Kenny V Passley reminisces on the ‘Good Old Days’ of Reggae Music
Everywhere you go, you hear people who remember the past talking about how much things has changed with Reggae music. Now we all know that nothing stays the same, everything must change in the interest of progress but has Reggae music’s scene changed for the better or worse? It is a well-known fact that the music that you listened to in your younger years, for most people, remains the era that they have affection for. Reggae music in the ‘70s was not just music, to many of us it was life, full stop! For those who’ve followed the music from the beginning, accepting the current style is like trying to celebrate Tyson and Lewis when they’re used to Muhammad Ali - the young just don’t understand.
To understand the big difference between then and now, we have to go back to the politics of life in England during the ‘60s and ‘70s. First generation English Jamaicans (like myself) were living in an atmosphere where there weren’t a lot of choices for us to hear Reggae. Apart from the Sound Systems, mainstream attention was none existent but for the odd novelty tune once a year. There was no ‘Choice FM’, no Radio One Reggae show, no pirate stations, no videos or the making of audio-tapes and CDs, no magazines, no MTV or cable for that matter.
In 1971, there was only one Reggae radio show, Steve Barnard’s ‘Reggae Time’ on Radio London for a couple of hours on Sundays and that was it. Only selected record shops stocked the music; our culture and everything about us was laughed at and played down in the media and by society on the whole. So, when we got together in a session, the music was a major form of communication and upliftment plus, it confirmed who we were as a people. The music had to be strictly the latest from yard. And we chose Reggae as a sign of identity and a rejection of the mainstream British pop culture, occasionally borrowing a few ideas but generally didn’t support them. There weren’t a lot of different categories like there is at present, it was either you liked Reggae or Soul and the vast majority of Black people in England chose Reggae as Soul music then was regarded as being for the posh and less cultured types.
Early Reggae singers were not just singing only for the money but for pride and to do better than the next singer. If Ken Boothe had a tune in the charts then Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis and the others would try to make a better tune. During the days when Dennis Emmanuel Brown reigned supreme, it was almost considered an insult to ask any record shop owner if you could hear the tune first - Dennis had a new tune out, you bought it as a course of duty, no questions asked! Singing with heartfelt soul was the order of the day and, as most singers started off singing in church, they sang with a lot of passion and as for the tunes – there were so many new tunes. At one point in the early ‘70s, as much as 150-200 new records would come over from Jamaica in a week so, when you went to the dances, you heard the wickedest tunes all night. Two weeks later, go back to the same dance and hear a completely different selection - that doesn’t happen anymore.
Luciano, Beres Hammond, Marcia Griffiths, Sanchez, Freddie McGregor and Morgan Heritage are all of the standards that we have become accustomed to from the past. All are making wonderful music for the now generation but the lack of mass public appreciation for them and a wider variation in styles from newer artist is worrying. But they’re giving people what they want some may argue. Now, I believe that part of the reason why Reggae has survived for so long since the ‘60s, is the fact that it changes its style every few years – from fast to slow to different styles of singing, deejaying etc. But there hasn’t been a major change in the music for the past thirteen years or so, therefore, many of the tune hunters are returning to the Revivals to get the good songs.
Having said that, our generation has been totally spoilt by the likes of Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson, John Holt, Alton Ellis, Errol Dunkley, Augustus Pablo, Burning Spear, Bob Marley & The Wailers (& I-Three), The Mighty Diamonds, The Heptones, Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller, Junior Byles and Johnny Clarke, so we are not easily impressed. However, there is always a producer or artist that comes along and breaks the mould. Some real advancement has been made in terms of Reggae’s appeal – we all know about Bob Marley. After The Wailers was Dennis Brown then came Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest, Chaka Demus & Pliers but, seeing men like Shaggy hit number one spots in 15 countries at once is something that not many people could have imagine years ago.
Reggae became mainstream in many countries but, for the hardcore Reggae lovers, the change in the music over the last twenty years or so has developed into too many different departments. Roots Reggae, Revival, Dub, Ragga/Bashment, Vocals, Lovers Rock, Juggling etc. each have their own large loyal following and lifestyles but with too strong a belief in their chosen styles to mix as well as we did in the past. Some of the biggest tunes that has captured the public’s imagination over the past few years are songs like Morgan Heritage’s ‘Down By The River’, Beres Hammond’s ‘They Gonna Talk’, George Nooks’ ‘God Is Standing By’, and Warrior King’s ‘Virtuous Woman’. These examples show that if the music is made with a serious approach to quality it can unite all generations.
It is not my intention to put down the current Reggae music scene because there are millions of people out there loving and supporting it. I'm well aware that there are plenty of talented people behind the scenes working hard to help raise standards. The real aim is to encourage those involved in the business to take note of some of Reggae lovers’ concerns and to try to learn some lessons from the past. Giving the people better value for money should be a priority which, will no doubt, reduce the generation gap.
SEE ALSO SOUND SYSTEMS & ROCKSTEADY STORY [Tabs top Left]