From the day it opened in the autumn of 1975 at the top of the escalators on the first floor of Reading’s Butts Centre, Quicksilver Records provided an individual customer service to its regular clientele by locating and stocking hard to find releases. However, to my mind its greatest legacy, certainly during the golden years of my teenage, was its resolute spirit. To purchase a record at its counter was to become involved in a limitless series of negotiations, diatribes, monologues and disputes held in an atmosphere of high anticipation. These exchanges were held between staff and customers who regarded the depth of their love of music as immeasurable and sacrosanct, so much so that upon entering through its hallowed portal it felt like you were standing on holy ground. And it never felt holier than when reggae was blasting out of the shops ridiculously loud, kick-in-the-guts, sound system.
Fast forwarding to a year later and reggae would become an integral part of punk, not because of the rebel music, mutual outcast’s theory, Johnny Rotten or The Clash’s love for it or Don Letts spinning dub plates at The Roxy, but because of my generations long standing affinity with the genre stretching back to the pop reggae hits of early seventies by the likes of Johnny Nash, Jimmy Cliff, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia. Closely followed in my ever expanding musical education by The Wailers revelatory 1973 albums Catch A Fire and Burnin’, roots was a natural progression from Marley’s righteous yet studio sweetened songs. Authentic and raw, therefore less rock orientated, at a time when my enthusiasm for glam rock, prog rock, hard rock or rock of any kind was fading fast, that could only be a good thing.
From the start Quicksilver sold huge quantities of roots records. Every week a delivery would arrive distributing singles and albums from a cluster of tiny UK reggae labels and direct from Jamaica, a network of vans and drivers carrying a smorgasbord of exotic vinyl delights. Suddenly I had access to records that were never going to find their way into Reading’s old fashioned music shops Rumbelows and Hickies or the big chains like Boots or WH Smith. The artwork on these records was rudimentary, the album sleeves often featuring unsophisticated drawings, paintings or an Instamatic snapshot accompanied by hand drawn lettering. The single labels had virtually no information on them and were nearly always off centre while the vinyl itself contained plenty of surface crackles and pops.
Coming from the streets of Kingston, they were created in a closed, defiantly DIY production line, the studios in which the music was recorded having direct access to Jamaica’s pressing plants and once manufactured selling the end product in their own shop fronts. A handful would find their way across the Atlantic into the racks of Quicksilver and the network of UK independent outlets during a period when there seemed to be precious little reggae around. In fact, the mere act of holding an imported Jamaican seven inch in my hand made me feel like I’d just received an invite to the greatest party in town, the feeling of exclusivity undeniable!
I knew nothing of Jah, Rastafari, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, Kingston or where or what Babylon was and never pretended to, but that didn’t seem to matter. Through hanging around Quicksilver on a Saturday I discovered that simply by nodding my head in time to the bass, roots was a music created for the physical experience and that the power and directness of records like ‘None A Jah Jah Children’, ‘Fade Away’ and ‘Marcus Garvey’ was all-pervading. Sonically too they provided an important lesson, the eeriness and dread representing some kind of ineffable truth with warrior like lyrics covering life’s hardships, ghetto suffering and the repatriation of an exiled people underpinned by some seriously disorientating, heavy duty instrumentation, the meaning of the words restated as calls to prayer and rebirth.
On the B Sides the lyrical message of roots was generally replaced by the ‘version’. Instrumental dubs of the A Sides featuring barely recognisable fragments of the melody and vocals, they concentrated more on creating shadowy, abstract reinterpretations of the originals. The space left by stripping the song back to the bare bones was overlaid with effects that magnified its dimensions, ghostly tones and frequencies created with echo and delay conjured up as if by some ancient form of alchemy.
