The School Disco

Originally published May 2007

My American wife loves watching 1980s teen movies like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles (she was at high school herself during that era and I think she wanted to be Molly Ringwald) and what always strikes me watching these films is what a completely different universe an American school is compared to English ones. U.S. schools seem to be more like social clubs ruled by the good-looking and the athletic that revolve around dating, sports, being popular (the most important thing) and events like Prom and Homecoming dances which have a life and death significance in kid’s lives.

We don’t have Proms or Homecoming in England, what we had – if we were lucky – was the occasional School Disco. They weren’t the elaborate affairs that Proms are, with kids arriving in limos all decked out in tuxedos and ballgowns to be entertained by live bands and professional DJs. At my school the couple of discos we had were held in one of the classrooms with the music provided by some kid in the corner with a record player and a pile of 45s. There may have been some orange squash in paper cups for refreshments too but I’m not sure we even had that extravagance. In many ways this perfectly encapsulates the differences between the two countries (at least back then): you have the rich, glamourous Americans with their confidence and perfect teeth, while us Brits were a bit shabby and pathetic, making our entertainment out of old Cornflakes boxes and sticky-back plastic.

I went to an all-boys school which meant we were also missing one vital ingredient for a good disco: girls. They had to be invited over from the local girls school and they arrived as these exotic, alien creatures that we’d heard a lot about but had no idea how to communicate with. So the picture above shows exactly how the evening always ended up, the girls dancing together on one side of the room while the boys just stared at them from afar, too scared to cross the terrifying No Man’s Land of the room and talk to them. Occasionally there was a boy with the front to actually go and chat one of them up and you always hated/envied those confident, jammy bastards.

If I’d had the bottle to actually ask a girl to dance I might have a “special” school disco record to remind me of that moment, but I didn’t so there isn’t one. Reggae was always very popular though, you’d have to be a total spazz not to be able to singalong and dance to something like “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna. This got to No. 1 in 1977 and was a massive favourite with everyone apart from the some of the West Indian kids at school who were into heavy dub and pooh-poohed this sort of light, pop-reggae (they even called Bob Marley “white man’s music”.)

This kind of dusty, skanking beat always reminds me of those days, and in my head it’s playing on a tinny record player in the corner of some dingy classroom and I’m standing there all alone with a paper cup of warm orange squash in my hand, too scared to go and ask Jackie Bolton to dance.

Download: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (mp3)

Update: Since I wrote this it seems that a lot English schools do now have Proms which I find a bit depressing.


Ranking Full Stop

Well this has been a shitty week. First we lost Scott Walker, and now Ranking Roger has joined the great band in the sky too. The Beat were such an underrated band, despite having a bunch of hits and being consistently great over three albums they seemed to be a little in the shadow of The Specials and Madness. But they were just as good as them — often better — and Roger was such a big part of their appeal, adding flavour and spice to their punky-reggae stew.

My favourite things they did was their 12″ singles where they stretched out into more dubby directions. Like this gem which was on the b-side of “Too Nice To Talk To.”

Download: Psychedelic Rockers (Dubweiser) – The Beat (mp3)

Maggie’s Millions

Originally published September 2008. I chose this one because UB40 were in the news recently and I discovered that sadly a lot of Americans regard them only as some one-hit joke band loved by white frat boys.

In 1972 unemployment in the UK hit 1 million people for the first time since The Great Depression and there was concern that it would cause some sort of social breakdown in the country. By 1980 Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister and the number had grown to 2 million, and only three years later it was a whopping 3 million. During those 11 years punk had been and gone and we’d had strikes, power cuts, economic crisis, a 3-day work week, riots and a Winter of Discontent — society might not have broken down but it was definitely feeling a bit stressed out and in need of a holiday. But Maggie told us there was no alternative to her tough love and the only advice her Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit had for the unemployed was to get on their bikes if they wanted to find a job. What a lovely man he was.

I was one of “Maggie’s Millions” on a couple of occasions myself in the 80s and though I was only ever out of work for a few months at the most, being on the dole was a depressing experience. With nothing to do all day and little money to keep yourself occupied, just getting out of bed in the morning can be hard as you wonder what the point of getting up is. But I was lucky, I didn’t live in a town that had its factory or coal mine shut down (or to be in profession that had factories) but up North you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’d lost their job and their future when England’s manufacturing and industrial base collapsed and died. I didn’t have to choose to cut down on beer or the kid’s new gear either, but there were days when I had to choose between cigarettes and food – I nearly always chose cigarettes, ten Marlboro lasted a lot longer than a meal did.

