FIRST TRAIN TO SKAVILLE..!
The enduring presence of old-school ska and the various revivalist outbreaks that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic alongside the ever-developing forms and sub-sets of its descendant genre reggae is a mighty tribute to the passion and ingenuity of its pioneers back in the early ’60s. Whilst attempting to capture something of the dancehall drive of the jump-bands of the ‘40s and the thick gumbo sound of ‘50s Louisiana R&B, those Jamaican musicians managed to synthesize an extraordinarily compelling combination of lyrical wit, melodic inventiveness and irresistible rhythmic pulse.
My first encounter with Jamaica’s urban folk music predates its incendiary Two-Tone revival in the UK by a good 25 years. For me the music will be forever associated with that succession of first and second generation West Indians who settled in the terraced and tower-blocked suburban sprawl of South-East London. In the mid-‘60s I was a student at Goldsmiths’ College, the teacher training wing of London University. The main building was situated on the busy trunk road that had the Elephant and Castle as the gateway to the inner city at one end and the long-absorbed villages of Lewisham, Greenwich, Deptford, Blackheath, Catford and the shrivelling edges of rural Kent at the other.
Behind and beyond the college countless bisecting roads named after forgotten Victorian burgermeisters and Boer War battlegrounds linked the territories, each one lined either with flat-faced terraced housing, narrow front doors opening onto the street, or, more respectably, semi-detached late 19th century two- and three-storey villas, now converted into self-contained apartments. A seedy pall of neglect hung over the region, as if decades of smoke and coal dust from the steam railways lingered still. There was no consistent sense of entrenched ownership, no evidence of a stable core of residents whose long inhabitation declared belonging, a vibrant and centred community. Absentee landlords rented out the flats and a ragged tide of stony-faced sub-letting landladies, embattled families, elderly couples who wanted no trouble and students a long way from home ebbed and flowed through the shabbily furnished rooms. Corner shops, unchanged in appearance (and in some cases apparently in stock) since the early years of the century, supplied baked beans, sliced white bread and rolling tobacco to the neighbourhoods. Grim, chemically-lit self-service laundrettes churned the garments and bedclothes of the populace day and night. In steamy cafes bus drivers, off-duty postmen and truanting schoolkids ordered bacon butties and sucked on Pepsi-Colas and pints of orange tea. Dark, sticky-floored pubs served up warm pints to solitary old men by day and rollicking undergraduates by night.
It was the second year of the Drama course. After 10 years of boarding school I was ready for my own place and, with my pal Dick Hughes, I paid the deposit on a flat in a squalid little terraced house along the steep gradient that linked New Cross Gate with Deptford. Dick and I had the top floor – two minute bedrooms and a tiny kitchen with a veteran and stoneware sink and one cold water tap. There was no bathroom and, bafflingly, no toilet. In our anxiety to embrace the bohemian lifestyle we’d missed the bit where Mr. Buddhu, our landlord, had explained that we would need to arrange access to the single backyard toilet with the multi-generational Indian family downstairs. Since they rarely answered the door on which we pounded after a night’s steady drinking at the New Cross House, this access was rarely available. We managed a couple of weeks of bladder and bowel control and baths in the ancient municipal facility behind the college. But having managed to ignore the scurrying sounds at night, we finally drew the line at sharing cheese sandwiches with rats so bold that, when discovered at breakfast one morning, they remained at the kitchen table until they had finished.
A larger flat was found in Tyrwhitt Road. It occupied the middle of three floors and although the toilet and bathroom were shared, they were on our floor, as was the gas meter. (This cooperative piece of equipment wasn’t fussy about coinage and would accept readily one of those old French francs with the hole in the middle. We dangled the coin on a piece of tough fishing twine into the slot and sharply withdrew it the moment we heard the gas ignite). Again, we each had our own room, but this time the galley was marginally larger and it had a hot water tap. What puzzled us was why the rent was the same as what we had paid for the Clifton Rise rat trap. This was clarified for us by the cheery Irish proprietor of the corner shop. It was because all the other tenants, and the neighbours on both sides too, were from the Carribean and the landlord, a Greek Cypriot called Christodoulu, was generous to his white tenants in their adversity. In order to take up the financial slack, he simply charged his West Indian clients higher rents.
The family upstairs of us was quietly respectable. Every Sunday they would emerge wearing black suits and straw hats with lace veils, and white gloves and they’d head off for the Jubilee Baptist Church in Peckham. The family downstairs were in glorious, shamless contrast. They were a young couple called Byron and Lucinda Godrich with two tiny children, a girl, Millie, & a boy, Manley. Byron had a portable stall selling records and sheet music and he worked three times a week, moving between Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham markets. The remainder of the time he alternated between sinking deep into a broken-down sofa wreathed in smoke and dancing rubber-limbed on the threadbare carpet before the empty fireplace. Lucinda brewed black tea and stirred a permanently simmering pot of bully beef and rice with one child on her hip and the other clinging to her skirts.
