By Geoff Stanton
“The Rastas loved John” said reggae icon Don Letts, who accompanied Johnny Rotten to Jamaica in 1978 to scout for Virgin’s Front Line reggae label. “To them he was the punk rock Don from London – they were aware of all the trouble he had stirred up in London. They were into what he stood for and his stance, and they dug it. John just had a vibe you know, people were drawn to him. It was the same in London; it was the same in Kingston”.
When Richard Branson decided to send John Lydon - a passionate reggae fanatic – to Jamaica as an envoy for Virgin, a fusion of punk, dub and reggae was already fast simmering in London. The job was also welcome timing for the Sex Pistols frontman. Since becoming punk’s tabloid gristle Lydon had been stabbed in the street, glassed in the face, raided weekly by police, abandoned in the US after a shipwreck of a tour – even had Parliament clamouring after his neck for “acts of treason”. Scouting a heartland of dub and reggae artists was babylon by comparison.
“The bond was very simple,” Peter Harris, the British reggae guitarist who played on Punky Reggae Party with Bob Marley, told The Guardian. “Blacks were getting marginalised. British Irish kids – like Rotten – and black youths were forced together because of signs on pub doorways that read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, which became the title of Rotten’s autobiography. The punks were the same. They were seen as dregs of society. We were all anti-establishment, so there was a natural synergy between us.”
Jamaica was also Lydon’s last stop before forming Public Image Ltd; the powerhouse of dub-fused poptone that bassist Jah Wobble recalled “would literally make your trousers flap”.
“John already had that spaciousness, that blueprint in his mind long before we went to Jamaica.” said Letts. “He really knew his reggae. I have to emphasise that, him and Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Jah Wobble, they understood dub, deeply, they had a lot of music I didn’t have you know. We went to a lot of sound system sessions here in London too, people like Jah Shaka, Coxsonne, Moa Ambessa, so really, his experiences in Jamaica were an extension of what had already been in his mind for years, back in North London.”
Rotten arrived in Jamiaca with Letts, journalist Vivien Goldman and photographer Dennis Morris, who had impressed Lydon with his photos of Bob Marley, and had subsequently taken some of the first photos of the Pistols. Branson had them stay at The Sheraton – a salubrious joint with a hotel bar that was a hotbed of rotating talent.
“Knocking back the rum or fruit punches, depending on their religious inclinations” wrote Goldman “are a changeable line-up of reggae musicians. Very occasionally Peter Tosh, frequently a sprinkling of Gladiators, The Abyssinians, I-Roy and U-Roy, and Tapper Zukie and The Tamlins, Jah Lion, Prince Hammer, Johnny Clarke, John Holt, the mighty Culture with the other two Cultures, Robbie Shakespeare, Sly, Chinna, Bim Sherman, Lee Perry, Inner Circle, Prince Mahmoud, Big Youth, The Congos – it got so that you felt like you were wading through your singles collection every time you went to get a glass of water.”
“We smoked a chalice together with U Roy for breakfast” recalled Letts. “And then went out to one of his dances, miles out in the countryside - quite a long journey by car. I remember the dreads stringing up this sound, and kicking off with some earthquake dubs. Now let me tell you this sound system was LOUD. Me and John literally passed out. I remember hours later some dreads shaking us awake, it was like, “Wake up man, dance done, dance finish now man!” Yeah, it was pretty wild for me and John out in Jamaica. We loved it.”
Meanwhile, Lydon’s ‘Rotten’ moniker got dumped in translation for Johnny ‘Cool’.
Goldman wrote about John’s reputation: “One night John and The Congos, being in an elevated mood on account of nature’s bounty – the cave, and other things – were in prime meditative position. Cedric was regaling us with stories of his past, when a loud buzzing noise intruded on the conversation. Coupled with a strange red glow from overhead. Look up, and what do you see? – a helicopter whirring through the Kingston skies, looking both out of place and rather too militantly low-flying for comfort.
“What’s that for?” snapped John. “There could be a war going on down here, and no one would be able to see it. It’s just to annoy, like a mosquito. Make people paranoid, scared. Keep the population down.”
Roy and Cedric (The Congos) looked at one another.
“Johnny knows,” sighed Cedric.
“Johnny’s seen great heights,” Roy affirmed solemnly.
“Johnny Cool, y’know?”
Branson’s label ended up signing a number of artists to the label including Prince Far I, Big Youth, Prince Hammer, Tappa Zukie, Sly Dunbar, and The Twinkle Brothers, and many artists already with Virgin also moved to the new label. Back in London the punk-reggae movement was picking up the pace. In 1978 activists started putting punk and reggae bands on together for a series of Rock Against Racism gigs, featuring bands as varied as XTC, Aswad, Generation X, Tribesman, the Slits, Joy Division and Misty – playing to oppose the rising National Front. The gig headlined by The Clash and Steel Pulse in east London’s Victoria Park drew a crowd of 80,000 people.
But just as punk was eventually submerged beneath a Top of the Pops sheen, by the 1980s reggae acts were also diluting their sound to get hit singles, crossing into mainstream pop with bands such as the Police and Culture Club – something of an eighties signature sound, but several times removed from the bass-heavy grooves of the London and Kingston originals. Groups like UB40, Madness and the Specials are well regarded – not really as reggae or ska bands, but as British pop groups.
Branson’s Front Line eventually folded after two years although some of the artists remained signed to Virgin. In a 2010 interview Letts sounded wistful about the lost chord that music struck in the 70s.
“Right now it feels like punk never happened. All the things that helped create punk rock; racism, recession, strikes – other than power cuts – all the things we had in the late seventies are happening again today. What’s happening about it? I don’t know. All I know is that all the interesting ideas are coming from the amateur and the naive, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anyone who meets those criteria in the west.”
It’s an echo of Lydon’s natural cynicism in ’78 when discussing his efforts to find and recruit players for his new group (which would become PIL). “And I don’t mean mugs and prats and tits and liggers and wankers and madmen with pea-brained ideas about changing the musical course of history” he told Vivien Goldman. “Because we all know that that’s impossible.”
Meanwhile, if anyone chances upon a copy of The Upsetters version of the Pistols’ Submission or Problems, please let Barrelhouse know.