I HAVE a vague recollection of buying LKJ In Dub with Christmas gift vouchers from the exotic and exciting Record Village in town. I think it had been out for a while, but it was probably one of the first dub albums I ever owned – as opposed to having my enlightened uncle’s copy on extended loan.
No doubt, I would have run home from the bus stop and disappeared up to my freezing bedroom in the attic where I could play my booming reggae, shouty ska and shoutier punk rock well out of the way of the rest of the family. I’d crank up the music and listen to it perched on a storage heater which was hot enough to properly burn my arse but, irritatingly, not actually hot enough to properly heat the bloody room itself.
There’s room here for a big, tortuous metaphor tying in the wintry, discomforting atmosphere of the country at the time with the sub-zero temperatures of my bedroom but, amusingly enough, I’ve got a stinking headcold and I just can’t be arsed. It’d be a bit shit anyway.
I think I’d heard my uncle playing Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat An’ Blood, Bass Culture and Forces Of Victory albums and was impressed as much by the throbbing backing music as the rich, exotic timbre of Johnson’s voice. My interest was heightened by a BBC documentary about LKJ which was made by Franco Rosso, who immediately went onto to direct the seminal Brit-reggae flick Babylon.
Johnson’s family came to Britain from Jamaica when he was 11 years old and settled in south London. Inspired by conscious black writers such as Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois, Johnson joined the Black Panther party while he was still at school and later became a committed Marxist. Simultaneously, he developed his poetic voice with the Rasta Love group of poets and drummers and in 1977 was awarded a C Day Lewis fellowship and became writer-in-residence for the London borough of Lambeth.
Johnson’s verse came from a Caribbean oral tradition. He spoke in the rich, sing-song cadences of Jamaica without apology or explanation and while his live performances gave his work a powerful authority and physicality, crucially it lost none of its vitality on the page.
He was working as a reporter for the BBC World Service when he interviewed the one band who could survive a Sunday evening Gong Show-style contest at the Four Aces Club in Hackney. The band was one of the first reggae bands to come out of the UK, Matumbi, and their bass player was Dennis Bovell.
Originally hailing from Barbados, Bovell had an insatiable love of music, whatever its origin, although by the time he hooked up with Johnson he had become “deeply buried in reggae”.
When Richard Branson offered Johnson some free studio time, Bovell was his first choice of producer. The pair began setting to music poems from Johnson’s first published collection, Dread Beat An’ Blood.
Bovell had cut his teeth as a sound engineer in the Seventies with reggae artists like I Roy, Steel Pulse, Errol Dunkley and Johnny Clarke, as well as Matumbi. He would go on to work with everyone from the Slits, Edwyn Collins and Bananarama to Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye and Riyuchi Sakamoto.
He played a big part in popularising the smooth British reggae known as Lover’s Rock – a big contrast to the more militant sounds coming out of JA at the time – when he wrote a song called Silly Games, fantasising that Minnie Ripperton would one day sing it because she was one of the few people who would be able to reach the high notes. In the event, Janet Kay managed it too.
Along the way he also produced the soundtrack for Franco Rosso’s film Babylon and all of LKJ’s recorded output.
In short, Dennis Bovell is directly responsible for an awful lot of the music that cemented my relationship with reggae when I was a kid.
The Dub Band were an integral part of his collaboration with Johnson. Comprising of seasoned musicians like Rico and Dick Cuthell, Jah Bunny, John Kpiaye and Vivian Weathers, they backed Johnson live, with each musician literally playing the head-changing dub effects sound system operators and studio producers had to wring out of an array of gated amps and echo chambers.
“We used to have to do it from the stage because we just didn’t have that many echo units to do all the dub bits, so we started playing them, the musicians started playing them, and then it became the thing to do,” explained Bovell in a 1998 interview. “The engineer couldn’t possibly change the speed of the delays as quickly as we can and get them as accurate as we can. It’s just more hard work.”