Dick and I were made aware of their presence on the first night of our residence. Exhausted by the move (we’d transported all our possessions to and fro the mile-and-a-half lashed onto a single bicycle), we’d had a couple of beers and retired early. I was jerked out of a deep and dreamless sleep in the small hours by the sound of music. It wasn’t the usual dull, bass-heavy thump of unidentifiable music heard through walls; it was a masonry-shaking, pile driving immanence of sound driven by a lurching, rollocking rhythm with the emphasis on the offbeat. I sat up in bed transfixed. The immediate sensation was of being locked in the engine room of an ocean liner, a foot or two away from the driving pistons. But the secondary sensation on rising into wakelfulness was one of delight: what was this extraordinary noise that sounded so familiar and yet so exotic at the same time? It continued for about an hour, melody and tempo varying, but that loping beat a constant. And then suddenly it ceased, leaving in its wake the echo of rattling drums, bubbling bass, a guitar played on the upstroke, creaky, slightly off-key sax and brass and, riding on top, impassioned but largely incomprehensible lyrics.
The following day Byron, emerging from his flat to buy a paper, found me sitting on the stairs, my arms clasped around my knees, rocking back and forth like a child in pain, the skipping and churning having minutes before fired up again. Mistaking my hunched state for acute discomfort, he apologised profusely and turning back towards his door, he promised immediate silence. When hastily I put him right, he grinned, pushed a hand through his unruly hair and invited me in. I was introduced to the family, a cup of tea was brewed and we spent the rest of the morning (on a day dedicated to last-minute exam coaching at the college) going through stacked boxes of Trojan, Island and Blue Beat singles.
Over the next few months, driven by Byron Godriche’s messianic zeal, I received a crash course in state-of-the-art ska. Via the music from the likes of Jamaica Fats, Derrick Morgan, Cornell Campbell and Ezz Reco, I was able to make the clear connection between early ska and the tight-yet-loose swing beat of Louisiana R&B, the first point of distinct influence. Higgs and Wilson and Clancy Eccles introduced me to the greater emphasis on the vocal line. Early Jimmy Cliff brought in the contemporary influence of American chart pop styling, But most intoxicating of all was the surging pulse of the ska that was being recorded there and then, both in Kingston, Jamaica and in tiny studios all around South London, and an abiding love for The Skatalites, Toots and The Maytals, Prince Buster, Drumbago and The Blenders, Desmond Dekker and countless one-hit wonders was born. Although the incomprehensibility of most of the lyrics added to the mystery and dynamism of the music for me, Byron Insisted on translating everything and soon I was laughing with him (albeitt, as a rather unworldly middle class white boy, secretly shocked) at the open sexuality of his favourites – such tracks as Penny Reel and Papa, Do It Sweet, full of uninhibited bawdy joy. And I was deeply impressed and not a little intrigued by the strange melange of political satire and residual African iconography of other songs. It seemed that every area of human experience was covered by ska and all of it carried along on a storming, skanking beat.
Later, after I moved from Tyrwhitt Road to a flat in Lee Green, I used to delight in evening and night-time wandering up and down the roads leading off Lewisham High Street, moving through the merging pools of sound that spilled from one open window after another. Even more exciting was the brief time that my then girlfriend spent in a Goldsmiths’ hall of residence in Brixton (this locality having the highest density of West Indian population in London). I would drag her through the market, pausing at one record stall after another to part with the remnants of my student grant. In fact, a principal cause of our parting was, as I recollect, her always having to buy the drinks and cinema tickets!
By the time I started teaching, first at a primary school in New Cross and subsequently at a large and terrifying boys’ secondary school just off Albany Road, Deptford, ska had emerged from the ghetto. Records had charted and the first wave of skinheads had adopted the more obscure sounds as their signature music. Ska mutated into something altogether more accommodating to the host nation and my interest in its development waned as jangling folk-rock and feedback-happy psychedelia captured the hearts and souls of white middle class youth. The world changed very rapidly and my brief direct relationship with an emergent musical form that carried within it the evolving cultural identity and deep informing roots of an entire people was eclipsed by my own race’s preoccupation with a largely spurious and self-indulgent inner world. I had shared enormous shaggy spliffs with Byron and listened to early Bob Marley through a haze of half-sleep and laughter. But now serial smoking of ‘red leb’ & ‘pakki black’ (the casual racism entirely lost on us at the time) became the sacrament at the heart of the self-proclaimed ‘alternative culture’ and the instrumental functions of the drug as a filter through which to experience the music were transformed into something, in part at least, self-serving and fashionable.
It wasn’t until the sudden explosion of the post-punk Two Tone craze that I re-discovered ska. Music was still a vital force at the centre of my life – I was playing in a hard-working blues band and spending much too little time doing my bit at home. But I’d lost a sense of popular music as a defining element at the heart of a nascent culture. The parade of bands that swiftly followed in the wake of The Specials and Madness brought something of that back for me and, once again, I found myself shuffling to and fro, a white shade of my rubber-limbed black mentor, to the old classics and the new sounds that drew both reverently but innovatively from them.
It’s nearly 40 years since the founding of the Two-Tone label and, as I type, the sounds of The Maytals’ Funky Kingston give way to The Beat’s Stand Down, Margaret. Even in very advanced middle age, I can still ‘Do the Reggay’ as well as any other white fan of a quintessentially black musical form. However, much as I enjoy some of the more off-the-wall hip-hop, for me, a rather unworldly middle class white boy, the West Indian/British Afro-Caribbean nexus will always be best represented by the elemental loping rhythms of pure, mid-‘60s hard-skanking ska.
EZZ RECO / KING OF KINGS
PAPA, DO IT SWEET
JAMAICA SKA / TOOTS & THE MAYTALS
TWIST & CRAWL / THE BEAT