Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bringing Down Babylon, Part 1

It is now 30 years since the year of Peak Punk: if 1976 was Year Zero, 1977 was Year One, as punk struggled to retain its autonomy and unity against the worst right-wing backlash in the 20th century. The country had struggled through '76 into the prelude to an apocalypse: to the right, punk signified a plague among the youth; to the punks, their future hung in the balance, with possibility and crushing failure both in sight. To the first-generation Rastas living in London, 1977 meant one thing: the total dissolution of Babylon on July 7th. It was widely held among the international Rasta community that - as set out in Culture's song 'Two Sevens Clash' - 1977 would mark the year when Jah, the Living God, would bring about the apocalypse set out in the Book of Revelations, smiting the unrighteous, dissolving the corrupt world and sending those worthy of it to the Eternal City of Zion.

Despite their obvious disagreements with Rasta - their love of 'sin' and lack of misogony - the punks crossed over with the Rasta culture to a great extent: Don Letts played roots at the Roxy; the Clash covered 'Police And Thieves'; John Lydon and Jah Wobble were both big fans of dub and roots reggae. There was an identification within punk of Rasta's position: its history of persecution, of being a dispossessed sub-culture, its black-and-white worldview and its sense of a coming apocalypse it is urging on. If Rasta saw Jamaican and Western culture, with its police brutality, useless government, rampant corruption and cold-hearted industrial capitalism, as Babylon, punk saw it also in the tower blocks, dole queues, police brutality and blackened towns of Britain.


Two years earlier, a 7" single was released in Jamaica. Produced by Augustus Pablo and mixed by Osbourne 'King Tubby' Ruddock, 'King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown' - the dub B-Side to Jacob Miller's 'Baby I Love You So' - was the zenith in the history of dub so far. It was so successful it was released in the UK via Trojan Records with 'King Tubby Meets...' on the A-Side.

The raw, oddly shuffling bass-and-drum rhythms and the otherworldly scraps of melodica and vocal snaking through the mix were absolutely mesmerising: it was a complete collapse of musical structure, the vocals of the author-narrator made into merely one textural element, the track's power derived from deviance rather than the precision of pop. At a time when pop music was so utterly manufactured, but claimed to centre around authenticity - the fake emoting of teen-pop, the earnest-and-boring explorations of prog - this was a subversive blow. Both soon-to-be-punks and British Jamaicans latched onto this music with the fervour of people grabbing water in a desert.

The cross-association between dub producers and roots musicians proved one of the most fertile musical patches of the 1970s for Jamaican music: mixing albums for Yabby You, The Ethiopians, Augustus Pablo, The Congos, Prince Far I, The Upsetters and so on, King Tubby, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Glen Brown, among others, created a body of work that prove a viral influence across the world.

King Tubby's protege, Scientist, once stated that his mission was to "bring down Babylon with nothing but a soundboard." The roots worldview was one of oppressed retaliation: the roots singers protested against Babylonian brutality, assaulting its values and violence, but called on Jah to do away with it in the final judgement; the Rastafarian use of ganja as a means of 'cosmic access' point to nothing other than that belief, that relying on the powers of God and holy Revelation was the only way to bring about the change. On the other hand, dub seemed to do something more powerful: it broke down the barriers of mysticism. By bringing into reality the sounds they would only otherwise hear as revelations - the collapse of musical structure in dub, the undulations and effects, matches the shifting of reality caused by ganja - dub brought into being what pious Rastas could only dream of in the future. Some of the most prominent dub mixers followed Rasta, and even those who weren't seemed to have an odd access of sound: Lee 'Scratch' Perry, if not a Rasta, has always had a rather cracked worldview that shows up in his music (his paintings on the wall of the former Black Ark were obsessed with the apocalyptic elements of Rasta theology); contemporaries of King Tubby were astonished he could think up the sounds he did without the help of narcotics. If another reality could be accessed, then this reality - the figment of Babylon - could be swept away. As Mark Stewart, Pop Group and On-U Sound member, said, "dub's destruction of a musical structure [is] a political as well as a musical statement. If you are going to question things lyrically, you should also question musical orthodoxy."


After 1976, everything seemed possible - at least in London. In the aftermath of the release of 'Anarchy In The UK', the punk subculture boiled to the surface, or leapt into view, into the sudden expanse of possibility offered by punk. It was, by its very nature, a contradiction, a riddle - the appearance of deadly earnestness in the service of sarcastic assaults - and as such, it was a blank, almost a tabula rasa. Anything could be projected into the void, and anything was: bands like The Adverts, The Mekons, X-Ray Spex, etc., were allowed to play, allowed even to be because of punk's liberating power. But this liberation came through a medium of destruction: as Nietzsche said, "In order to raise a new temple, a temple must be destroyed. That is the law." Punk's victory was one of the moment, claimed but not consolidated: they may have claimed anarchy, but the government still stood.

In 1977, the Callaghan government was close to collapse. In Britain, a country of rats, garbage, oppressive authority, rampant crime, IRA terrorism, mass unemployment, a country where socialism had turned into a sordid all-against-all culture where everyone blamed everyone else, the destructive, negationist urges of punk turned on the last remnants of the government. The Clash - alongside hundreds of other bands - released their first single, which codified their anger into the urge to start a revolution from the bottom up, not for freedom, but just for the hell of it; the B-Side picked up on the Rasta myth of "when the two sevens clash". In May, 'God Save The Queen' went to No. 1; in June, the Jubilee holiday itself, they played it on a boat floating down the Thames. July was pressing down. It must have looked like it really would be momentous, that there really was "no future in England's dreaming".

Fuck it, it sounds stupid to draw parallels between dub and punk, but they already existed. The punk subculture, at least during the utopian days of '76, was permeable to anyone who wanted to join, and this included many teens of Jamaican heritage who didn't fit into the culture of hard work their parents had come to Britain with. The viral influence of dub within the punk subculture was all too obvious to those who knew where to look: the covers of Jamaican tunes by punk bands, the DIY approach used by Jamaican labels; more importantly, the musical influence. Dub was, like punk, a musical blank, but one that, by its distorted nature, distorted what it touched; it was a musical assault of sorts, but a more low-key one, holding a sense of disorientation and freedom in the space in its grooves. Punk's negationist tendencies and musical brutality were mirrored by the warmth and positivity of dub - in both, negation created freedom, and music created negation. In 'Two Sevens Clash', Joseph Hill asks "what a liiv an bambaie [what will be left]/When the two sevens clash?" In the song, he envisions Babylon being swept away - and to him, in England, 1977, Babylon is "a housing scheme/That divide", the police, the horrors that punk sung about. It seems to be to be parallelled with the Lettrist/Situationist idea about the 'Northwest passage': a way out of the world of horror once and for all, to a world of untrammelled freedom - an idea already present in punk.

The bass shudders the walls; the drums hit like the bricks tumbling down; the sound of the patois like the moaning of the dying Nebuchanezzar.


Soon to come - part 2, in which things fall apart.


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