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"Out of many, one..." UK Reggae in '80s


Black Britain's musical cycle eventually mirrored that of Jamaica moving on from lovers to more socially-conscious music reflecting the harsh realities affecting black Brit's of Caribbean descent. Optimism of a better future and hopes of being embraced for first generation black Brit's by the wider society were halted by high profile cases of racism - on the streets by regular Tom to police and employers.

Main issue of contention was the controversial sus law which many black youths believed meant they were unfairly stopped-and-searched/harassed by police because of their skin colour. Racially-motivated riots spiked during the '80s. (I think there were more that decade than any other - don't quote me though... unless I'm right. Obviously.) UK movement faced a lot of fight by reggae listeners who preferred Jamaican styles, but they still achieved success.

Handsworth, Birmingham representers Steel Pulse formed in the late '70s, starting off independent before inking with Island records. The Rastafarian group are well-known for their initial release on the label, "Ku Klux Klan" talking of racism at the time. They are the first non-Jamaican act to win a Best Reggae Grammy award for album Babylon the Bandit in 1987, first reggae band to appear on the Tonight show in USA, survived terms on three (now major) record labels (Island, MCA and Elektra) with credibility and are often cited as inspirations by many European-based reggae stars like Italian-born Alborosie.



Jamaican-born, south London raised Linton Kwesi Johnson poet who voiced the plight of black youths in a different style of toasting, leaning towards spoken word over dub riddims. "Inglan is a Bitch" is probably the most well-known song.



Aswad (meaning "black" in Arabic) gained a lot of musical experience as backing bands for elite Jamaican acts such as Burning Spear and laid the rhythm for Dennis Brown's "Promised Land" (which you may recognise from Nas & Damian Marley's "Land of Promise"). The Brinsley Forde-lead outfit themselves scored numerous chart hits including pop-reggae interpretation of Tina Turner's "Don't Turn Around" reaching number 1 in the late '80s, uplifting UK top ten "Shine" and freedom fighter anthem "Warriors" entering the top 40 in the '90s.


Another band from Birmingham were Unemployment Benefit Form 40 better known as UB40. Whilst facing criticism of exploiting reggae by covering classics, Ali Campbell & co. managed to carve out successful career, scoring big hits in both the '80s and '90s. Songs such as Jimmy Cliff's epic "Many Rivers to Cross" (#16 in UK singles chart), Eric Donaldson's "Cherry, Oh Baby" (#12 in UK singles chart) managed to crossover successfully, taking relatively unknown reggae hits to a whole new set of ears in the mainstream, even taking Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine" to higher heights of #1 in UK.

They did, however, have popular original songs; my favourite "One in Ten" where they share stresses of unemployment. Their debut album Signing Off is meant to be good too. UB40 have reportedly sold over 70million records worldwide.


And I have to mention the cover of  Elvis "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You" which saw the group topping charts in six territories including Australia, UK and US in the early 90s (but we'll get onto that in another post.


Alongside the above movements was one that laid foundations for the next generation of UK music. Saxon sound from southeast London took what was happening in parties to a major level, signing major label deals and chart hits. Tippa Irie and Smiley Culture both achieved top 40 hits with "Hello darling" and "Police Officer" respectively.

As a sound though, they encompassed everything that happens today in the homegrown underground genres of fast-chatting (double-time "rapping"). Papa Levi, Peter King and Daddy Colonel along with the aforementioned deserve to be held high as legends for paving the way.



Another stand-out tune, and probably the biggest of them all from the British reggae scene in the 80s can only be fellow Brummie group Musical Youth with "Pass the Dutchie". First black video on MTV is credited to the aforementioned Michael Jackson, however, Musical Youth appeared on there before him (I've heard Prince was too). Their 1982 smash reached #1 in the UK, and top ten in USA, becoming one of the highest selling singles of the year in excess of 5 million records.
 

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