I was enchanted and by the high summer of 1977 had collected a prized box full of roots and dub singles, with those that made the most impression listed here. But as my life changed and the excitement and newness of post punk gathered momentum, and my involvement in the DIY underground filled my every moment, I found myself playing them less and less until a couple of years later when I sold them off for next to nothing when times were tight. By then I’d long since stopped going into Reading to buy records, which was just as well because with the inevitable coming and going of sales staff Quicksilver’s emphasis had switched from reggae towards the unfathomable New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
It didn’t last long after that, the shop briefly becoming Lazer and then Listen Records around 1982. As for roots, while it would be be easy to say that the movement died with the death of Bob Marley on 11th May 1981, in truth as Jamaica suffered another period of violence, unemployment and poverty at the hands of its unscrupulous leaders, dancehall eschewed the serious nature of consciousness to drag reggae back to the sound systems, dances, parks and yards of its birth.
01. BIG YOUTH ‘Notty No Jester’ (A Side 1975 Impact Import)
I used to buy singles in batches of two or three. I‘d ask the guy behind the counter what he was playing and buy the ones I liked. ‘Notty No Jester’ may or may not have been the first but it was certainly one of them. I’d never heard anything like Big Youth before so it was quite a revelation. Roots reggae was rebel music and there were none more rebellious than Big Youth.
02. U-ROY ‘Dread Locks Dread’ (A Side 1975 TR Groovemaster Import)
Similarly, ‘Dread Locks Dread’ was the first time I heard U-Roy in action, a record that instantly made its mark without me having a clue about who he was or what he looked like.
03. MIGHTY DIAMONDS ‘I Need A Roof’ (A Side 1975 Well Charge Import)
A vocal trio who sang politically conscious lyrics with the kind of harmonies associated with soft soul groups like the Stylistics and the Chi-lites, the Mighty Diamonds pioneered a staggering series of militant, harder hitting singles for Channel One that would turn out to be their best work.
04. JOE HIGGS ‘More Slavery’ (A Side July 1975 Grounation UK)
Joe Higgs masterful take on Burning Spears ‘Slavery Days’ and one which I would hear a couple of months before the original.
05. RAS MICHAEL & THE SONS OF NEGUS ‘None A Jah Jah Children’ A Side August 1975 Grounation UK)
Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus were devout Rastafarians who helped shift their ideology and music closer to the reggae mainstream. In 1975 they had an unexpected hit in Jamaica with the mesmerising 'None A Jah Jah Children No Cry', which went on to sell in big numbers in the UK due to the patronage of the NME.
06. FRED LOCKS ‘Black Star Liner’ (A Side August 1975 Grounation UK)
Fred Locke was a leading member of the Rastafarian organisation the Twelve Tribes of Israel. A long way both artistically and culturally from the more commercial roots records of the era, the anthemic ‘Black Star Liner’, with lyrics about the shipping company owned in part by Marcus Garvey as his contribution to the Back to Africa movement, was similarly at odds with the materialistic concerns of the more fashionable ‘dreads’.
07. I-ROY ‘Rootes Man’ (A Side September 1975 Love UK)
Starting out as a U-Roy copyist, Roy ‘I-Roy’ Read rarely made a bad record. ‘Rootes Man’ was my introduction to him and sounded radically different to what I was used to.
08. JUNIOR BYLES ‘Fade Away’ (A Side September 1975 Eagle UK)
An essential roots classic the rhythm of which has been covered so many times it’s impossible to name by who.
09. SYLFORD WALKER ‘Burn Babylon’ (A Side 1975 Belmont Import)
Compared to today the seventies were a period of information blackout as far as music and youth culture in general was concerned. The other worldly singles I was hearing in Quicksilver were sacred objects yet their makers remained complete unknowns for years, sometimes decades. Sylford Walker was more unknown than most. An archetypal roots singer he remains a cult figure to this day, the heavyweight ‘Burn Babylon’ he recorded for Joe Gibbs his best known recording.
10. BURNING SPEAR ‘Marcus Garvey’ (A Side October 1975 Fox Import)
Born in the same St Ann’s Bay area as Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, made two albums worth of brilliant recordings for Studio One that were informed by his belief and faith in Rastafari. Moving on to work with sound system operator and producer Jack Ruby, the epochal ‘Marcus Garvey’ and album named after it (coincidentally my first roots album following Catch A Fire and Burnin’) transformed him into Jamaica’s primary ‘cultural’ singer concerned only with writing about black history, its relation to ghetto living and the salvation of Rastafari.
