The late sixties was the skinhead era, and ska was the popular urban music of its time. In the East End it was called ‘blue beat’. Indeed, Paul’s, the local record shop, had a blue beat chart, a lot of which was made up of blue beat versions of contemporary pop hits. I often tended to like the blue beat versions more than the originals. I continued to buy ‘specialist’ records and CDs at Paul’s right up to the mid-nineties. In the seventies I would go along there every Friday (funds permitting), around lunchtime, by which time they would have had a delivery of reggae ‘pre-releases’ as well as the best of any soul imports. If you were late you would miss out on the best stuff. There would often be twenty or so in the know, local DJs and punters, in the shop jostling up at the counter checking out the new stuff. Back in the sixties and seventies Paul’s also used to run a stall directly outside Whitechapel station on Fridays and Saturdays.
The stretch of market there was known locally as ‘the waste’. Every week from the age of six or so my mum would take me there to buy a single. I think that Jim Reeves’ ‘Welcome To My World’ was the first single that she bought me. Jim Reeves was very popular in Jamaica, as was Perry Como for that matter. You used to see their albums stacked up in reggae shops. Another record that my mum bought for me was ‘Froggy Went A Courting’, a bluegrass tune that, for some strange reason, I fell in love with; apparently I played it to death. I think it’s a Burl Ives composition, but I’m not sure who sang the version I had.
I did like some pop; for instance, ‘Strawberry Fields’ transfixed me. I remember being puzzled why this pop band that all the young girls liked had suddenly made something so deeply strange and pleasurable after pap like ‘She Loves You’, yeah yeah yeah. I never liked anything, either before or since, that the Beatles released as much as ‘Strawberry Fields’. I don’t think that I was allowed to buy it. I think that my mum and dad considered it to be druggy music. Up to that point they and my aunts and uncles were quite approving in regard to the Beatles. However, from about ’67 onwards that changed, especially when John Lennon got involved with Yoko Ono. They thought that the four youthful and clean-cut Scousers had been corrupted, and led on to a wayward path by an oriental temptress. One of my first memories of watching television consisted of seeing a performance by the Rolling Stones (maybe it was a broadcast of the Ready Steady Go show). My dad and my mum’s brother Johnny were in the living room having a beer. Their eyes were drawn to the TV. They both went totally mental. I think they came quite close to smashing the thing up (I don’t think Radio Rentals would have been too happy). I don’t know why they didn’t just turn the thing off.
It may surprise you but I do have some sympathy with their response. I have never warmed to Mick Jagger. Of course, my dad and Uncle John were affronted by the campness of the Stones’ performance. I think that’s why they were shouting things like ‘I’m not paying ten bob a week to watch a load of unwashed queers prancing about’, and ‘I’d use them to clear mines’. Incidentally, the other early memory of TV is watching Dr Who and the Daleks, and yes, I was another of Britain’s kids who hid terrified, peeking from behind the settee when it was on.
It was my sister (who’s four years older than me) who first bought stuff on the Trojan label (the ‘Tighten Up’ volumes). When I heard that music I went absolutely nuts for it. I liked the instrumental stuff the most. In a move typical of younger brothers/sisters, I would claim those records for myself, and therefore, as usual, we would fight like cat and dog. My mum would sort us out by attacking our legs with a thick wooden coat hanger. That would soon separate us. When I think about it now, it’s incredible to think of my sister being into reggae but, as I say, it was the popular urban music of its time. Unlike most people I knew, I stayed with reggae all the way through to the eighties, by which time it had gone, with the odd exception, off the boil. Throughout the seventies I used to listen to BBC London’s reggae hour on a Sunday lunchtime, and then around 1974–75 Capital Radio began a terrific Friday night show, hosted, in its early days, by, inexplicably, Tommy Vance, the heavy rock DJ. It was on that show that I first heard ‘Marcus Garvey’ (and the dub version) by Burning Spear, one of the seminal moments in my life.