Bob Marley 1980. Photo by Ueli Frey (CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia / colorized) | Joe Strummer, 1988. Photo by Masao Nakagami (CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia / colorized)

Unite and Fight! England’s Punk-Reggae Hybrid

When Bob Marley went to London in 1977 he discovered, documented, and reveled in the punky reggae party.

In December 1976, Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt in his Jamaican homeland. This prompted the reggae star to seek refuge in London where he would reside and record for the next year and a half. While there, Marley witnessed the rise of punk and its attending subculture. Although initially alarmed by its more outlandish features, many of which were daily sensationalized in the tabloids, Marley came to understand that punk’s leading lights were addressing social concerns similar to those he was writing about for his upcoming Exodus album (1977).

Also taken by punk’s socio-political awareness was producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who, while less than impressed with the Clash’s version of a song he had co-written, “Police and Thieves” (1977), was sufficiently excited by the ethos of the band to work with them on the recording of their major label-bashing single, “Complete Control” (1977). It was Perry who explained to Marley how punk’s engagement of the still underground reggae style could help promote the music and spread its messages (Gilbert, p.159).

img-3725Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

By the end of the year reggae’s primary performer had penned “Punky Reggae Party” (1977), releasing it as the B-side to “Jamming”. On the song Marley proposed “party” unity between the two uprising movements, positioning both reggae and punk against the “boring old farts” of the mainstream music industry. Name-checked as attendees at the party were the Clash, the Jam, the Damned, and Dr. Feelgood, alongside the Wailers and Maytals. Their common ground? All were artists “rejected by society”, facing “reality”, and “protected by their dignity.” If The Clash had encouraged a union between punk and reggae by covering Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”, Marley validated the coalition with this lyrical declaration of mutual interests.

Also helping Marley to see past newspaper headlines and to punk’s true purposes was the singer’s weed dealer while in London, Don Letts. Letts had become a pivotal figure within both the punk and reggae scenes in the city, playing (drug) host to many of their key players while working at Acme Attractions, a clothing store that competed with Malcolm McLaren’s Sex for the outsider youth demographic.

Letts had also garnered a reputation as a crossover figure while employed as resident DJ at punk’s premiere if short-lived club in Covent Garden, The Roxy. There, during the early months of 1977, he played roots reggae and dub cuts between live punk sets, if only because there were few punk records to spin during that genre’s infancy. Letts played a significant role in introducing the predominantly white youth audiences to the harder roots reggae of the era, even though some, like Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer of the Clash, and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, had grown up listening to reggae, which to them was the only rebellious street music around before punk.

The roles Letts played in the development and dissemination of marginalized music were significant: it was he, amongst few others, who visually captured early punk happenings with his trusty Super-8 camera; it was he who made many of the early punk promotional videos; and it was he, too, who helped Mick Jones further hybridize punk with black music forms as a founding member of Big Audio Dynamite in the post-Clash years.

It’s also Letts who features on the iconic front cover of the Clash’s compilation L.P., Black Market Clash (1980), as the dreadlocked warrior facing up to a phalanx of police officers at the infamous 1976 Notting Hill Carnival. That festival represented many of the trends afoot in Britain. It would be three years before Margaret Thatcher ushered in her epoch-changing conservative revolution, but the nation had shown signs of lurching to the right in the years prior. Nowhere was this more symbolized than in the “Sus” (as in “suspected person”) law often used as an unwarranted premise to harass young people, particularly those sporting what Joe Strummer calls in the song “City of the Dead” (1977), “dangerous gear”. As he further notes in that song, the kind of provocative clothing favored by Rastas and punks could get you “picked up anywhere”.

At the 1976 Carnival, tensions between black youths and the police reached fever pitch, their battles played out against a backdrop of street sound systems blasting reggae and dub. Amidst the heart of the action were Joe and Paul from the Clash, who went on to memorialize the occasion in “White Riot” (1977). A celebration of those irate black men that “[didn’t] mind throwing a brick”, the song bemoans how white youths rarely take such direct action against police oppression. In a nation racially divided, and with the neo-Nazi National Front on the rise, the Clash made their allegiances clear.

