The Phenomonen of the Skinhead Movement and Reggae Music
“I want all you skinheads to get up on your feet, put your braces together and your boots on your feet and give me some of that old moonstomping……”
‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ – Symarip Treasure Isle Records 1969
The Skinheads of ’69 and Jamaican reggae music seem strange bedfellows but they are almost thought of as synonymous with each other these days. The love affair of the British youth with black based music started a decade before any Dr. Marten boot ever thudded its way across a record shop floor.
We have to go back to the mid 1950’s to find the roots of this devotion to black music and the birth of the 1969 skinhead movement. In Jamaica, American R&B;, very early soul records, and a slice of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s smooth jazz, were the mainstream sounds played by the radio and in the dancehalls around that time. As the British black population swelled and inner city clubs started playing the same records for their immigrant customers, the local white lads also started to appreciate their new neighbours musical tastes.
As early as 1954 The Duke Vin sound system had been pumping out the latest R&B;, Doo-Wop and pre-soul sounds to the West Indian population resident this side of the Atlantic. The sound system, or mobile discotheque to Europeans, was an integral part of Jamaican life. With out door and inside dances every night of the weekend and any public holiday it was a national pastime, so it was only natural that the same entertainment would surface within the Jamaican community in London and eventually every major city in the UK.
The Ska appeared around 1961in Jamaica as the music for the lower urban classes. It blended elements of US R&B; with touches of the native Poccomania religion and jazz in the blasting horn solos of masters like Don Drummond.
By1963 young white Mods who frequented the black clubs, in places like Soho and Brixton, were dancing to the pulse of the ‘Blue Beat’, as the Ska was called, after the label responsible for releasing the majority of the music in the UK. Not only did the Mods champion black music but they also took some of their styling from the artists and young Jamaicans in general.
The main influence from Jamaica on the Mods was the Rude Boy or ‘Rudie’ culture of the young ghetto youths that was hitting the island by1965. Problems had started in Jamaica after it gained independence in 1962 as a multitude of rural youths and young men flocked to its capital, Kingston, searching for work. The ghetto dwellers of Western Kingston could see no improvement now the colonial rule had gone and the massive influx of rural people only turned the heat up as flash points ignited, with violence, injury and death commonplace. This harsh living produced the dissatisfied ghetto youth who adopted his own stance against this forced way of life – the Rude Boy. The Rude Boys image was one of being cool & deadly and sharply dressed, and they certainly didn’t want to fling themselves around the dance floor like the white American tourists did when trying to dance to the ska beat. The Rude Boys wanted a slower tighter rhythm where they could look good while dancing. The music that they called for evolved pulling down the ska beat to a much slower tempo. The Rudies music was often played and sung by people who came from the same impoverished background as the ghetto dwellers and understood their needs and plight. Artists such as the Wailers, Alton Ellis, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster all produced work either glorifying or commenting on the Rude Boys. There’s a great sleeve shot of a young Rudy by the name of Derrick Morgan wearing a snappy two piece suit, trilby and thick shades on his Island album ‘Forward March’ as early as 1963 although the music is decidedly uptempo ska at this time.
The young Jamaicans this side of the ocean soon picked up on this style as did their white counterparts in the clubs, the Mods. By 1967 the Rude Boy culture had grown to epidemic proportions in the poor areas of Kingston and a great number of Jamaican singers were commenting with tunes like Joe White’s ‘Rudies All Around’ and Prince Buster’s set of three ‘Judge Dread’ singles. Many of the songs were issued in the UK as the Rude Boy style was shaping the Jamaican rhythm further to the cool beat to be known as Rocksteady. Even in the UK there was comment on the Rudy phenomenon from one Robert Livingstone Thompson, better known as Dandy, on a Ska Beat single called ‘Rudy A Message To You’ where he berates the wayward youths to ‘stop your messin’ around’. A near identical copy of this single was one of the first 2Tone releases by The Specials in 1979 using the same trombone player who was on the original, Reco Rodriguez.
