IT WAS Barry Norman, smug doyen of the comfy press junket and arch purveyor of bitter, misanthropic and slightly rightwing movie reviews, who first brought Babylon to my attention – though I’ve no recollection what drivel the miserable old sod spouted about Franco Rosso’s gritty tale of disaffected Sarf London youth when he reviewed the film on Film 80.
I was more than likely on the lookout for some idiotic new sci-fi movie but in the end it was the clip which accompanied Norman’s no-doubt nonsensical views on Babylon which transported me to another world entirely; a world every bit as strange, exotic and alien as Altair, Vulcan or Tattooine – and it seemed, as a chubby, unfashionable 14-year-old with a bad haircut, sitting in the familial living room in a Dark Ages village miles from anywhere, one I would be as likely to ever visit.
Brinsley Forde’s Ital Lion crew are squaring up to a rival outfit at a soundclash in a dark, dirty and sweaty, low-ceilinged dive of the kind naive young country boys could only dream of. Clouds of ganja smoke obscure the room, which is packed with ghetto princesses in tight clothes and rude bwai working that late Seventies sports-casual Rasta thing.
The opposing soundsystem, fronted by the still-sprightly, very-much real-life sound operator Jah Shaka, have just rocked the crowd with one of Shaka’s trademark irrepressibly bouncy dub plates and the pressure is on. Ital Lion have to outdo the mighty soundsystem Don – quite literally a living legend among the dub cognoscenti – with something even bigger and even better. It’s time to unleash the secret weapon.
The needle hits the groove and Warrior Charge – just about the finest tune Forde’s day-job band Aswad ever created – slams out of the speakers like a train. The place goes into one and Brinsley pours out all his frustration and anger with his girl, his family and friends, the police, the Nazis, the government, the DHSS, with the whole damn Babylon shit-stem, into an indignant, defiant, rabble-rousing toast.
“Ital Lion say we can’t take no more of that,” he proclaims, even as the pigs are sledge-hammering their way into the club.
If one man could chant down Babylon, we would’ve needed hardhats.
You can see what I mean here on JahTube.
It was just nuts and tremendously exciting to a discontented, somewhat unfocussed kid such as myself in the whiter-than-white provinces. I was into reggae already but dub had largely passed me by and I’d only ever met one black person at that point, nevermind going to a real live soundclash with a room full of them.
Predictably enough, Babylon never made it to the local flea-pit – there wasn’t much of an audience for authentic British reggae movies in Scunthorpe at the time – and I didn’t actually see the film until years later, on the telly, late at night.
The soundtrack was just about the best thing about it. There were subtitles under what were supposedly heavy bits of patois, which seemed a bit bizarre, and alongside the former Double Decker Forde, a competent enough actor, the film also featured an early role for the intensely annoying cockernee cheeky chappie Karl Brush Strokes / ‘the Face of Flash’ Howman.
Which is, I guess, as good a reason as any to consign it to the dustbin of history.
I got the soundtrack (eagerly plucked from the criminally-underused reggae section in Record Village on Scunthorpe High Street) about six months after the film came out. It provided a neat summation of the state of British reggae in the early Eighties but I didn’t know anything about that at the time. I just loved it.
As well as the righteous Warrior Charge, in its original instrumental incarnation rather than the apocalyptic toasting version heard in the film, and a couple more Aswad tracks, the album also featured Yabby-U and his charmingly creaky testament to Rastafari, Deliver Me From My Enemies and militant, high-stepping Free Africa.
It was a bit of a party favourite of mine, for years. Sooner or later, it’d always get played, even in the deepest, darkest days of acid house.
And then one day the album wasn’t there anymore.
I haven’t a clue where it went. Maybe I sold it. Unfortunately, I think it’s more likely that it was among all those dub albums that rat-faced bastard from Clitheroe nicked (you know who you are, you thieving streak of piss) when I lived in that student house in Woodhouse.
I’d been keeping an eye open for a second-hand copy of Babylon ever since I realised it was missing, but you hardly saw it anywhere in the first place, and it probably sold 270 copies anyway, so I never expected much.
Luckily EMI, Gawd bless ‘em (wringing the last drop of cash from their back catalogue before regular, run-of-the-mill CDs die an inevitable death and they can move onto the next format and sell us exactly the same shit all over again), remastered and reissued the album earlier this year.
But all credit to our favourite former-subsidiary-of-an-international-arms-dealing-concern, they stuck another few tracks on – mainly the more reggaefied moments from Dennis Bovell’s mostly Quincy Jones-influenced jazz-suffused score – and came up with a cool, well-rounded little package which at least partially filled a hole in my life, weird, desperate and a little creepy though that may appear.
The album still sounds as good as ever, although of course there is no vinyl release. That would be too much to ask. But Cassandra’s jaunty lovers rock smoochie Thank You For The Many Things You’ve Done still sounds as sweet. Michael Prophet’s heartfelt Turn Me Loose is as strident. Yabby-U continues to rock, Warrior Charge still drops like a bomb.
Meanwhile, I’m still looking for an original copy of the album.
As if the CD would be enough. Please.
Watch this space.
[This piece first appeared on the Reject Musical Trash website in 2005]
See also: Babylon out on DVD
UPDATE * 29/09/08
I ONLY nipped out of the house for five minutes. But the pull of Manchester’s top suburban vinyl emporium Kingbee (519 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, if you didn’t know already) was too strong for me to resist. Anyway, I manage to drag myself away from various Birthday Party and Fall delights and check out King Bee’s impressive reggae section.
I’m rewarded by finding a couple of On-U gems – Dub Syndicate’s Tunes From The Missing Channel and The Pounding Syndicate – for eight quid each and, even better, a pristine original pressing of the soundtrack to Babylon, for a tenner.
I’m back at home now and Warrior Charge is throbbing through my soundsystem system like it’s Rourke’s Drift all over again .. and I know whose side I’m on. Pass the asagai on the lefthand side, blood.
So take a bow Mr Les Hare, affable, modest and knowlegeable proprietor of King Bee, who sorted me out with the lot for 25 quid, god bless him. You’re a nice man and you run a brilliant record shop. I’m sure I begged you at least a couple of times in the last five years to put any copy of the album aside for me as soon as it comes in, but that’s not important now. I think a round of applause is definitely in order.
And the film is out on DVD in a few days! It’s too exciting!