Living up to their name and growing renown as rabble rousers against the establishment, the Clash reiterated their support of black rebel youths with their cover of “Police and Thieves”. As Jon Savage comments, the band regarded reggae as the “soundtrack to social resistance” and were attempting to create their own “white Rasta in punk” identity by including this unfamiliar sound on their debut album (p.238).

Although not the first example of white artists playing reggae, their engagement of the form had little in common with the “white reggae” Eric Clapton, Wings, and Paul Simon had previously dabbled in. For those acts reggae offered an exotic groove for their soft rock product; for the Clash it conveyed the kind of insurrectionary ideas they were seeking to craft with their own lyrics and music. “Police and Thieves” was a strategic choice of a cover for the band, too, as Junior Murvin’s original had been blasting out of sound systems throughout that recent Notting Hill Carnival.

Yet the band made little effort to replicate the reggae sound, at least initially. “Dig it, don’t play it” had been the mantra of the band during their early months, according to Simonon (Gilbert, p.134). Strummer, though, who had earlier made attempts at covering Desmond Dekker and U-Roy with The 101’ers, comments, “we could see the potential to combine it with what we were doing to make it something powerful.” What Dave Marsh describes as “a peculiarly offbeat brand of reggae” (p.78) was reflected in the guitar playing on “Police and Thieves”, Strummer strumming on rock beat time and Jones answering on the reggae “off” beat. Nevertheless, it was authenticity of attitude more than musical accuracy that ultimately mattered to the band.

Their next attempt at a punk-reggae hybrid came with the recording of “Complete Control” (1977), for the most part a standard punk song. However, when the middle eight kicks in so does the dub reggae style, introduced courtesy of Lee Perry, who had been hired to man the mixing desk. His echo additions and instrumental deconstructions in this section are the sole remains of what he had constructed on an initial dub mix, which was later deemed too radical for (white) popular tastes and thus edited down (Gilbert, p.159).

Also recorded at that Perry session was a cover of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” and an early version of the band’s next single, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (1978). Regarded by many as the Clash’s finest song, the latter represents the first full realization of the punk-reggae hybrid. Ambitious and bold in design and execution, the song oscillates between mid-tempo reggae and explosive punk outbursts, the entirety anchored by Simonon’s propulsive bass line hook.

Taking their lead from the Clash, other punk bands also experimented with integrating reggae into their sound and ethos. The most successful of these were the Ruts, whose roots in the Southall area of London had been important in educating its members in the local reggae culture. As partners in Southall’s People Unite cooperative label they also became friends with Misty in Roots, one of the leading groups in an insurgent UK reggae scene that included Aswad, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Steel Pulse, and Matumbi.

These bands favored a more militant stance on issues of social justice than their Jamaican peers, who tended towards seeing society through the lens of their Rastafarian religion. Most of the Brit bands affected a Rasta identity, too, but their concerns were as much with racism within Babylon as in “back to Africa” fantasy escapes from it. Like most of the homegrown reggae acts, the Ruts were passionately committed to combating rising racism in the UK, and affiliated themselves with organizations like the Anti-Nazi League and its musical correlative, Rock Against Racism (RAR).

The Ruts and the Clash both adopted reggae with reverence and for reference, but many of the bands of the era used it for functional musical purposes. Among these were certain new wave and post-punk acts. As noted, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon had found reggae a useful rhythmic tool for diversifying their styles; new wave artists like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Blondie, the Members, and the Police employed its sound for similar purposes.

If the corporate mission of new wave was to dilute punk for mass consumption, the number-crunchers at the major record companies found reggae to be similarly compliant. The Police likely made more money from their reggae adaptations between 1977 and 1983 than all of the Jamaican practitioners combined did throughout the entire history of the genre. When “Roxanne” broke through as a US hit in 1978, the band knew they were onto a good thing.