The first skinheads, or ‘peanuts’ as they were also known, started to appear around 1967 as the Mod movement fractured into the more affluent or art-school orientated ‘ trendy mods’ and the so called ‘hard mods’. The hard mods were becoming dissatisfied with the elitism in the movement and the expensive tailored fashions that the trendy mods wore. Whilst they, too, would’ve liked the latest in Saville Row fashion, they had average jobs and average incomes which precluded them from being at the cutting edge of the group. While the neat and tidy aspect remained, along with the short serviceable hair, they took to wearing more work orientated clothing topped off with tough, hardwearing work boots.
Time moved on and the original Mods of the early 60’s grew out of the group while their younger brothers carried forward the new hard mod styles adapting and changing to make them their own. By late 1968 the skinhead was here. The Mods were all but gone and a new youth culture was firmly on the rise. The Mod favoured Levi jeans, Ben Sherman shirts and general neatness of person continued with the early skinheads as did the thick overcoat worn by the immigrant Jamaicans to ward off the hostile British winter. The overcoat became the beloved Crombie by 1970, although any coat would do at first as long as it was hard wearing and serviceable. The working class, work wear ethic was very firmly in place and the fashionable names so beloved by the Mods were distinctly ‘out’, except Levis who continued to vie with Wrangler as the number one jean.
The stereotypical boots & braces skinhead uniform was formed by the end of 1969, with Dr. Martens boots topping the footwear stakes as the original Hard Mod work boots were declared an offensive weapon. This was due to them normally coming with steel toecaps which could, and did, cause considerable damage at football matches and other close combat sports. The only exceptions were for evening outings where the rough and rugged style was swapped for a more Mod influenced Two-Tone Tonic suit or Levi Sta-Prest trousers and smart casual shoes such as Frank Wrights fabled tasselled loafers.
Regional fashions were very much in evidence with one town favouring brown boots and another oxblood. The same applied to the reggae records. Different clubs favoured different tunes thus creating a big demand in one town while the same record was unsaleable just a few miles away. Actually getting hold of the prized reggae 45’s was quite a task if you weren’t near to a major city as most record retailers didn’t hold any stock and everything had to be ordered.
By 1968 not only had the fashion changed but so had the music, and gone was the romantic, sweeping Rocksteady beat of Duke Reid and in came the brash, faster sound of the reggay, reggie or reggae.
Horn man Lester Sterling’s ‘Reggie On Broadway’, Stranger Cole’s ‘Bang A Rang’, Lee Perry’s Upsetters with ‘Return of Django’ and, of course, Desmond Dekker’s number one pop chart entry ‘Israelites’ were staple favourites of the skinhead crowd and younger West Indians as the decade drew to a close.
1969 through to 1971 were the best chart hitting years for reggae music mainly fuelled by the massive buying power of the skinheads who had adopted it as their own which caused over twenty records to hit the pop charts. From powerful organ instrumentals like ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J’s All Star band, featuring Winston Wright on funky hammond, to Dave & Ansil Collins, two yelping Dj pieces with ‘Double Barrel’ and ‘Monkey Spanner’ respectively, the reggae style was moving units. Max Romeo’s lewd ‘Wet Dream’ reputedly sold 250,000 copies and made number ten in the pop charts with out a single airplay as the BBC had banned it.
Beneath the charts was a strong flow of new records coming out each week and eagerly snapped up by skinheads even before the West Indians themselves could grab a copy. There had been UK pressed Jamaican R&B; and ska records all through the sixties starting with Melodisc’s Blue Beat label at the end of 1960 and the Starlite imprint run out of the jazz label Esquire, plus the home grown recordings put out by Sonny Roberts independent Planetone label. Island Records came next, along with Rita and Benny King’s R&B; Discs, (Rita and Benny Discs) later to name change to Ska Beat, but two companies really held the marketplace by the end of the decade.