I honestly don’t know whether they’d evolved this style of playing by the time Bovell, working under his Blackbeard alias, put LKJ In Dub together in 1980, but Johnson and Bovell’s fourth album is a veritable masterclass in the art of musical alchemy.
It had a big, bold, striking black and red cover design with the title taking up the whole of the front cover, squeezing into a tight space barely large enough to contain it. There was no messing about. No fluff. No flab. No flannel. Like LKJ’s previous two albums, the sleeve was designed by the multi-talented Dennis Morris of Basement 5 and Urban Shakedown fame.
Removing most of the words from an album of poetry might seem a little odd, but the very idea of poems with music probably seemed only slightly less strange to many people at the time. Patti Smith and Gil Scott Heron might have got there first but LKJ wasn’t working to any handbook. All bets were off.
Limiting the content to just four tracks for each side, Bovell and Johnson crafted a loud, heavy and thoroughly absorbing (even without the benefit of the sacred herb – this was years before I got involved in all that malarkey) collection of dub deconstructions of their previous work on Bass Culture and Forces Of Victory.
“Dub is free. You can’t schedule it. You can stop or refuse to stop at any time, hang onto one chord for as long as you like,” Bovell told the Independent in 2006. “The song falls through a mineshaft, then you go back to it, and it’s great to whip up that different feeling.”
“As long as you get out of it where you came in.”
Everyone who goes to the Notting Hill carnival should rock out to LKJ In Dub’s opening track, the irrepressible, triumphal Victorious Dub, at least once during the weekend – the source tune, Forces Of Victory from the album of the same name, deals with the trials and tribulations the original carnival organisers faced trying to get it off the ground in the first place. Respect is most definitely due.
Tentatively dancing around a grimly unstoppable bass line, the individual elements of Reality Dub’s seem to stretch into infinity and beyond. Those horns! It’s almost biblical. Chileño minimal house genius Ricardo Villalobos obviously learned a lot from tracks such as this.
In it’s original form of Reggae Fi Peach, Peach Dub was a defiant lament for Blair Peach, a teacher from New Zealand who died at the hands of the Metropolitan Police whilst demonstrating against the National Front in 1978. It sounds every bit as angry in dub.
Shocking Dub is composed of an almost moribund groove and all the space in the world. Softly percussive hand drums which, for want of a better term, I’ll call bongos, also feature, as well as a sound like a dog coughing, slowly.
Iron Bar Dub, featuring the plaintive, mournful harmonica of Julio Finn, proves that the anti-Sus poem Sonny’s Lettah is every bit as heartbreaking with most of Johnson’s words excised. Bitch Dub is a jaunty, join-the-dots take on Inglan Is A Bitch, built around a wonderfully expressive bassline and more of those slo-mo canine hacking.
After Cultural Dub, a simmering, shimmering version of the eloquent Bass Culture, Brain Smashing Dub closes the album in a singularly uncompromising fashion. The original poem’s words may have been removed but the sentiment remains as clear: Fight Dem Back.
LKJ In Dub’s apocalyptic sounds were strangely unappreciated by everyone else at the school disco on the one occasion I took it down there. I left them to it after that. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dancing Queen as much as the next man (especially if that man is John Barrowman) but would it have hurt to hear a bit of proper dubwise action too? Apparently it would.
I didn’t really mind. Their loss. If anything, it made me like the album even more. It was my little secret.
I lost it somewhere along the line. It may have been nicked by one particularly reprehensible rich-kid student twat I lived with in Leeds at one time. I don’t want to dwell on this. It gets me worked up.
LKJ came back into my life, unexpectedly, fabulously, not even particularly expensively, the other week when I was trying to fill the gaping void at the very heart of my being by buying even more dusty old records in King Bee.
As well as Death Disco by PIL (£2.50), Tainted Love by Soft Cell (£2.50), Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys (£8- ouch!) and some other tunes I’m going to have to – as our American friends put it – take the fifth on, I pick up LKJ In Dub for a fiver, after about 20 years of looking for it.
And after all this time, all this anticipation, was it worth it?
Yes, it was.