11. BIG YOUTH ‘Wolf In Sheep Clothing’ (A Side 1975 Agustus Buchanan Import)
‘Wolf In Sheep Clothing’ was just one of around twenty singles on ten or so different labels Big Youth featured on in 1975 alone. It was impossible to keep track as artists sold their talent to the best paying studio/label owner, often relinquishing all rights in the process although Augustus Buchanan was Big Youth’s own imprint.
12. U-ROY ‘Natty Rebel’ (A Side October 1975 TR Groovemaster Import)
While some of U-Roy’s recordings can sound a little lightweight and irrelevant, especially after hearing the likes of Big Youth and Burning Spear, there’s no denying the blood and fire in ‘Natty Rebel’, my favourite reggae single of all time.
13. DR. ALIMANTADO ‘Best Dressed Chicken In Town’ (A Side 1975 Capo Import)
Thanks to the recommendation of one J. Rotten Esq, Dr Alimantado’s album of the same name was punk’s most essential roots record when it was released in the autumn of 1978. A compilation of singles dating from 1973 until 1976, the completely over the top title track with Lee Perry at the controls was just plain bonkers.
14. DILLINGER ‘CB 200’ (A Side 1975 Well Charge Import)
Dillinger loved the Honda CB 200 he rode around Kingston so much that he wrote some lyrics about it, recorded them over Gregory Isaac’s ‘Sun Shines For Me’ and suddenly found himself in the big league. My brother bought the same motorcycle a couple of years later. Unfortunately, his kept breaking down so he didn’t love it quite so much.
15. MIGHTY DIAMONDS ‘Right Time’ (A Side November 1975 Well Charge Import)
The Mighty Diamonds were one of roots reggaes most successful vocal groups but much of that success was due in no small part to the rhythms they sang over. What would eventually be defined as ‘rockers’ rhythms, they were crafted by Channel One house band The Revolutionaries who had the prolific and inventive drum and bass partnership of the infamous Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare at their creative core.
16. PRINCE FAR I ‘Blackman Land’ (A Side 1976 Cry Tuff Import)
Prince Far I always sounded like an aged prophet and preferred to be called a chanter rather than a DJ. Hearing his words of wisdom on ‘Blackman Land’ it was easy to understand why.
17. THE HEPTONES ‘Sufferers Time’ (A Side February 1976 Black Art Import)
Setting the standard for all harmony groups to work towards, in the early seventies The Heptones freelanced for a number of Kingston’s top producers. With Lee Perry on the desk it seemed like they could hardly fail, and yet even now, ‘Sufferers Time’ and the Party Time album it came from struggle to be accepted as classics, especially in comparison to Scratch’s other work in the mid-seventies.
18. MAX ROMEO ‘War Ina Babylon’ (A Side March 1976 Island UK)
Max Romeo’s comment on the political situation of 1976 from the Rasta point of view, this Island single mix of ‘War Ina Babylon’ was said to lack the potency of Lee Perry’s ‘Sipple Out Deh’ mix, but to a novice like me it still had a weird kind of hypnotic feel that felt like the very essence of ‘dread’.
19. BURNING SPEAR ‘I and I Survive’ (A Side March 1976 Island UK)
The dub version of ‘Slavery Days’ and as great as the original but operating in a completely different sonic sphere.
20. JOHNNY CLARKE ‘Declaration Of Rights’ (A Side May 1976 Jackpot Import)
Johnny Clarke spent so much of his time hanging around various Kingston studios that he became known as the ‘studio idler’. What that meant in real terms was that he served his apprenticeship under the tutelage of ever resourceful producer Bunny Lee and became capable of fitting his distinctive tone onto new versions of the vintage rock steady rhythms that Lee was constructing. One great example was his killer version of The Abyssinians 1971 Jamaican hit ‘Declaration Of Rights’ which took the song to even greater heights than the original.
