Kenny V Passley looks back at the 'Golden Era' of the UK's Original Sound Systems
The Sound Systems playing in the dances back in the day were KINGS
, Sir Dees, Federal,
Count Shelly, Metro Downbeat, Chicken (the original early morning / afternoon Blues)
, Sir Biggs and Admiral Ken were the biggest and best from North and East
London. Sir Coxsone, Neville Enchanter, Soprano B (Brixton’s original Studio One Sound)
and Mombassa were all legends from the Southwest. Jah Shaka
from the Southeast; Duke Vin
, Peoples Sound, The Mighty Sufferer and Sir Jessus in the West; Lord Koos, Java Nuclear Power and Hawkeye
in the Northwest; Quaker City, Jungle Man and Sir Christopher in the Midlands. These top ambassadors for Reggae music, plus loads more Sound Systems across the land, all had hundreds of followers flocking to their sessions to receive their weekly recharge of pride. Music back then was a large variety of styles – instrumentals, vocals, ‘toasting’ (deejay) - almost anything as long as it was good. You heard the full weight and power of the music through the massive speaker boxes and not the tons of filtered pure bass and a little bit of ‘tops’ (so that you can’t hear what the singer is saying) the way a lot of the Bashment (Dancehall) deejays play Reggae nowadays.
What Reggae’s lost from its own is also its gain from people of different cultural backgrounds who are now seen openly celebrating and documenting our rich musical heritage. Jah Shaka is still playing his Sound System to packed dances after 40 years and is still using the same equipment from the ‘70s! People of every race and class from all around the world come to England to see the man standing in front of his beautiful Garrard turntable and hear the almighty bass line from his valve amplifiers - equipment which everyone was using back in the ‘70s. A man using one turntable nowadays is like a museum piece! But some of us miss the lively comments from the crowd and DJs / Selectors between records - part of the great atmosphere in the presentation of Reggae music in the past. The style of music played by him is Roots & Culture and with the help of Bob Marley, Joseph Hill-Culture, Jimmy Cliff and others, it has now become the music of the sufferers worldwide.
I remember all those sessions at The Swan in Stockwell (South London) with Lord David Sound; Danny King at the Provident House in Battersea; Sir Coxsone at the Roaring Twenties club in the West End and the Georgian in Croydon. Lord Koos at Burtons in Cricklewood; the Mighty Sufferer at Metro in Ladbroke Grove; Fatman at the Nightingale in Wood Green and Red Lion in Leytonstone. Sir Dees at Loyola Hall in Stamford Hill; Admiral Ken in East London Stadium, Mile End and Neville ‘the Musical Enchanter’ at the Night Angel in Hanway Street, West End. And of course, Soprano B at Bali Hi in Streatham; Jah Shaka in Phoebes in Stoke Newington and the Moon Shot in New Cross …some of the more famously remembered regular Reggae club sessions of the seventies that kept the hardcore Reggae lovers well and truly happy.
Everyone remembers their favourite dances or Sound clashes but the most memorable dance for me was Count Shelly Vs Brixton’s D.Unis at the Four Aces club in East London. Famed for the tune ‘Emanuel’ by the late Dennis Brown, played to the public for the very first time by Shelly that had created a sweet sensation in the place. Another amazing event in the history of Reggae raving was Birmingham’s Quaker City Vs North London’s Fatman in Club Norrick in Tottenham, at the end of the seventies. This was a brutal demonstration on both sides of how to play the wickedest tunes with power which, to this day when mentioned, still cause those who were there to open their eyes wide and lean forward. In my opinion, the greatest dance of all time occurred in the same place – Jah Shaka Vs Sir Coxsone Vs Fatman. People were still trying to get in early morning to hear what was regarded by most as the ultimate battle of the three kings who dominated Reggae music in the UK at that time.
Fatman caused all kinds of problems with his exclusive Channel One studio dubplates. Meanwhile, Shaka unleashed countless versions of what was to become his most famous ‘Sound destroying’ tunes – the African sounding human cargo’s ‘Carry Us Beyond’. Sir Coxsone sounded typically crystal clear and played a thrilling no horns or vocals, straight cut to Fred Locks’ ‘Love And Only Love’ which, set the place ablaze! We’d wish the night would never end… the music that was being played at those sessions had often never been heard before – that was the norm, unlike now. In those days, ‘new tunes’ meant completely new and not just familiar riddims with different DJs on them…the youths of today definitely missed out on that!
Whatever we do in the Reggae world, we don’t know who we are influencing but, whatever is thrown aside by the Reggae masses in favour of the modern Dancehall form (Ragga/Bashment) has now been developed into other forms of popular music like ‘Drum & Bass’ and ‘House & Garage’. There was a time when many could not understand why we needed so much noise to hear our music and why there was a man talking on some of the records. Nowadays, every nightclub and most car stereos all have the same high noise level and equipment pioneered from Reggae’s Sound System scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And Hip-hop music, pioneered by the Jamaican Sound System Herculord in the Bronx at the beginning of the ‘70s, is now truly global.
Also worth mentioning was the 1980 gold cup at Acton Town Hall – a controversial night with Soprano B Vs Sir Coxsone Vs Jah Shaka (with Shaka playing Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’, to name but one of the dangerous tunes). The Mighty Sufferer at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival was serious! That was when the carnival was a proper carnival – wild all night into the next day with all the best Sounds in the country playing there. MCs would chant, ‘ah who say’ and if the people loved the tune they’ll all shout out, ‘go deh’…. the Sound would re-wind the tune or play more cuts…talk about excitement! Those were the days when people first wore combat clothes in the dances – it’s popular now in all different music scenes but it started from Reggae back then.
A major problem that we have nowadays is too many short sighted, greedy Promoters trying to cash in on the ‘celebrity’ status of some radio DJs who, seem to have taken over from our beloved Sound Systems. They bring their ‘radio style’ presentation into our sessions and give us almost more talking than music! Another aspect in modern times which is noticeable by the older generation is that there is around ten of these DJs playing on one Bill, each one trying to show the others that they can get the loudest reaction from the crowd. And so, they all end up playing the same over-familiar records instead of taking the crowd through a range of interesting new tunes.
Gone are the days when just one Deejay played Reggae all night from 10.00pm until the last person leaves or, as in the case of most ‘Blues Dance (Shub-Een)’, until 2:00pm the next afternoon! The real point of the raves then was aiming to really please the people which don’t seem to happen anymore – it’s just do your bit, collect the money and gone – this bad attitude is very common amongst DJs. Away from music, the success of any long running business product is based upon its heritage and tradition which means holding on to the soundness of the original plan, modernize it but don’t change the foundation or else it becomes something else. If Reggae music was now made with the same amount of attention to detail and quality that Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Gussie Clarke, Harry J, Joe Gibbs and Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle paid then there would be a lot more people happy!
SEE ALSO REGGAE GAP & ROCKSTEADY STORY [Tabs top Left]