Director: Nicholas Jack Davies (UK). Year of Release: 2019
Trojan records was formed in the UK in 1968 and for seven years was one of the few international distributors of ska, rocksteady, reggae and other Jamaican music. The music provided a lifeline for many of the second generation migrants who’d been dragged to Britain by their parents, but were finding it difficult to feel accepted in a cold hostile country – Trojan was formed in the same year that Enoch Powell made his notorious racist “Rivers of Blood” speech.
Later, the music was taken up by working class skinheads living in the same community as their neighbours from the Caribbean – “the skinheads of fashion, not the skinheads of fascism”, as Don Letts calls them. While I have some reservations about people finding unity in the same clothes sold by the fashion industry, it is clear that the scene helped created unity in poor estates that transcended racist ideas.
This documentary makes the case for the importance of music in bringing white and black youth together and creating the basis for a common cause of anti-racism. Unfortunately the early demise of Trojan in 1975 means that the presence of reggae bands like Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots at Rock Against Racism carnivals is out of its remit, but the presence of Pauline Black and Neville Staple among the talking heads nods forward to Two Tone music which carried on the tradition.
We start, though, in Jamaica in the 1950s, and the music created by former policeman and liquor store owner Duke Reid. We soon move forward to independence in 1962. Around the same time hundreds of thousands left the country, A plummy BBC announcer explains that this was not to escape a newly liberated country, but to raise money for their homeland. As they landed in a new country, the new Britons brought their records with them.
Unlike previous music genres, early Jamaican music relied on the turntable and large speakers at parties rather than live performances. This makes things difficult for a documentary film maker. Not only is there little footage of music in a past Jamaica. Even if this footage did exist, shots of people playing records would be only of limited interest. Instead actors re-enact what might have happened, which is ok as far as it goes, but starts to get a little tiresome.
As Jamaican music started to infiltrate the charts, some live performances started to hit tv screens. First there’s Millie Small who had a hit in 1964 with “My Boy Lollipop”. Small was a young black woman, and in this sense a bit of an exception, Many of the songs of the time were sung by men and tended to glorify the Rude Boy lifestyle.
A Rude Boy was a rebel, but also a gangster and – listening to a lot of the songs here – a lot of a macho dick. There was a little rebellion in these songs, but a lot of self-glorification (or glorification of the local people of power). It got to a stage where gangsters started to commission local singers to write a Rude Boy song about them.
Things changed a little in 1967, when Dandy Livingstone’s wrote “Rudy A Message to You”, a song more familiar to my generation by the Specials’ similarly-named cover version. Rather than glorifying a violent, sexist Rude Boy, Livingstone called him to ”Stop your runnin’ about It’s time you straighten right out. Stop your runnin’ around Making trouble in the town” Livingstone called for the Rude Boy to get a grip and stop being so full of himself.
With the formation of Trojan, the musical axis started to move to the UK. This was not good enough for influential radio DJs like Tony Blackburn (ask your gran), who pronounced that reggae was nothing he wanted to play on Radio 1. The growth of pirate radio enabled an audience for reggae, especially on council estates, and it wasn’t long before artists like Desmond Dekker were topping the charts (in Dekker’s case with Israelites).
In 1970, there was a reggae festival at Wembley, and Bob and Marcia had a UK hit with a cover of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black”. The song’s raw anger spoke to the rising feeling of self-confidence of young black kids who were not prepared to accept the racism that had been endured by their parents. The film interviews Marcia Griffiths, who sings the song a cappella (as do a number of musicians interviewed here) giving a sense of the song’s power.
In 1974, Ken Boothe went number 1 with a cover of Bread’s “Everything I Own”. There is a good case to be made that Boothe’s song represented the domestication of the once angry and anti-racist reggae music. And yet this argument is a little superficial. Bob Marley released Johnny Was in 1976 and Exodus in 1977, and – as acknowledged by the film – many punk bands, in particular The Clash – took Jamaican music as an inspiration. They just weren’t doing it on Trojan records.
This is where Rudeboy sidesteps an important point. If reggae continued to be such an important music form, why did Trojan records collapse in 1975? My own knowledge is this Is fairly limited, but I have vague awareness of financial shenanigens. It would have been interesting know why this particular story came to an abrupt halt, rather than just telling us that all of a sudden everything stopped.
Nonetheless this is a great documentary which explains how this music came out of the social experiences of new migrants confronted by racism. You might want more social comment, but you can’t have everything. And with a soundtrack like this, there’s much more here to celebrate than complain about.