The biggest and responsible for almost every pop chart hit was Trojan Records working out of north west London. The original Trojan label was part of a tie up with Lee Gopthal’s Beat & Commercial (B&C;) distribution company and Island Records owner, white Jamaican, Chris Blackwell. The pair were already pressing Studio One, Coxsone and Treasure Isle labelled records and selling them via Gopthals ‘Musik City’ record stores as well as wholesaling out to other West Indian record shops by 1967. Trojan was one of producer Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid’s original Jamaican imprints and was intended by Island/B&C; to use as a nameplate along with Treasure Isle for his productions they were to release in the UK. Island/B&C; issued twelve singles and one rare album between summer ’67 and the beginning of ’68 with the now familiar logo and all orange design Trojan label. By the end of 1968 more labels had been added to the roster including Amalgamated for producer Joe Gibbs and Down Town to provide an outlet for the UK studio work of Dandy Livingstone. As the skinhead boom was starting in late 1968 Lee Gopthal decided to split B&C; away from Island and took all the subsidiary labels with him just as the ‘600’ series Trojan singles were going into production. Trojan/B&C; also started to distribute Graeme Goodalls Doctor Bird Group of labels which included Attack, JJ, Rio and Pyramid as well as carrying on with Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Studio One output.
Trojan/B&C; began adding new labels at a speedy rate to keep up with the rapid input of various Jamaican producers whose work was selling by the cartload to the new white market in the UK. Upsetter for all Lee Perry work, Jackpot for Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee productions and Grape for the home grown skinhead material from artists like Freddy Notes and the Rudies, to name but three of more than twenty. The Trojan empire was growing and producers and artists both sides of the Atlantic were aware of the new markets opening up and old hands like singer/producers Laurel Aitken and Dandy Livingstone began catering especially for the skinheads. Laurels Pama releases like the jumping ‘Skinhead Train’ along with ‘Jessie James’ were club staples while Dandy’s chart entry for Trojan, ‘Reggae In Your Jeggae’, kept the skins happy with it’s pumping rhythm and chant like chorus.
Not every thing was rosy for Trojan though, as they had a serious rival in Pama Records with a base in north London and were formed by brothers Harry and Jeff Palmer, in 1967. The original mauve Pama label was set up to release US recorded soul music but by summer 1968 the demand was such for Jamaican product that the decision was made start licensing and releasing it. In keeping with Trojan Records, Pama set up a number of offshoot labels to cater for the late rocksteady and early skinhead reggae issues from various producers. The first was Nu-Beat with a UK recorded tune, ‘Train To Vietnam’ by the Rudies closely followed by other labels such as Unity, Crab and Gas. By early 1969 Pama had almost as many labels as Trojan under their belt with superb design work on most. ‘Punch’ with its fist smashing through the pop charts or ‘Camel’ with the grinning cartoon animal all carried first class reggae music to the skinhead and West Indian community. The original Pama label had gone through a colour change with it turning to a tan brown for the rocksteady and reggae releases in 1968, and only reverting to the soul mauve for US imported tunes or home grown funky things such as The Mohawks with ‘The Champ’. Pama had the jump on Trojan to start with as they had the massive ‘Wet Dream’ chart single on their subsidiary Unity, but they didn’t have either Lee Gopthals distribution network or, indeed, his ear for adding strings to sweeten the sound. This UK over dubbing aided the singles to not only sell well to the younger generation but also added enough sweetener to make them accessible for radio play and move in to the mainstream.
By 1969 Trojan were way ahead in the pop chart stakes notching up hit after hit with their saccharin sweet string arrangements while Pama had very healthy sales but couldn’t crack the pop charts. Pat Kelly’s moving ‘How Long’ on Pama subsidiary Gas sold enormous quantities but only through more specialist shops and outlets that didn’t file chart returns hence no mainstream recognition.
Long play albums were a tricky market to crack as singles were the way most Jamaicans had traditionally heard and bought recorded music and one of a skinheads most prized possessions was his collection of reggae 45s. But Trojan took the plunge and released ‘Tighten Up Volume 1’ early in 1969 at the give away price of just under fifteen shillings or 75p. It contained a strong selection of their previous years hits and originally came on the all orange label design. It was an instant success and Volume 2 appeared in the autumn of the same year and reached number two in the UK album charts before disappearing three weeks later as budget price albums were to be disregarded in future weeks chart returns.
Both Pama and Trojan started to put out compilation album series. ‘Club Reggae’ and ‘Reggae Chart Busters’ followed alongside the ‘Tighten Up’ series for Trojan often duplicating tracks, while Pama hit out with the ‘Straighten Up’, ‘This is Reggae’ and ‘Hot Numbers’ string of albums. Pama also released generic round ups of their better labels such as ‘Best of Crab’ and ‘Nu Beats Greatest Hits’ which are chock full of quality skinhead reggae although all the tracks had obviously been out as 45s.