It says something about how unemployment dominated the landscape that one of the most popular and relevant bands at the time took their name from a form given to people on the dole. When you sign on in England you are given Unemployment Benefit Form No.40 which you have to bring to the dole office every time you claim benefit, this is more commonly known as a UB40. There can’t be that many other bands named after government paperwork and their debut album Signing Off had a replica of a UB40 card on the cover.

I had one of these tan coloured ones when I was first on the dole but it was changed to a minty green at some point, they were probably thinking the brighter colour would make the whole unemployment experience a bit more cheerful.

Younger readers might only think of UB40 as purveyors of light, singalong pop-reggae, but before “Red Red Wine” made them stinking rich they were a serious, overtly-political band who had more in common with The Clash than Musical Youth. Bloody good they were too — especially live — and for a (mostly) white group they had a real feel for Reggae and knew how to do an extended Dub mix like these two beauties from 1980.

Download: The Earth Dies Screaming (12″ version) – UB40 (mp3)
Download: I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (12″ version) – UB40<

Beyond Belief

Dah yard de odder night
when mi hear “Fire!”
“Fire, to plate claat!”
Who dead? You dead?
Who dead? Me dead?
Who dead? Harry dead?
Who dead? Eleven dead

Download: Mi Cyaan Believe It – Michael Smith (mp3)

Michael Smith was a Jamaican Dub Poet who released just the one album in 1982 before being murdered in his homeland the following year. The album was produced by his British peer Linton Kwesi Johnson, but Smith’s patois is so thick he makes Johnson sound like WH Auden so this can be hard to understand, though his passion and anguish aren’t. Words with translation here.

I heard John Peel play this one night back in ’82 and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s still mesmerizing and chilling. 

Sadly the experience of being poor or a coloured immigrant hasn’t changed much since he wrote it. We might even be going backwards. With its combination of greedy landlords trying to save money at the expense of the lives of the less well-off in one of London’s richest boroughs, the Grenfell Tower tragedy is like something out of Dickens.

Slave to the Riddim

If you went to a punk or post-punk gig in the late 70s and early 80s the music playing before the band came on nearly always included some reggae. The punks were attracted to it’s roots-rock-rebel stance, the post-punks loved the rumbling bass and empty spaces of dub, and both groups liked the Rasta’s weed.

With her piled up dreadlocks and tribal bohemian style, Slits’ lead singer Ari Up looked like the poster girl for this cultural crossover. Outside of her day job she was one of the forces behind the formation of The New Age Steppers, the loose reggae/dub collective formed by producer Adrian Sherwood — her flatmate at the time — which also included members of Aswad, The Pop Group, and Rip, Rig & Panic (featuring a young Neneh Cherry). She lent her vocals to their 1980 debut single “Fade Away” which is one of my favourite records to come out of the post-punk/reggae scene. It’s less experimental than some of the Steppers’ other output and the charm of Ari’s off-kilter voice nicely sweetens the echoey caverns of the dubby spaces.

Download: Fade Away – The New Age Steppers (mp3)

The First Time From Jamaica

I posted this image on Twitter last week and it got 91 retweets and 130 likes, by far the most popular tweet I’ve ever had. Not exactly Kim Kardashian numbers but good enough for me. The only thing I know about the photo is it was taken by none other than Linda McCartney in 1977 but I have no idea where.

I don’t need to tell you clever people that what makes this photo so interesting and retweetable is the poster on the right advertising the concert Joe Strummer went to that led him to write possibly The Clash’s best single. That list of names is virtually a chorus of the song.

Sadly, not only is Joe Strummer no longer with us but the Palais is gone too. In place of the legendary venue where my parents met and I saw so many great gigs now stands luxury student flats with a swanky 24-hour gym. There’s probably a song in that too.

Download: Happiness Is My Desire – Leroy Smart (mp3)
Download: Once Upon A Time – Delroy Wilson
Download: Is It Because I’m Black? – Ken Boothe (mp3)