Recognizably reggae-rooted with its spacious bass line, clipped rhythm guitar, and tight snare cracks, the songs also tipped its hat to punk through its intermittent rock outbursts; this is a formula the band would follow on subsequent hits like “Can’t Stand Losing You” (1978), “Message in a Bottle” (1979), and “So Lonely” (1979). All examples of new wave’s “black roots” bearing “white fruits”, according to Theo Cateforis (p.202), The Police made reggae catchy and commercial, while maintaining a mirage of authenticity sufficient to get their music played on both black and white radio.

If new wave ushered in the “detached stylists” of punk reggae (Cateforis, p.202), post-punk acts used the two genres as philosophical and musical starting points. Simon Reynolds argues that the methods of much post-punk songwriting resided more in dub reggae than in punk (p.18). Contemplating both Public Image Limited and the Pop Group, Reynolds points to the ways these groups deconstruct, then reconstruct songs in ways a dub engineer might. Rhythm provides the backdrop to sounds that come and go, noises entering the soundscape before echoing away into the distance.

Whereas most rock (and punk) songs maintain a consistency and constancy of sound from the primary instruments, PIL and the Pop Group would accumulate, then decimate, playfully injecting guitar fragments before subjecting them to dub subtraction. The effect can be jarring to the ears, de-familiarizing listeners from their conventional expectations, a purpose and project central to both post-punk and dub reggae.

Another post-punk band as immersed in reggae as PIL and the Pop Group were the Slits. Equally abrasive and challenging, the Slits shared the Pop Group’s distaste for western values as well as their romanticism for back-to-the-land African pantheism. Amongst the few all-female punk groups and the even fewer reggae ones, rebellion against norms and standards came naturally to the Slits. Ari Up, the dreadlocked teenager that fronted the group, was also John Lydon’s step-daughter, so reggae and punk were omnipresent in her life. Also, Viv Albertine (guitar) and Palmolive (drums) were girlfriends to Clash front-men, Mick and Joe, respectively, broadening the punky reggae party scene.

More significantly, though, the Slits brought a unique originality to the punk-reggae hybrid that none have replicated. Their musical distinctions came partially as the serendipitous by-products of the band’s (willful) incompetence. “Genuinely inept,” according to Reynolds (p.45), they were never skilled enough to get either punk or reggae right, but therein lay the band’s infectious charms.

Inverting all the (masculine) musical norms of both genres, they created what Steven Wells calls a “Rasta-feminist freak show” (p.128), a disheveled display of primitivism visually replicated on the front cover of their groundbreaking debut, Cut (1979), which features our three feral heroines semi-naked and stalking around the grounds of Ridge Farm Studios like tribal warriors. That album, showcasing ten illustrations of the band’s unprecedented take on the punk-reggae hybrid, was produced, like the Pop Group’s Y, by Dennis Bovell, and was released by long-time reggae specialists, Island Records.

Despite the varieties of punk reggae that emanated from the UK during the late ’70s, this fusion form made little headway in the US unless packaged in the kind of new wave wrapping the Police came in. Even the Clash, who made in-roads into US rock culture at this time, admitted that audiences, according to Strummer, “found their reggae dimension confusing” in the midst of their predominantly punk sets (Gilbert, p.257). This was because US punk had little crossover with reggae, nor with any other non-white music forms, including its blues foundations. Besides Blondie and Talking Heads, CBGB bands mostly drew from rock ‘n’ roll, garage rock, bubblegum pop, and (occasionally) Krautrock.

It was not until punk returned for a more pop and dance-oriented run around in the mid-’90s that the Clash were re-discovered and re-regarded by bands like Operation Ivy, Rancid, and Sublime, not just as a punk band but as a punk reggae one, too.

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Works Cited

Cateforis, Theo. Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s. University of Michigan Press. 2005.

Gilbert, Pat. Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash. Da Capo. 2005.

Marsh, Dave. The Heart of Rock & Soul. Plume. 1989.

Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Penguin. 2005.

Savage, Jon. England‘s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. St. Martin’sMartin’s. 2002.

Wells, Steven. Punk: Young, Loud & Snotty. Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2004.