The Trojan album sleeve art left a little to be desired. Travel shots loaned from BOAC or scantily clad young ladies romping with snakes or in mounds of Dolly Mixtures were the order of the day, where as early Pama albums carried interesting shots of singers and club scenes along with sleeve notes – a novelty in the reggae market. Sadly, Pama soon turned to the pretty girl covers too and, if anything, their shots were more explicit than Trojan.
Single artist albums were also emerging both from Trojan and Pama. These albums were interesting affairs for the enthusiast as they normally carried many of the hit singles for that particular performer and sometimes, the odd recording that was actually nothing to do with him! Also it was quite often the first time the UK buyers had seen a picture of the singer if he hadn’t visited these shores on tour. Desmond Dekker’s ‘This Is’ collection for Trojan did very well in the mainstream due to his chart activity while Clancy Eccles Dynamites had the ‘Fire Corner’ LP and Derrick Harriott’s Crystalites with ‘The Undertaker’ album mopped up any spare money the skinheads had in their pockets. Interestingly, many albums that appeared to be single artist concerns were actually producer fronted and utilised a pool of musicians who assumed different group identities depending who offered the fee. Though Harriott and Eccles were accomplished vocalists both were catering for the fashionable skinhead market with semi-instrumental session albums they had produced with the above releases. There were a great number of superb single artist albums available such as Keith ‘Slim’ Smith’s sublime Pama release of ‘Everybody Needs Love’ or ‘Says Fire’ from skinhead stalwart Laurel Aitken on Doctor Bird to name two, but the compilation album had the edge in sales and desirability.
A few other labels were issuing current material such as Melodisc who had retired their Blue Beat label in 1967 as out of date and installed the modern titled ‘Fab’ imprint. There was very little difference in the output as Blue Beat, and now Fab, had been predominantly for issuing Prince Buster’s vocals and productions. He had always been abreast of the times with the ska, rocksteady and then reggae beats so it was business as usual, although Fab never managed to gain a large foothold in the skinhead market. ‘Bamboo’ and then slightly later ‘Banana’ had been set up by Junior Lincoln to deal with the output of Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s productions after the demise of the Island/B&C; distribution deal of the ‘Studio One’ and ‘Coxsone’ imprints. The sound was decidedly different to the jumping skinhead music coming out of Pama and Trojan, with a much more mellow feel thanks in part to keyboard ace, Jackie Mittoo, who was the principle arranger. Whilst the music is sublime it didn’t really fit the bill for the average skinhead in 1970 although it was very popular with West Indians.
By the middle of 1973 the skinhead faze had moved through to the short lived smoothie fashion which in turn gave way to the suedehead with longer hair, loafer shoes and patterned trousers, and with Glam Rock just around the corner there many defectors. The reggae sales suffered as the skinheads faded away and both Trojan and Pama, by the end of 1972, were releasing a considerable percentage of weak, watered down, string laden UK recordings which found no favour with the remaining skinheads or the general public. Both companies were to soon close many of their labels and minimalism operations due to lack of sales. Also the rise of the ‘back to Africa’ and ‘black awareness’ lyrics didn’t help the cause of reggae in the UK. Most of the white skinheads couldn’t identify with this new form of the music and as they didn’t like the slower rootsy beat they deserted it for Bolan and Bowie.
So Reggae music slid back underground, back into the West Indian communities and waited for the spark of Bob Marley to bring it back to the fore some years later on in the decade.
Racism and Violence
‘DJP’ was a sixteen year old black West Indian living in Toxtheth, Liverpool in 1970 and recalls, “I used to have to run and hide from the skinheads as I was sure to get a licking if they caught me”.
But to the opposite ‘RS’ a mixed race teenager from Lambeth, London remembers clearly “black as well as white skinheads all together” and “they (the skinheads) used to knock at the door to see if my older brother had got any new reggae records”.
A series of novels for the New English Library by Richard Allen did little to help, with his central character, Joe Hawkins, the king skin, only interested in bovver, beer and birds. ‘Skinhead’, ‘Skinhead Escapes’ and it’s successors had little story beyond forays with women and putting the boot in but they sold like hot cakes to the youth market.Reggae music and fashion sense were way beyond violent Joe and his gang.
