In the third of our series of Record Boxes commissioned by The Space, Don Letts tells the unlikely story of how rebels from opposite sides of the globe became bedfellows, inspiring the last true musical counter culture of our age.
King Stitt, whose real name was Winston Sparkes, was given the name Stitt as a child because of his stammer. However that which he was bullied for, became integral later in his life, informing his style as he helped pioneer the deejay idiom. Count Machuki, the original Jamaican deejay, first gave him the opportunity to try out on stage on account of his dancing style and King Stitt never looked back. "Herbsman Shuffle" and "Fire Corner" were two of his first studio recordings, produced by Clancy Eccles, their upbeat style informed much of what was to follow.
Joe Gibbs and Errol T, the legendary producers otherwise known as The Mighty Two, took the rhythm from Burning Spear's "Joe Frazier" for Big Youth to use in "Foreman Vs Frazier". It underpinned several songs inspired by the American boxer from that time. Burning Spear's original was written after Frazier had become the first to defeat Muhammad Ali, whereas Big Youth's followed his defeat to Foreman, in a fight dubbed the "Sunshine Showdown" which took place in Kingston, Jamaica. Big Youth, or Jah Youth as he was also known, was a regular at Lord Tippertone's sound system and used the opportunity to speak directly to the people of Jamaica.
"King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown" is a seminal record from the dub reggae movement, featuring the meeting of two giants within the scene. Augustus Pablo, who took a toy instrument and made it an integral part of the roots reggae sound, and King Tubby, who transformed the mixing desk into an instrument with his innovative techniques, inspiring an entirely new genre in the process.
'Fisherman' by The Congos was co-written and produced by Lee Scratch Perry, during his highly prolific and innovative years at Black Ark studios. A dispute between Perry and Island Records meant that the record was released on Perry's Upsetter label, which limited its reach at the time. However as the years have passed it has steadily grown in popularity, the lyrical imagery continues to resonate with people worldwide, and it's now recognised as one of the greatest reggae songs of all time.
'The Birthday Party' was released in 1968 on the crest of the UK's wave of psychedelic rock, it garnered much critical acclaim and championing by radio DJ's at the time, but nevertheless failed to create much in the way of popular support. The Idle Race are mostly remembered these days for being the band that launched the career of Jeff Lynne, who went on to find success in The Move and ELO with Roy Wood, he was also part of the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys.
As the sixties ended Led Zeppelin 'II' knocked The Beatles 'Abbey Road' from the top of the US Album charts, which many saw as the beginning of a new era of modern music. Their progressive use of Blues and Folk music, combined with Jimmy Page's production techniques, created a sound so large, so overwhelmingly heavy, that a lot of people were turned off by the extravagance of it. While many more were so inspired that they sought a fresh approach, many elements of the record became standards for the burgeoning genres of hard rock and heavy metal.
'Hunky Dory' was recorded in the summer of 1971 and produced by Ken Scott, it marked the emergence of David Bowie as a songwriter, featuring career highlights such as 'Changes' and 'Life On Mars'. It is seen by many as the pivotal point before Bowie jumped into super stardom as Ziggy Stardust. Yet despite it being the first recording to feature the band who would later become known as the Spiders From Mars, the tone of the album is truly defined by the piano, played by a young session musician called Rick Wakeman.
'Who's Next' marked a real turning point for the band, it had been over two years since they released 'Tommy' and the band realised they needed to distance themselves from the aging mod movement. They set out and ultimately failed, to make a rock opera called 'Lifehouse', but from this failure came arguably the most successful album in their long career. It was their only number one record in the UK and climbed to fourth place in the United States, with songs like 'Baba O'Riley' and 'Won't Get Fooled Again' still getting airplay on radio stations there.
Sly and the Family Stone are credited with a large role in the development of funk music by extending the reach of soul music into psychedelia. 'Life' was the band's third album and whilst it wasn't a commercial success like their preceding album 'Dance To The Music', it's a good example of the bands early work, before drug problems and strained relationships within the band effected their output and health. Since its release in 1968 it has been heavily sampled and has subsequently grown in influence.
There are very few figures within modern popular music like James Brown, the legendary 'Godfather of Soul' had a rollercoaster career that spanned six decades. As this album shows, he played an important role not just in the development of musical genres such as soul and funk, but as an advocate for social justice. 'Say It Loud I'm Black And Proud' was released in 1969 to a backdrop of great social unrest in the USA, and it's message of empowerment reached people the world over, becoming an anthem for the civil rights movement. Although Brown later regretted the powerful political statement of the title track, saying 'to teach race is to teach separatism', it's place in history shows that it was wholly necessary.
