Whose roots? A parallel history

Before we arrive at seventies soul, there is another, parallel history that needs to be briefly considered. The soul scenes I’ll be discussing were primarily focused on American recorded music. With a few important exceptions (such as The Equals, mentioned above), it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that a home-grown form of black British soul began to emerge. The parallel history I want to consider briefly here has been much more fully documented by historians and sociologists: it’s about the role of African-Caribbean music, and its relationship with white audiences. Once again, I will need to be very economical with the detail.

As I have noted, reggae (and related styles such as ska, blue beat and rock steady) enjoyed only limited crossover success in the mainstream (white) UK pop market in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, and in particular with the success of Bob Marley and the Wailers, that it became more widely popular in global markets, and especially in Britain. Yet at the same time, there were other forms of reggae that appealed to more specific audiences, both white and black.

Marley’s wider success was partly a result of his being signed up by a white Caribbean producer, Chris Blackwell. In fact, Blackwell had also produced the first UK reggae hit, ‘My Boy Lollipop’, back in 1964. He played a key role in developing Marley’s music for a white audience more accustomed to progressive rock: this extended to the production qualities, the use of guitar solos, and the packaging of Marley as an attractive, charismatic ‘star’. Arguably, the overt political messages that were evident in Marley’s early music became gentler and more inclined towards ‘feel-good’ sloganising as his career progressed, although his Rastafarian righteousness provided a sufficient dose of black authenticity to appeal to a large white audience.

However, some of the music that followed in Marley’s wake might initially have appeared less palatable to this crossover market. ‘Roots’ reggae was less compromising, both in its overtly political lyrics and its promotion of Rastafarianism, and in its use of experimental ‘dub’ techniques. While this music appealed primarily to some black audiences, it was also taken up in the latter half of the decade by white punks and by anti-racist political campaigners. Meanwhile, towards the end of the 1970s, a group of home-grown British reggae artists emerged, including bands like Steel Pulse, Misty and Aswad, and the ‘dub poet’ Linton Kwesi Johnson. All these acts spoke directly from the experience of first- and second-generation black Britons, and developed a form of reggae that was arguably rather different from the Jamaican original: some also enjoyed a measure of crossover success with white audiences.

Part of this appeal can be put down to the explicit anti-racist politics of the Rock Against Racism campaign. RAR was formed in 1976: it was a response to a more general rise in racist politics, but the immediate trigger that provoked it was a drunken outburst by the guitarist Eric Clapton at a live concert in Birmingham. Clapton urged the audience to vote for the racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who had famously predicted that there would be ‘rivers of blood’ in English cities if immigration was allowed to continue. After a diatribe about ‘wogs’ and ‘coons’, Clapton shouted the National Front slogan ‘Keep Britain White’. The irony here was obvious: Clapton had built a career on playing black urban blues, and had only recently recorded a cover version of Marley’s song ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, which had been more successful than the original. Clapton subsequently blamed the bottle, and denied some of the allegations, but it was not until 2018 that he fully apologized for his comments. Meanwhile, soon afterwards, David Bowie was photographed giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute while standing in his open-top Mercedes on his return from Germany. Bowie claimed that the image was misleading, but there was little doubt that his recent music, and some of his reported comments, reflected a growing interest in Hitler and his theories of the ‘master race’. In the years that followed, Rock Against Racism organized an energetic programme of local gigs and much larger-scale carnivals and festivals; and its success was followed by the formation of a broader political group, the Anti-Nazi League. Both organisations played a vital role in opposing the rise of right-wing racism well into the 1980s.

These campaigns also coincided with the rise of punk rock. While punk was largely a preoccupation for white youth, many punks expressed enthusiasm for reggae – and not so much for the rock-friendly music of Marley as for the more militant forms of roots reggae and dub. A key figure in this crossover was the black British DJ and film-maker Don Letts, who mixed dub and reggae tunes with punk in his sets at punk clubs. Interestingly, Letts had never visited his parents’ home of Jamaica until he went there on a trip with the punk star Johnny Rotten in the late 1970s. Although many of the pioneers of punk were far from working-class, this enthusiasm for reggae might be seen as a clear instance of the kind of infatuation Simon Jones described among the white youth he studied in Birmingham in the early 1980s: roots reggae offered a way of expressing resistance to authority and oppression much more generally.

In terms of racism itself, however, the punks were arguably rather more ambivalent. Many sported Nazi symbols, perhaps primarily in order to shock the older generation, although they seemed to have little awareness of their wider significance. Despite in some cases proclaiming anti-racist views, some punk bands like Sham 69 also attracted a violent right-wing following; and in the late 1970s, this tendency was especially apparent among the skinhead followers of Oi music, a kind of spin-off from punk. The struggle to prevent outbreaks of racist chanting was a regular feature of punk gigs at this time. Rock Against Racism deliberately programmed mixed events, where punk bands would play on the same bill as reggae acts; and the climax of these gigs (and hence top billing) was often reserved for black bands, especially British reggae acts.

