Dutchie’, a reworking of a Mighty Diamonds ode to smoking a spliff or ‘kutchie’. However, before that they enlisted a former lead singer of the Techniques, a Jamaican rock steady group of distinction, in Frederick Waite Sr. to perform lead on the message laden ‘Political’. Many UK reggae groups were heavily influenced by their own social concerns at the time and their place within British society. One of this writer’s favourite songs is by a little known group called Man from the Hills, probably a reference to the Burning Spear album of the same name, and this is entitled ‘Redemption day’. The horns are especially strong and have something of a ‘Satta Massagana’ feel
However, Birmingham was not the only city in which there was feverish reggae activity in the West Midlands and Wolverhampton is represented by a relatively short-lived group who nonetheless made a major impact within reggae circles and eventually secured a contract with Greensleeves and this was Capital Letters. Their debut single, ‘I will never’, features a typically roots backdrop. One of the advantages of this compilation is that enables the listener to hear some of the very first examples of a UK roots sound emerging and in the case of ‘Instruments’ by Mystic Foundation that meant some adolescent sounding lead vocals. Elsewhere the bass heavy ‘Rome’ by Oneness is a hard to find 12″ that hints at the dancehall revolution that was then soon to arrive, while a 1981 release from the excellent Eclipse in ‘Blood fi dem’ deserved to be a bigger hit and has a strong 1970s feel to it. Dub poetry was an offshoot of the social concerns of reggae and Benjamin Zephaniah has progressed to being one of the foremost poets in contemporary British society. It was an unexpected pleasure to hear Zephaniah here accompanied by instrumentation and a typically upfront statement in ‘Unite Handsworth’ has definite shades of Linton Kwesi Johnson to it, the latter of whom is arguably Britain’s finest ever dub poet. It needs to be indicated that this excellent anthology forms part of a larger documentation of British reggae and not only are other geographical locations covered, but different eras and styles with more contemporary reggae not forgotten.