With the hindsight of thirty years the only thing that remains clear is that the press loved the football and racist violence as it made great front pages and novelists made a living pulling out the grimy side of the movement.
Skinhead Reggae Recordings
As noted in the main feature, a number of producers in the UK saw the massive buying power of the skinheads and aimed their productions directly at that market.
Of the ‘made for the skins’ labels ‘Joe’ certainly has the edge in musical quality with a strong pumping sound just right for a good moonstomp. The ‘Joe’ was Joe Mansano, a record shop proprietor from Brixton, south east London, who produced Reco’s ‘The Bullet’ in 1969. So successful was the record that Trojan offered to release some of his work.
Mansano certainly had the touch as his productions of Dj Dice The Boss and the solid instrumental sides sold not only to its target audience of the skinheads but to black reggae buyers. Sales were so high for Trojan that they collected a sampling of his work on the ‘Brixton Cat’ album which in turn became a best seller with the skinheads.
Another producer with his eye on the skinhead market was Hot Rod sound system owner Lambert Briscoe who set up the Torpedo label with the aid of Equals bassist Eddie Grant.Briscoe went straight for the jugular with titles like ‘Skinheads Don’t Fear’ and ‘Skinhead Moondust’ although these titles hide rather weak and weedy instrumental sides. Briscoe also had the ‘Hot Rod’ label via Trojan, which put out a few uninspired cash-in tunes such as ‘Skinhead Speaks His Mind’, but it soon closed as the skinhead numbers depleted.
Other UK producers of note were Dandy, whose work was always worth a listen and was responsible for ‘Skinheads A Message To You’ from Desmond Riley. An interesting record as Des calls out to the skins to stop the violence. Old hand Laurel Aitken produced some great dancers in the shape of ‘Woppie King’ and the cultural ‘Heile Sellassie’, while Rudie ska man Derrick Morgan kept the nightclubs jumping with the template skin sound of ‘Moon Hop’.
Strangely, the ‘made for skins’ labels with the exception of Dandy’s ‘Down Town’ and Mansano’s ‘Joe’ must have sold minute quantities as very few original skins remember them.
Dj’s and Toasters
The art of the MC or Toastmaster in Jamaican dancehall was to liven up the audience, whether by talking, yelping or reciting rhymes over the top of the music, his task was to make the place move.
Early 1960’s pioneers such as Sir Lord Comic, Count Machuki and King Stitt not only shook the crowd live but laid their best moves down on wax. Comic and Machuki had faded by the coming of the reggae in ’69 while Stitt went on to hit the early skins with such shakers as ‘Fire Corner’ and ‘Vigorton 2’ for producer Clancy Eccles.
By 1970 the highest profile ‘toaster’ was, with out doubt, U Roy, whose debut recording was in 1969 but struck it big the following year by riding on old Duke Reid rocksteady rhythms.
More Dj’s came to prominence after U Roy’s success and names like Dennis Alcapone, Sir Harry and Jeff Barnes were popular both sides of the Atlantic and really carried the swing in to the 1970’s. Also a stiff dose of Jamaican Dj chatter, imported by immigrant workers to the ‘States, added to the output of The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron provided the catalyst for the US rap scene of the mid 70’s – but that’s another story.
Thanks: Reg Stanley, Pete Fontana, Danny Hatcher, Bob Brooks at Reggae Revive and Roger Dalke for his bottomless pit of musical information.
Sources/Recommended reading: Reggae – A Peoples’ Music. R. Kallyndyr & H. Dalrymple – Carib-Arawak Publications 1972. The Dance Invasion. Orlando Patterson 1966 (Reprinted in Pressure Drop 1976). Reggae Reggae Reggae. Sunday Times Magazine main feature February 4th 1973. Black Music Magazine 1973 – 1979. The Rough Guide To Reggae. Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton – Penguin 1997. Skinhead. Nick Knight – Omnibus Press 1980. The Spirit of ’69 -A Skinhead Bible. George Marshall – ST Publishing 1991. Boss Sounds – Classic Skinhead Reggae. Marc Griffiths – ST Publishing 1995.
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