Every so often magazines here will hold surveys of the 100 best British LPs and all the usual suspects are there – Beatles, Pistols, Stones, Clash, Bowie, Roxy Music, Smiths, Led Zep, Van Morrison etc. etc. As is the way of things such lists inevitably tend to reflect the people who make them and are skewed towards male, middle-class white artists, with a few notable exceptions such as Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry and Kate Bush. I’m not making a grand sociological point here* but this cuts out so much wonderful Black British music, particularly from my point of view at least, from the 1970’s; ironically given how such list makers (and I should know, I’m a compulsive one) fetishise punk’s righteous anger. To my mind Poet and the Roots Dread Beat an’ Blood is simply the angriest British record of 1978 and easily one of my Top 12 British LPs ever, it’s just righteous.
Formed by Jamaican-born, London-raised poet and activist, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Poet and The Roots coalesced around the formidable musical talents of Dennis Bovell on guitar and a seeming revolving cast of top-notch bassists and drummer/percussionists, Dread Beat an’ Blood is their only release, Johnson putting out later LP’s under his name only. A number of these tracks were LKJ’s existing poems simply set to music. As I’ve confessed before I am a bit of a poetry geek and because I was exposed to it a lot as a kid I’ve always loved the work of Anglo-Jamaican poets like LKJ and Benjamin Zephaniah, raised in rural Wales the accents and speech patterns and patois just seemed so exotic and melodious to me – still do.
Dread Beat an’ Blood was born out of troubled times, the initial optimism of the Windrush immigration having long been tempered by the harsh realities of life in Britain, there was a different, angrier generation of British Afro-Carribbean men and women, who were seemingly far less inclined to tolerate overt racial discrimination. By all accounts the Metropolitan Police of the time were a heavy-handed and racially motivated force**, add this to the pressure-cooker effect of economic troubles and things were combustible – especially as the Sus laws were used more and more to harass black youths in particular^. Let’s face it, I don’t own many LPs which carry a key to the abbreviations of the protest groups name-checked in a tune on the sleeve. This is an LP daubed in the headlines of time, dealing with black-on-black gang violence, the National Front (Americans: think KKK without the laundry-bill), false-imprisonment and activist’s victories. This is not middle-class, rent-a-punk outrage, no one here had to look for reasons to be angry.
This is reflected straight back in the music, dub and reggae being Jamaican in origin but what you get here is a frozen, hardened version shaped by environment and times.
Which raises a wider question for me, where do I come in? a middle-class rural-type am I just hitching a ride here, copping some vicarious ethnic outrage, playing ‘Holidays In the Sun’-style tourist? it’s an interesting issue and there are definitely elements of that for me, just as there are when I listen to Public Enemy. Is that necessarily wrong? I’m, genuinely, not sure. What I am sure of though is that I like angry music and Dread Beat an’ Blood is certainly that and, to my mind, a titanic musical statement regardless of context.
I would point out that like most classics Dread Beat an’ Blood has been buggered about loads by various re-releases over the years, as far as I’m concerned the original 8 song original is all you need, forget all the remastering ad dub versions of the tracks.
Kicking off with the title track (I love it when LP’s do that!) we’re plunged straight into a deep, substantial, claustrophobic dub rhythm with LKJ’s stentorian tones laying down the law over the top. It’s difficult to quote the lyrics in isolation here, they’re so dependent on accent and rhythm and when you look at them set-down phonetically you just don’t get the same effect. I mean you can print,
Brothers and sisters rocking
A dread beat, pulsing fire, burning chocolate hour and darkness creeping night
Black veiled night is weeping
Electric lights consoling night
A small hall soaked in smoke
A house of ganja mist
Music blazing, sounding, thumping fire, blood
Brothers and sisters rocking, stopping, rocking
Music breaking out, bleeding out, thumping out fire, burning
Electric hour of the red bulb
Staining the brain with a blood flow
And a bad, bad thing is brewing
It’s still good, but without the sound, you lose so much of it, more so than most even.
Second track ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’ is the one for me, telling the tale of five nights of escalating London gang violence, from a scuffle at a Brixton sound system, to cold-hearted vengeance four nights later, via the wounding of two policemen outside a James Brown gig at the Rainbow in London (‘Inside James brown was screaming soul / Outside the rebels were freezing cold’) It’s chilling and brilliant in equal measure and the delivery is just perfection. The poetic edge on the lyrics just stops them being too much, just. I really can’t praise this track enough, really really.
I won’t bore you with the full track-by-track, I start to get the bends at around 1000 words ^^ but every track – even the falsetto ‘Song of Blood’ (sung by Vivian Weathers) which has taken around 20 years to grow on me, is essential. I’m fond of the tracks dealing with the particular cases against George Lindo and Darcus Howe, although lesser cases, they are just as relevant as Dylan singing about Medgar Evers to me.
As I may have hinted at before I love this LP unreservedly and I do think it’s worthy of a place at the very top table of British LPs, or maybe it could be the keynote speaker at a pan-global angry record conference, or winner of the 400m righteous dash at the 2016 Olympics – whatever, plenty of people get angry, few can channel and sculpt it to such lasting effect. Spread the word.
P.S – bit of a difficult one to Lego, this; their minifigure range being a bit light on both ‘Babylonian oppressors’ and ‘de rebel youth’, not to mention considerations of taste and so I have plumped up my usual efforts with various contemporary pictures pinched, rather hypocritically, off the internet.
*and certainly not so in a ‘aren’t I wonderfully smug not to be hidebound by such earth-bound generalities – behold as I shed my corporeal form and assume my rightful place as a being fashioned from pure energy, a forerunner of the next stage of evolution’ – sort of way. Honest.
**and as recent news shows, we’re sadly not out of those woods yet with that particular organisation. Although I’m not so hero-struck by this LP to recognize there can be two-sides to any story.
^although not exclusively by any means – witness the Ruts ‘S.U.S’.
^^and I need to interact with my family in some way tonight, or so I’m told anyway. Spoilsports.