I wish that knowledge of this scene was widespread as say punk, new romanticism, glam rock or even disco. However, my sympathies are with you if you had not previously encountered this particular urban phenomenon. I mean you might have done, inadvertently. Walking past an inner-city council flat or house late at night during the 1980s, you might have noticed deep powerful reggae bass lines and a scattering of black youth loitering outside. You may have simply dismissed it as just an Afro-Caribbean party.
And latterly, no matter how complete your immersion in descriptions of late-20th century youth-led cultural phenomena that the British media are fond of presenting, you would be forgiven for still being completely blind to this particular scene. The lack of media attention is frustrating, especially when I think that all of today’s social consumerism, try-too-hard night life and hipster posturing would give anything to create a sub-culture that even comes close to what I’m about to describe.
I’ll pre-empt the scorn of perhaps some readers and acknowledge that yes, this may indeed be the nostalgic yearnings of one who just this month has entered that “different country” of being fifty-something. You may be forgiven for thinking that I’m simply looking back fondly to the past – best years of my life and all that.
My response? Firstly, they weren’t (the best years of my life). I had much better times in later years, and secondly, compared to the other, later, movements that I joined in with, this scene remained, objectively, awesome. I hope after reading this you’ll understand why.
The world which I describe is lost to us today, there’s no vein of photo-journalism that captures it in its moment of pomp. Neither were there great writers who entered this realm and subsequently resurfaced triumphantly clutching reams of descriptive prose. No, in this respect it is similar to, say, what remains of ancient Druidism – aside from a few scattered fragments and references there’s not a great deal in the public consciousness that reminds us that it ever existed at all.
With a notable exception. This was an aural (as opposed to oral) culture and at the core of it’s beating black heart was music; reggae music. The recordings from this era still exist – and their influence persists.
There is another parallel with ancient Druidism that I’d like to toss into the piece at this point. It’s agreed by those who know about such things that reggae music has its origins in Rastafarianism. To the outsider this religion is odd; pot smoking, Nyabingi drumming, chanting, and somewhat outlandish beliefs. However, despite these dismissals, Rastafarianism is in fact deeply spiritual, with, like most religious orders, a strong moral code. Like the druids, the rastas didn’t have a great tradition of writing things down. Theirs was an oral and musical order from which the form we know as reggae flowered.
The spiritual substratum was reflected in the central element of these blues dances – the music. Lyrically the tunes were serious; the political, cultural and social were popular topics. Naturally there were also a significant number of love songs, but underpinned as they were by the rastafari moral code, they often (but not always!) had more in common with 13th century troubadours than with the objectifying lust ditties that we dance to today. The qualities which I am attempting to convey are encapsulated in the discography of Bob Marley. However, he was simply the one who crossed over; who went global. There were many, many other excellent artistes and recordings from this time.
So, imagine growing up in a 20th century youth culture which was near universally bought into by one’s peers, in which there was a extraordinarily cohesive community (formed partly by the presence of a hated out-group). This youth movement was one in which the cultural norms were informed by the spiritual and social high principles eschewed by the Rastafarians (via the music of the day). Quite simply it was irresistible, and having experienced other sub-cultures since that time, only later realised how uniquely special it was.
As an illustration of the strength of community described above, I offer the following anecdote. By the early 1990s I was a (mature) student in Brighton. On a warm spring afternoon I was hanging with some of my chums outside their shared terrace house somewhere off Lewes Road when a black guy walked by. He said hi to me and I reciprocated.
“Do you know him?” My (white) girlfriend asked.
“No.” I replied. She stared at me. Incredulous.
“It’s a black thing” I explained.
I remember the amazement which greeted that episode. My young undergraduate friends were envious of the fact that I could go anywhere and still be part of a brotherhood of blackness.
The community has fragmented – such cohesion is rarely found today, but in the 1970s and 1980s it was that strong.
The community is not the real point. Along with the music and the philosophy, much that was emblematic in black culture in these decades found expression in the Saturday night blues dance.