21. DILLINGER ‘Cokane In My Brain’ (A Side May 1976 Island UK)
A funky slice of reggae/proto-rap based on ‘Do It Any Way You Wanna’ by People’s Choice, ‘Cokane In My Brain’ was a jumble of lyrical nonsense yet as addictive as the white powder itself. The refrain ‘I got cocaine runnin’ around my brain’ was lifted from the Reverend Gary Davis's 'Cocaine Blues' while the daft nursery rhyme about the correct way to spell New York (‘A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork, that’s the way we spell New York’) is alleged to have come from a 1962 Disney record called Acting Out The ABC’s.
22. PRINCE FAR I ‘Talking Rights’ (A Side 1976 Cry Tuff Import)
I’ve fallen in and out of love with a lot of these records over the decades but I’ve never fallen out of love with the great Prince Far I. A few years ago a friend of mine who’s knowledge of reggae stretched to Marley and no further was giving it the old 'all his stuff sounds the same' to which I replied 'Well yeah some of it actually is the same. That's kind of the point’. Prince Far underlines that idea better than anyone.
23. MAX ROMEO ‘One Step Forward’ (A Side May 1976 Island UK)
It’s impossible to speak of Lee Perry without referencing his not particularly technologically advanced studio Black Ark, where he was able to act, as he liked to put it, as 'a miracle man'. Between 1973 and 1978 he produced tracks that were nothing short of magical. Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon album, that included the remarkable title track and ‘One Step Forward’, was just one of Scratch’s truly canonical records of the period and still sounds like nothing else on earth.
24. JUNIOR MURVIN ‘Police And Thieves’ (A Side July 1976 Island UK)
During the long hot summer of 1976, ‘Police and Thieves’ could be heard blasting from every open door and window. More than anything it reminds me of strolling up a leafy Sulham Hill at 6am on a blindingly hot, sunny Sunday morning to catch the Number 17 bus home after some rich kid’s party in Pangbourne or Upper Basildon or Bucklebury and being unable to get the damn tune out of my head having heard it pretty much on repeat for the previous six hours.
25. THE GLADIATORS ‘Know Your Self Mankind’ (A Side 1976 TR Groovemaster Import)
Retrospectively trying to piece together a timeline of roots reggaes development via record label credits ends in frustrating attempts to glean release dates and producer credits from tough to locate seven inch singles, often with multiple label issues and conflicting information written in patois. A case in point is the The Gladiators incredible ‘Know Your Self Mankind’ on the Kingston based TR Groovemaster label. Like most Jamaican artists they recorded for countless labels, TR Groovemaster actually being one of the better known ones. And yet the often askew printed labels didn’t even contain the year of production, let alone a catalogue number.
26. TAPPA ZUKIE ‘MPLA Version’ (B Side August 1976 Klik UK)
If any one record conjured up the revolutionary, calm-before-the-storm, punk spirit of the late summer of 1976 it was the spaced out and freaky dub version of Tappa Zukie’s invincible ‘MPLA’.
27. DILLINGER ‘Flat Foot Hustling’ (A Side January 1977 Third World UK)
After ‘CB 200’ and ‘Cokane In My Brain’ I kept a beady eye out for Dillinger records in the reggae racks. ‘Flat Foot Hustling’ came out on the British Third World label and I remember feeling pretty pleased with myself that I’d spotted it as I’d been flipping through looking for Island’s classic blue and orange palm tree logo.
28. KING TUBBY ‘Psalms Of Love’ (B Side February 1977 Black & White Import)
There’s nothing I can say about Osbourne Ruddock, aka King Tubby that hasn’t been said already. His B Side version of Dillinger’s ‘Ah You Me Love’ remade what was already a fairly dubbed out A Side. Interestingly, the dub process originally came about not through experimentation or mad scientist studio alchemy but by Tubby mistakenly missing out fragments of vocals from a mix which he then reworked by deconstructing the original track via sudden drop-outs, fluctuations in volume and layers of effects. Little did he know that in the process he was inventing a brand new genre?
29. JOHNNY CLARKE ‘Roots, Natty Roots, Natty Congo Version’ (B Side March 1977 Virgin UK)
Johnny Clarke lacked an image that made sense to rock fans. As a consequence his records sold poorly outside of Jamaica which led to Virgin dropping him, but not before the release of ‘Roots, Natty Roots, Natty Congo’ and Bunny Lee & The Aggrovators superb B Side version.
