Saturday, 8 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 85. Dread Beat 'n Blood

Top 102 Albums. No 85. 
Dread Beat an' Blood - Poet and the Roots / Linton Kwesi Johnson

"blood, bitterness, exploding fire, wailing blood, and bleeding"

Once again I feel like I am doing this album a disservice by listing at 85. But I guess any album on this list should feel like a top ten album, should be capable of bewitching my ears and energising my belief in music when I am listening. And there is a reason for it being '85, for that is the year with which it is yoked in my mind, although it was released in 1978 (of which more later).

This album is a frontline report from the barricades of 1970's Britain. This is the voice of the riots that Joe Strummer hankered to be a part of.  Johnson sounds like a prophet, authoritative and convincing and full of righteous anger. And his lyrics, most of which had been published previously as poetry, are startling, confrontational yet with the sense of community of the best folk music.

At first this album was all about that voice and those words. The music seemed there only to create the space in which the voice could declaim. However, the dub reggae sounds create an urban soundscape essential to this record and indeed, the instrumental dub track Defense Dub was a signpost to the album LKJ in Dub which this album gave birth to, and it is an album which might well have made this list had it not had to cede its place to its progenitor.

The most extraordinary track is possibly Five Nights of Bleeding, which recounts the story of five nights full of bubbling tension, which once turns on the Met:
Babylonian tyrants descended
Bounced on the brothers who were bold 
So with a flick of the wris', a jab and a stab
The song of hate was sounded
The pile of oppression was vomited
And two policemen wounded
Righteous, righteous war

but otherwise cuts into itself like an ingrown nail:
Rebellion rushin' down the wrong road
Storm blowin' down the wrong tree
And Leroy bleeds near death on the fourth night
In a blues dance, on a black rebellious night, it's
War amongs' the rebels
Madness, madness, war

I am tempted to paste the complete lyrics but they are at their best when listened to. There isn't a dud on this record. Two tracks are direct political activism, both It Dread Inna Inglan and Man Free deal with the wrongful jailing of innocent men George Lindo and political activist Darcus Howe. The jailing of innocent men didn't only apply to black men and these songs and this anger is easy to tap into for an Irishman. Both songs have choruses which sound designed to be sung by crowds of protesters, and sometimes are, recorded chants of "Free George Lindo" making up part of It Dread Inna Inglan. I am reminded at times of Ewan MacColl.

Why No. 85?

I spent the summer of 1985 in London, in a squat between Clapham Common and Brixton. When I think back to that summer it is to this album that I turn, this and the Pogues single Dark Streets of London which was the soundtrack to the many older Irish I met that summer, the flotsam and jetsam of the great wave of immigration which was at high tide in the fifties. They seemed brothers to the older Jamaicans standing outside the bookies in Brixton, as if they were breathing the air of elsewhere.

I remember the announcement that the tube wouldn't be stopping at any stations past Elephant and Castle and having to walk home from there. I remember walking around Brixton on the night of the riots, and looking down on crowds passing petrol bombs to each other, the next morning the smoking ruin of the Labour party office which had been decorated with a large mural of a warlike Uncle Sam. There was an enemy closer to home - The London Metropolitan Police.

The next day other Irish squatters told me how some friends had come to them to find out if they knew how to make petrol bombs. Because they were Irish. They were from Dublin, far removed from the Troubles but they thought they'd give it a go. Their kitchen became a factory for the day. The rioters had been a very mixed crew, but you wouldn't know that when you read the papers.

I had my own experience of jail at the time. A letter had been delivered to our squat and was passed on to one of the neighbours who had said he was expecting it. It turned out to have been stolen savings certificates and had been part of a sting. When the man who had received the certs tried to cash them at the local Post Office he was jumped by waiting police but managed to escape. All they caught was the envelope with my address on it. I can still remember the way one of the arresting detectives spat the word Irish at me, and the totally unnecessary force used to bring me down to the police car. That and a day counting the bricks in a spartan cell in Brixton Prison.

