Johnny In The Echo Chamber

Diggin in the crates, or angling in the archives. I mean, have you actually heard The Strokes? Or, different strokes for different folks, whatever makes you happy, as the great Ten City put it. for, what makes me happy just now is not glib NYC Converse all star, skinny tie, pretty boy power pop, but a galaxy of salvaged sounds. It's just as well there's little new and now to tickle the taste buds. My budget wouldn't stand for it.

I'm spoilt for choice, what with reissues and promotions! You know, the moral maze: do you buy a new CD for 14.99 which might have a couple of decent tracks on, or do you plug a hole by buying yet another cheap Miles Davis/Sinatra/Byrds/Dylan CD?

Some things, however, frustratingly fail to appear, like those 23 Skidoo reissues, or Delta 5 compilations, or the second Slits LP, and to that I would add a plea for the programme Johnny Rotten (as he then was) appeared on with Tommy Vance on Capital Radio in the summer of 1977. There is an account of this programme in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, but my own recollection is based on distant star struck memories and a poor quality, savagely edited tape I acquired some years later.

It was a moving performance, as JR sounded weary, almost rebelling against the monster that the Pistols had already become. In my own 13 year old eyes the Pistols were past it, with The Saints blowing them off Top of The Pops with the incredible 'This Perfect Day' anyway.

Legend has it Malcolm McLaren hated the way Rotten came across on the Capital Radio show. 'A man of taste', Savage calls him. Yet, I would argue it would be some years before it would be appreciated how far ahead Rotten was. After all it would be the first time for many that they heard The Creation ('Life Is Just Beginning') and Tim Buckley ('Sweet Surrender') on the radio, and it would be a while before these became real milestones.

Naturally, JR played plenty of roots reggae, fuelling what is now the received notion of punks really being into reggae. Rotten explaining at away nonchalantly as a natural progression from skinhead days.

It is the stuff of mythology now, but there is substance to this one. People like Rotten did spark an interest in what was coming out of Jamaica, and our own home-grown sounds reggae-wise. It may have started as peer pressure, but for me and many more the appeal remained. It helped that maybe more than now reggae was accessible. Peel played plenty of new reggae at the end of the '70s and, in London at least there were a couple of essential specialist shows which were thankfully not banished to the wee small hours (like what they is now, if you know what I mean!). on Capital each Saturday evening there was David Rodigan's 'Roots Rockers' (immediately after Greg Walker's 'Soul Spectrum' for the soul boys), while Radio London had a Sunday lunchtime show which was great. And if in retrospect the emphasis was rather more on lovers than roots and conscious sounds, we now realise how lucky we were. For lovers sounds need reassessing, and I still swear by my treasured copy of Carroll Thompson's Hopelessly In Love home-grown LP. We punks also had the much missed Zigzag mag, where editor Kris Needs would regularly rave about current reggae/disco records. Let's not forget Zigzag was also first to rave about all those Ze mad disco/punk records, where stuff like the Aural Exciters Spooks in Space had gems like the August Darnell penned 'Emil (Night Rate)' which was a Massive Attack blueprint and featured such stars as Taana Gardiner (of Heartbeat fame later on West End), Lizzy Mercier Descloux (the French warped disco queen), Contortions' Pat Place and James Chance, and Bob Blank who also engineered Sun Ra's Lanquidity. Wow!

Anyway, my own JR anecdote revolves around reggae, when me and my mate Squiff went up West on a Red Bus Rover and that day the Virgin Megastore was opening at Tottenham Court Road, but we ended up in error in the little Virgin store at Marble Arch. There we saw a crouching JR flicking through the reggae 7"s in the racks at the rear of the shop (or 'pre-s' as I seem to recall them being called back then), affably signing autographs for teenybopper skins. Bizarrely, at the other end of the shop lurked a Feargal Sharkey, who had made the same mistake as us and ended up at Marble Arch rather than Tottenham Court Road. So, we trucked him back up Oxford Street, and were appalled later to see him buy a Bette Bright 12".