Nevertheless, roots reggae and the more commercial work of artists like Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, was not the only form of reggae at this time. Particularly notable in the UK was the success of what became known as ‘lovers’ rock’. Despite the label, this music had little to do with rock: it was essentially a hybrid of reggae and smooth Philadelphia soul. Although some Jamaican artists (such as Alton Ellis) can be aligned with lovers’ rock, the genre was largely created by second-generation black British artists, singers like Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson, and the producer Dennis Bovell. Lovers’ rock can be seen as another key example of the ‘Black Atlantic’: it was a distinctively black British sound, although several of the songs were covers of American soul hits (which had always been a key part of reggae), and the music subsequently gained a wide following in Jamaica. Lovers’ rock was romantic rather than politically righteous, and was especially (though not exclusively) targeted at a female audience; and it was largely ignored by white political activists and cultural critics, both at the time and since.

The success of reggae in the UK also depended upon a commercial infrastructure. While some of this – such as small local record shops, mobile sound systems and informal blues parties – was owned and controlled by black entrepreneurs, other aspects were not. Some of the key record labels releasing Jamaican music were owned by whites: Trojan Records, for example, was originally part of Chris Blackwell’s Island group. Another key figure for British audiences was David Rodigan, a radio DJ who has hosted specialist reggae shows, first on local radio in London and eventually on national stations, since the 1970s. Rodigan has told about how he was initially rejected for his first job at the BBC on the grounds that he was white; and when he first played to Jamaican audiences, they found this disconcerting and hard to accept. However – like later white DJs, including hip-hop specialist Tim Westwood – Rodigan has achieved considerable status among black listeners. As we’ll see, this issue recurs in the soul scenes, especially in the case of Northern Soul, where all the DJs were white, even if the artists whose music they were playing were almost exclusively black.


The moment of two-tone

The ultimate fulfillment of this cultural crossover – and of the anti-racist politics of Rock Against Racism – arrived in the late 1970s in the form of the two-tone movement. Two-tone was led by a group of multi-racial bands that emerged from the declining industrial heartland of the English Midlands: the Specials and Selecter were from Coventry, while the Beat came from Birmingham. Only Madness, who arrived a little later and were by far the longest-lasting, came from London. As a form of music, two-tone merged the rough energy of punk with the off-beats and dub-wise sounds (and occasional vocal ‘toasting’) of ska and roots reggae. As I’ve noted, ska had enjoyed some popularity among the mods in the early 1960s, and among skinheads later in the decade; and to some extent two-tone could be seen as another ska revival.

However, two-tone was also much more explicitly political than earlier forms of ska, both in terms of the overt messages of some of the songs, and in terms of the contexts in which it was played. Jerry Dammers, the leader of the Specials and the founder of the independent label 2-Tone (on which all the bands were released) was also very active in the Rock Against Racism campaign, and two-tone bands were regular fixtures at RAR events. Even here, the bands attracted a marginal following among racist skinheads, which Dammers and others sometimes struggled to prevent. The marketing of two-tone also embodied this anti-racist aspiration, with the distinctive black-and-white illustrations of the record covers and regular use of a checkerboard design. Both black and white artists typically dressed in a Jamaican ‘rude boy’ style, with porkpie hats, tonic suits, loafers and checkered braces (for both men and women).

Two-tone was a short-lived moment. The Specials were formed in 1977 and effectively broke up in 1981, shortly after the success of their definitive chart-topping single ‘Ghost Town’, a gloomy yet defiant response to Thatcherism. Dammers continued with a new lineup as The Special AKA until 1984, releasing the Rock Against Racism anthem ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, although the two-tone concept had largely faded away by this time. The Specials ultimately collapsed under the pressure of achieving fame and money so quickly: Dammers’ efforts to run the band and the record label as a non-racist, non-sexist collective proved difficult to sustain. Two-tone was by no means only political in its intent: it also produced some great dance music, and some notable songs of adolescent angst. However, the explicit politics of some of its key figures tied it to a particular campaign in a way that limited it to its time. Madness, the more fun-loving and less political of the bands (and the only one that was all white), went on to lasting pop success, but otherwise two-tone is now little more than a nostalgic memory: there is now a two-tone ‘village’ with a museum, café and gift shop in Coventry.

Two-tone appeared a few years after Dick Hebdige’s original comments about the ‘phantom history’ of youth culture, although it represents one of its most obvious manifestations. In a sense, it is this very obviousness or self-consciousness that makes it less interesting from my point of view. The relationship between punk and reggae, and the early aspirations of two-tone, fit well with the story of youth culture as a matter of resistance to authority and the ‘dominant ideology’ (as we used to say in the 1970s). By contrast, the two distinct ‘soul scenes’ that I will investigate in the following sections were much more ambivalent and complex – not least politically.


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