Like Sly Stone and James Brown, George Clinton is credited as a key innovator of the funk sound of the 1970's. Although Clinton is responsible for integrating a more psychedelic guitar style into the genre, being heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix. 'Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow' was Clinton's attempt to record a whole album whilst high on acid with his entire band. The resulting collection of songs were characterised by the wild anxiety of his spoken word, punctuated by spaced out guitar riffs, which quickly became a cult favourite.
Patti Smith's influence on the New York punk rock scene cannot be underestimated, her debut album 'Horses' was produced by John Cale and released in 1975, it was an inspiration for many involved in the scene that followed. The juxtaposition of Smith's powerful poetry with the raw sound of the guitars and loose evolving song structures became an intoxicating mix. Whilst musically offering few blueprints, her music provided the spirit of freedom, which was the heart of the punk rock aesthetic.
The Ramones debut album was released in February 1976, at a little over 29 minutes in length, it's 14 songs set the tone for the burgeoning punk scene. Stripped back rock and roll songs, played fast and hard, painted pictures of the darker side of adolescent life at the time. Although it was not a commercial success at the time, The Ramones are cited as defining the punk sound, and subsequently have been given the recognition they deserve.
The Sex Pistols released their debut single in November 1976, it is seen by many as a 'cultural ground zero', which sparked the punk movement in the UK. The massive cultural impact that the band had wasn't just caused by the righteous anger that fuelled their music and image, although they were helped along by the accompanying controversy. It was their ideology, encapsulated in this one song, that offered a choice to people who at the time felt they had none. 'Anarchy In The UK' presented a euphoric brand of nihilism, which acted as a call to arms for the disenfranchised, and inspired an entire generation.
Most punk bands were thrown together because of their collective anger against the status quo, but The Clash didn't just rally against society, they were a reflection of society. They weren't just fuelled by rage, although they did play hard, they had a precise and comparatively considered style which incorporated the sound of the London streets more than any of their peers. On their self titled debut album, released in April of 1977, you can hear the influence of not just rock and roll, but dub and reggae too, influences that would become increasingly prevalent as the punk scene developed. The Clash is recognised as being one of the greatest protest albums of all time and one of the best examples of UK punk.
In the early seventies Dr Alimantado was a deejay for Coxone Dodds sound system, 'Born For A Purpose' was one of his biggest hits, signalling his departure from the traditional toasting style to singing. He wrote the song after being seriously injured by a bus driver who ran him over for being rastafarian. Its message of strength and self determination resonated with the UK punks, John Lydon in particular, whose love for the song boosted its popularity.
Aswad are one of the UK's biggest reggae bands, releasing over twenty albums since their formation in the 1970s, and having a number of hit singles in the process. 'Warrior Charge' is an upbeat, jazz infused instrumental, that was an early favourite for their fans.
Hugh Mundell was tragically shot and killed in his car aged just 21, however five years and five albums earlier, he recorded his masterwork. 'Africa Must Be Free By '83' was written entirely by the 16 year old Mundell and produced by Augustus Pablo, it is an album full of astute and worldly observations, made all the more impressive by the singer's young age. Pablo recorded this dub version as a companion to it following the critical success of the record.
Bob Marley is a reggae artist who needs no introduction, he is one of the best selling recording artists of all time, with global sales of over 75 million records. At the end of 1976, before performing at a concert designed to garner an end to the unrest in Jamaica, he was shot in what is thought to be a politically motivated attack. Although he was injured he still performed at the concert but he relocated to London afterwards. Whilst in the UK, Lee Perry played him the debut album by The Clash, 'Punky Reggae Party' was written and recorded as a positive response to their cover of Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves', fusing the two scenes, and the like minded approach to music that they shared.
After The Sex Pistols imploded in typically acrimonious circumstances, John Lydon emerged with Public Image Ltd, accompanied by guitarist Keith Levene, who was originally in The Clash, bassist Jah Wobble, who Lydon knew from school, and drummer Jim Walker. Together they made some of the most innovative and challenging music from the time, their experimental tendencies became highly influential, and there was none more influential than the pioneering 'First Issue' which was essential in the development of post punk.
The Slits combined the spirit and attitude of punk with African rhythms and the musicality of dub in a way that hasn't been successfully recreated before or since. Their debut album Cut was released in September 1979 to moderate success, but in the years since it has been rightfully recognised as a vitally important record in rock music history, embodying the individualism at the heart of punk whilst managing to stay as gleeful and enjoyable as it is forward thinking.