But that memory is mixed with the smell of ganja in pubs, the sound of dub from windows and clubs, the jukeboxes full of (largely awful) Irish country 'n' western, and my first taste of freedom, an overwhelming, explosive taste which contained sour undertones but which I still love to revisit in my imagination.
And often now sprawled on my sofa,
That time is like a taste
That floods my mouth
With the bliss of youth;
And then it moves my head and feet,
And I dance to the dread beat. 
(with apologies to W.Wordsworth)

This album seems as English to me as The Kinks or The Smiths. It defines London at the time, a London that clearly didn't belong to the bulldog breed.

"music blazing, sounding, thumping fire, blood 
brothers and sisters rocking, stopping, rocking 
music breaking out, bleeding out, thumping out fire, burning"


  1. What a great posting; still have not listened to the tracks posted yet; my computer is having a... hissyfit. If I could open the windows I'd feckin chuck it!
    Love your reminiscence of your time in London: I was up the other end near Cambden and Crouch End but used to record on Acre Lane AND just off Cold Harbour Lane in Brixton; always an undercurrent as I strolled the streets in my 80s ponce; eye make up even; surprised that I never lost my guitar...
    Ever thought of writing something substantial about the period?
    Poetry or prose...
    "Sound of a time, like the smell of a room, can haunt your memory"
    'Spots of time' indeed...

    1. Hi Trevor. Thanks. It's amazing how strongly some music can be hardwired to memory. I am playing around with ideas for a book of short stories which would draw most of its inspiration from this era of my life. I was only in London for the summer of 1985, before starting college. I used to feel it was where I would end up but that was not to be.

      I've got a long way to go with it though. I find it difficult to manage any kind of writing routine. Maybe this series of posts will help, but, my mind is a blank today so will have to dig deep for todays contribution.

  2. I always dangle the pen first thing in the morning.
    Something always comes; no guarantee of quality but one step leads to the next.
    Bleeding obvious stated I know but it's amazing how the thoughts pile up.
    The trick as ever, is recognizing a 'good thought' and in the editing of it...

  3. And... an interesting piece on the writing process in the Irish Times by American songwriter Josh Ritter who has just finished his debut novel.
    Interesting to me anyway as he writes prose as he writes his songs; stolen moments etc.
    See it on his blog:
    Resonates because the new MM album has a short story 'In Cassidy's Care' as the backbone of the songs...

    1. It's an interesting piece - and it reiterates the bleeding obvious - you're not a writer unless you write. I've a friend who keeps telling me (not re writing in particular) that people overestimate what they should do in one day and underestimate what they can do in a year.
      There are always excuses: three kids (2,4 and 10), house, garden, chickens, horse, cats, dogs, books I should have finished by now, this blog, Facebook, Twitter, even the odd bit of work, tea, TV and, well, I'm guilty of all possible evasions.
      I read In Cassidy's Care in episodes and liked it. I've been meaning to read it all in one piece but, well, it's sitting on a list alongside my ambition to write and all this other stuff like a clutch of chickens roosting in some dark recess of my mind.
      Have you written a suite of songs based on it? Are you going to include spoken word pieces? Looking forward to it.

  4. I'm actually meant to be in the studio finishing the album this week; sessions cancelled because there are problems with the plumbing/kitchen there. Frustrating as I was fixed on the finishing; would have been great to clear the decks for the new year.
    I actually recorded the vocals back in April 2011 and Marcus had to stop production while he relocated and built his studio. I always like the songs to feel relevant upon release; happy to say that I'm still feeling connected with the songs as it's not about me/me/me; but relates to the plight of a good friend whose adventures are ongoing... it could be a triple album at this rate.
    I'm not sure how I'm going to marry the prose (which came first) with the songs which were a reaction to the writing. I'm not even sure if the story is any good; it seemed to come from a good place and was done for selfless reasons but might therefore lack that often vital element of self examination; something that I'd had a bellyful of after Hopeland & Keepers. I know that Marcus is reluctant to have to much spoken stuff as it might stand too closely to my solo stuff... and he has a good point; although I still maintain that some things cannot be sung.
    I'd be interested in your opinion on the written stuff; rooted in fact before it spiraled into mundane fiction...