Various: Dawning of a New Era: The Roots of Skinhead Reggae

Various Artists
Dawning of a New Era: The Roots of Skinhead Reggae

If generations are fictions, then how much faith can be staked in social cliques? Ask Tom Brokaw and he’d probably say, “The Mostest”, if said members were of the Greatest Generation. Ask Leonard Steinhorn and he’ll likely respond, “Even More”, if they were members of the Greater Generation. Ask me and I’ll take a no pass regardless of birth date and refer you to Jamie Malanowski, specifically when he pointed out “the poverty of making sweeping generalizations about generations.” That is to say, if birth year is a slippery indicator of collective headspace, then how much can we extrapolate from a loose social network? According to Trojan Records the answer may be, “Quite a bit.”

Dawning of a New Era: The Roots of Skinhead Reggae attempts to chart the explosion of reggae in the UK through skinhead culture. Although the subtitle somewhat confuses the occurrence as sounding rarified, Michael De Koningh’s liner notes explicitly point to the impact of skins in bringing Jamaican music to the isle masses, particularly during the stylistic transition from rocksteady to reggae between 1968 and 1969. Less an aesthetic influence as much as a cult phenomenon whose consumption tastes rose to the mainstream, skins provided reggae with the “needed mass purchase to take it from tiny backstreet shops to the high street.”

While the liner notes elucidate this point, extrapolating such an idea from songs is another issue. The collection struts and grinds through the soundtrack of this ‘era’ (if so brief a period can be called such), but its contents remain mute about any going-ons across the pond. A handful of the cuts were recorded in London so there are minor region-specific references, such as the possible nicking of a club name for Dandy and His Group’s song title “Groovin’ at the Cue.” However, little of this history is reflected clearly in the featured music, which was produced overwhelmingly in Jamaica. Additionally, in spite of Trojan’s heavyweight business status, the label did not have a complete monopoly over the international Jamaican music market and hence did not release all of the hit records of the day (duh). Subsequently, there is no way for a project restricted to one label’s output to make a complete sociological statement.

In all fairness, the modest packaging of Dawning of a New Era suggests the real purpose of this compilation is to take a fun trip through Trojan’s extensive archives. As such, it is a predictable yet endless fun. Balancing big tunes — like Rudy Mills’ jerking “John Jones” and Derrick Morgan’s revisit of his early ’60s hit “Fat Man” — with rare sounds — such as the unknown group the Good Guys’ clever reading of “In Like Flint” or Lester Sterling’s vaguely Upsetters-ish “Spoogy” — the collection makes itself accessible and appealing, regardless of whether you were, are or will ever be a rudie. Many of the instrumentals, such as Tommy McCook’s “The Avengers” and Lloyd Charmers’ “My Argument”, get by mostly on charm as they either squeak out the melody or just plain fall out of tune from it. Of special interest though are the odd transitional pieces that seem to neither rock that steady nor hold a steady reggae beat. On “Rock Steady Gone”, Dandy confidently announces the change of the guard, though his band sounds unsure of who or what is supposed to come next. In this manner, many of the tracks are awkward with adolescence and pre-maturity, seeking and experimenting to see where they will end up next.

All of this is not to discount the influence of skinheads, nor to dismiss the music itself. Rather, to point out the limited possibility of such a CD to make a statement of such scope. Even though history gets away with making sweeping generalizations to tell a story (perhaps because it is dependent on them), its plausibility hinges mostly in the presentation: at its most dictatorial, it chooses only one history, at its most lenient, it tells too many, but in between is the potential balance of fringe and mainstream voices. To ask a double-CD set with a six-box foldout of liner notes to articulate this is, well, unreasonable. That said, Dawning of a New Era is hardly a failure because it still manages to pull the listener in off the sheer strength of its contents. And because close listening can tease out the genre’s stylistic changes, the collection can spark a listener to investigate the myriad stories behind the music. So, until the New York Times singles out another hipster nation as translators of the wild and crazy times of (fill-in-the-blank time period), there is room for this compilation.

Inspiration for this piece comes from Jeff Chang’s 24 January 2006 blog entry.

RATING 8 / 10