Anyway, back in 1977 there were really two reggae records that stood out (if you'll excuse me borrowing a theme, Kevin!). One being Culture's 'Two Sevens Clash', and the other being Doctor Alimantado's 'Born For A Purpose'. On that Capital Radio show, the most poignant and memorable moment occurred when JR introduced 'Born For A Purpose' by explaining that he played this song all the time after he was badly beaten (again, see England's Dreaming), and that the Doctor understood as he had written the song after being run over by a motorbike simply for being a dread, and it will remain with you for forever more how JR then enunciates "if you feel like you have no reason for living, don't determine my life."

What an awesome song this is. It was many years later, in the mid '90s, that one of the first CDs I ever bought was a Greensleeves selection of Doctor Alimantado's cuts, with the main ones being 'Born For A Purpose' together with its version and DJ track. Now, again, some years into Greensleeves celebrating its 25th anniversary of riding successive reggae waves by releasing batches of records from its back catalogues at very realistic prices. I would argue that every home should have at least a few of the first batch of reissues, and first and foremost should be Doctor Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town set.

The title track of this collection of cuts is another iconic echo of 1977 when so much made the imagination of a nation run riot. The Best Dressed Chicken In Town!!! God, it was like another language. Near where I work is a scruffy doorway proclaiming that the Esperanto centre is up a stairway, conjuring up images of Graham Greene entertainments and reluctant anti-heroes, but the pull is still considerably less than Dr Alimantado's rambling on, like he is incanting some strange spell.

One track here is 'I Killed The Barber', which is on one of the early Blood and Fire DJ compilations in another form, and if you love the mad prophet DJ thing from the mid '70s don't miss this Greensleeves set. Also, check out Tapper Zukie's Tapper Roots which is re-released by Virgin's Front Line, and is essential in the enforced absence of his MPLA set.

The other absolute of obvious must in the Greensleeves series is Augustus Pablo's Original Rockers. Like Lee Perry and Sun Ra, it can be difficult to know where to start when buying Pablo stuff. It's a minefield, but start with The Great Pablo on Music Club and this Original Rockers set. You'll not only have change from 20 but you'll also have two of the most beautiful and adventurous collections of rhythm and melody ever. It's a mighty long way from feeling delighted at picking a copy of Jacob Miller's 'Baby I Love You So' for 10p in a thrift shop with the dub 'King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown' on the flip.

If Pablo and Alimantado epitomise the '70s roots sounds, then further selections from the Greensleeves reissue programme bridge the gap from then to the '80s digital dancehall. Clint Eastwood and General Saint's Two Bad DJ is at times more comic than cosmic, but its first two tracks are weighty enough and bring back sweet memories. 'I Can't Take Another World War' and 'Another One Bites The Dust' are classically eccentric, and heavy on the chat, the effects and the rhythm. I suspect that we shall see a re-evaluation of lovers rock and '80s dancehall when the '70s archives have been bled dry, and the two more DJ titles in the series worth investigating come from Eek A Mouse and Yellowman.

It's a nice series, and it's always a good sign when there is some kind of continuity with the packaging. One other title I must mention is the wonderful Scientist Rids The World of The Evil Curse of The Vampires which was mixed of course by Scientist at King Tubby's at midnight on Friday June 13th, 1981. it is a delightful dub symphony, inevitably with the occasional absurdly even heavier than Peter Hook lines on the bass. It may not be the greatest Scientist moment, but you'll get no complaints here.

So, here's looking forward to more Greensleeves re-releases and please if anyone has a complete tape of that Capital Radio show, do get in touch. For now, I'll leave you with the ghostly voice of Johnny Rotten intoning: "I love my music. Music is for listening to, not for storing away in a cupboard." Yeah, that's the ghost of a young man, doing that strange chicken dance in the wings. Keep on skanking, punk rockers, a voice echoes down the years.

Kevin Pearce 2001


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