The Windrush immigration from the Caribbean to the UK has been documented ad-technicolor chunder, so I won’t bore you. The offspring of that generation, often poor and discriminated against – and not fully integrated into mainstream British life – embraced their parents musical and cultural heritage with zeal, and added their own distinctly afro-european twist.
The tropical and warm (sometimes al fresco) settings for the original Jamaican dances that the immigrants knew in their youth became ram-jammed council flats in Stonebridge Park estate, or packed Victorian semis in neighbouring Harlesden, London NW10, in the hands of their British offspring.
These events were sometimes pay parties, but the best were genuine celebrations: birthdays, christenings, bar mitzvahs (so perhaps not the latter). By the early eighties the word “rave” was being used to designate these events, clearly pre-dating the widespread use of this term in the acid house scene by at least 7 years.
The community was hyper-connected so on most weekends someone somewhere was having a rave that you could procure an invite to. Failing that there were always the pay parties (technically only these could be termed ‘blues dances’), gatecrashing, or a nightclub (such as the famous All Nations in East London). I had nights where friends and I dressed up and went out without a specific destination in mind, our only goal was to head to one of the community hotspots (council estates etc.) to sniff out a party to gatecrash, or a blues dance. More often than not we were successful, although gatecrashing had its risks – primarily public humiliation.
Dealing with gatecrashers
The music would stop and the lights would be switched on (these dances were conducted in near darkness as if taking the Danish concept of hyggeligge to extremes). The hostess (somehow it was always a woman) would approach the suspected gatecrasher and shout loudly
“Do I know you?”
A murmur would roll around the room – “crashers”.
The hostess would get up close and personal to the miscreants.
“Could you leave my house please” she’d ask firmly, with a hint of aggression.
Somehow the hostess’s biggest, scariest male friends and relatives would materialise at this point and the offenders would perform the walk of shame in the light out into the cold outdoors.
Once the door had shut upon them the lights would go out again and the bass would power up. You’d grab a dance partner and your glass of rum and black and off we’d go again.
These parties were like a bizarre slo-mo relaxation chamber. Reggae music and marijuana are renowned for their soporific qualities and both were ubiquitous at these parties – the deep darkness assisted in creating a perfect womb-like vibe too.
There was one further ingredient of these parties which in many ways – certainly for my specific cohort (I started raving in 1980 when I was 16) – was the main event. That was the dancing. This dancing has been air-brushed from recent popular culture, but a contemporaneous piece by some rock journalists described it in incredulous terms as “mutual masturbation”. That was going a bit far. We simply termed it “the rub”. Readers who have previously encountered the reggae exhortation “rub-a-dub” may now be able to form a better understanding of what this phrase really meant.
I struggle to describe to an ingénue exactly what this dance entailed. There were good dancers and bad dancers, differentiated by rhythm and flow – that is, the ability to keep to the beat (and to embellish it) while all the time maintaining an elegant swing. This was no solo exercise, the dance involved being locked in an intimate embrace with a partner. How can I put this delicately – the sense of one’s partners body parts and the changes thereof were a part of the dance experience.
All the time, the music was bass heavy – serious and deep. You could feel it shaking your bones – and the beat was slow; so very, very slow.
Some talk of the Elizabethan volta as being the apogee of the intimate dance. I beg to differ. While the volta may have been spectacular and showy, the rub was quietly intense and prolonged. Strange that when I look back on it now, the dancing never felt obscene – only very intimate and warm. It gave one the feeling that one belonged.
There was a ritual that surrounded the dance. DJs (or more accurately sound systems) didn’t use dual turntables because the aim was not to flow one track seamlessly into the other. There were intentional gaps between each record. Sometimes the MC would fill this with chatter: shout outs and the like, at other times the space – the crackle at the start of a vinyl record – would add atmosphere, time to sip that rum and black, draw on that spliff or decide which gal to pull.