30. CULTURE ‘Two Sevens Clash’ (A Side March 1977 Joe Gibbs Import)
Culture’s lead singer and songwriter Joseph Hill borrowed the phrase ‘Two Sevens Clash’ from a prophecy made by Marcus Garvey, who believed that something in the number seven was synonymous with social upheaval. Hill’s lyrics on this explosive classic covered many key points of Rasta philosophy, and Culture would go on to consolidate the singles huge success with their equally stirring album of the same name.
31. PRINCE FAR I ‘Heavy Manners’ (A Side April 1977 Heavy Duty Import)
Prince Far I’s most successful record impressed me with its sheer seriousness, well that and the fact that it was a handy slogan redolent of the punky times we were living in.
32. I-ROY ‘Point Blank’ (A Side May 1977 Third World UK)
I-Roy, U-Roy, Prince Far, they were all equally innovative as far as I was concerned but the most memorable toasting single of 1977 was undoubtedly I-Roy’s ‘Point Blank’ for its faux cockney intro if nothing else.
33. ISRAEL VIBRATION ‘Why Worry’ (A Side 1977 Orthodox Import)
The three members of Israel Vibration met at a Kingston rehabilitation centre after contracting polio as kids. The highly original ‘Why Worry’ took almost a year to take off but is now rightly regarded as a classic of the era.
34. YABBY YOU ‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’ (A Side July 1977 Vivian Jackson Import)
Deeply committed to his own highly individual take on Rastafarianism, Vivian Jackson created a style based on traditional chants. Known for good reason as ‘the Jesus Dread’, the best of his work formed one of the plateaus of roots music in the seventies, ‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’ a particular favourite of my bunch of young punks as we ran the gauntlet from the packs of teds, skins and greasers determined to kick our heads in on a daily basis.
35. CULTURE ‘Work On Natty’ (A Side Sky Note UK)
I always looked out for Culture singles because they were of such high quality and ‘Work On Natty’ was no different, an indispensable example of the group at the height of their powers.
36. THE REVOLUTIONARIES ‘Leftist Version’ (B Side 1977 Disco Mix Import)
It took a while for Sly & Robbie’s Revolutionaries to make records in their own right but when they did they locked into some truly mesmerising music on a variety of militantly titled insurrectionist updates of the reggae canon, ‘Leftist’, a version of the Soul Vendor’s ‘Frozen Soul’, one of the most popular.
37. JAH STITCH ‘Black Harmony Killer’ (A Side July 1977 Third World UK)
Sometimes my complete ignorance about the records I was buying proved a bit of a bummer but more times than not the reverse was true, like it didn’t really matter who was making this stuff more than 4,600 miles away because across our green and unpleasant land there were kids like me lapping it up. Did it really matter who Jah Stitch was when he could made a single like ‘Black Harmony Killer’.
38. AUGUSTUS PABLO ‘East Of The River Nile’ (A Side July 1977 Hawkeye UK)
Horace ‘Augustus Pablo’ Swaby’s father was an accountant so unlike his peers, his background was comfortably middle class. His contribution to roots and reggae as a genre was immense and while this later version of his own ‘East Of The River Nile’ was mellower and more meditational than his 1971 version, in reggae terms it still sounded remarkable.
39. TRINITY ‘Three Piece Suit’ (A Side August 1977 Lightning UK)
Trinity was huge in 1977, one of the best of the new breed of cultural DJ’s to emerge from the shadow of Big Youth. With its use of an updated cut of Alton Ellis’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ and lyrics about his attire, ‘Three Piece Suit’ was an unexpected hit for Joe Gibbs.
40. CULTURE ‘Natty Never Get Weary’ (A Side August 1977 (High Note Import)
My thirst for roots and dub inevitably began to wane as I stepped back from punk and headed off on my own musical misadventures. Of course my love for reggae didn’t disappear completely and ‘Natty Never Get Weary’ wasn’t the last reggae single I ever bought, but as as the genre itself began to evolve and head towards dancehall, so my interest in it did too.