Pull nowadays means to ‘get off’ with someone. I have my suspicions that this slang use of the word originated from the blues parties of my youth (hell, so many slang terms originated from black culture, it would be no surprise. E.g.: cool, bread, bling, back in the day, etc.). To ‘pull’ back then, referred to the physical manner in which a man would request a dance with a female. The bass was very loud in these parties so any attempt to use the subtleties of conversation in the service of charm was often futile. Instead, a man would reach out to a lass and gently tug on her arm. There’d be a suspended moment; a hiatus during which the lady would examine the would-be dance partner, checking to see if he was worthy of her company for the next three minutes. If yes there would be a moment of magic where the two people would melt into one another, shimmering together in this strange, slow groove.
However if the lady did not find the requester pleasing, a simple shake of the head would be enough to leave him standing alone for the duration of the next record.
Rules of The Dance
- If you are unfortunate enough to be rejected (a fairly common experience it must be said), you should not try to pull someone else for a dance during the same record
- There is about a twenty second window from the start of the record during which time pulling is acceptable. After that you’re riding your luck, and likely to be rejected.
- Sometimes, after about a minute into a popular tune, a good DJ may shout “rewind!” and return the needle back to the start of the record. This provides those who missed out, or who were rejected, a second chance to score.
- Never, never, never mistakenly pull a slightly girly-looking man.
- You can dance with as many different partners as you want all night long (but the best nights were those where you hit upon a good-looking partner with the same rhythmic sensibilities as you. Often in these situations you remained locked together until daylight, if not for days, weeks and months afterwards).
The music and dancing was central to these occasions. The aural sensation became physical by dint of the huge sound systems that the records were played on (imagine 1-2000 watts of bass, played through half a dozen 18 inch woofers in an urban semi). However, while the music was core, the atmosphere which spiralled from and around this is also worthy of note.
Firstly, while this was a youth culture, it wasn’t detached from other parts of the community as is sometimes the case in the wider society. Thus in these parties one found mothers, fathers, grandparents even. They weren’t standing around awkwardly, keeping an eye on the precious Chippendale, rather they were doing the rocksteady as enthusiastically as any eighteen year old. Indeed sound system crews considered it the highest compliment to be congratulated by the older folk.
I guess the idea of elder respect takes us back to the rasta principles that suffused the black entertainment of this period, and as as I said earlier, made it special.
Now, let me take you back, to 1982, to a crowded Victorian property in Kensal Rise in London NW6. It’s around 3am and the intense bass frequencies are rattling every moveable surface inside the property – and outside too. Inside it’s packed and dark as if the black community is playing a very serious game of sardines. The smell of various aftershaves and perfumes are mingling with a constant note of herbal essence – marijuana. It’s hot and suddenly the music stops. The MC makes a patois suffused exhortation and a man – perhaps sixty-five years old – lifts his plastic cup of Mount Gay rum skywards and shouts “G’wan! De yout’ dem know tune”. There’s a weird tension in the air and the only sound, now is the crackle and pop of the lead-in to the record. Then the familiar bass melody of Alton Ellis’ It’s Too Late To Turn Back Now resumes the shaking of everything in range, and suddenly men and women melt into each other effortlessly in the dark.
“Kyan ‘m’ack again”.
Those who were a part of it will remember the names of the sound systems that they used to rave to. I certainly do. Many of these mobile music enterprises enjoy little fame except among the veterans of the scene. I grew up in a particular district of London so my list has the flavour of that geographic area. I’m pleased to bring some of these names into the light. They provided me and many of my peers with many long nights of wonderful entertainment:
Sound Systems That I Grew Up With
Quattro (In Stereo)
Classic example recordings of the era
Alton Ellis It’s Too Late
Fredlocks True Rastaman
Carlton and his Shoes Sweet Feeling
Dennis Brown Wolf and Leopards
Gregory Isaacs Love Is Overdue
Carlton and his Shoes Never Give Your Heart Away