Babylon’s still burning

[Vivian Goldman’s Punky Reggae Party @ The Cube, Bristol, 19/10/14]

The seats in the auditorium of The Cube – Bristol’s independent, volunteer-run cinema and arts venue – are clearly not designed with the large-legged gentleman in mind. Having been coerced into becoming a member on top of paying the substantial tax at the door, I’m sat at a wonky, sideways angle, waiting for the appearance of Vivian Goldman, veteran music journalist, friend of Bob Marley and self-styled ‘Professor of Punk’ who now teaches the history of punk and reggae music at New York University.

A tinge of nostalgia colours the event, but doesn’t dampen the overall effect of Goldman’s multimedia presentation, which turns out to be a fascinating oral account of the punk/reggae cultural mash-up that happened at the end of the 1970s, the effects of which have reverberated throughout subsequent British musical subcultures up to the present day – especially in Bristol.

The starting point of The Punky Reggae Party – taken from the eponymous Bob Marley single – was that it was a unique cultural fusion that cut across class, race and gender lines at a time of deepening social conflict. The UK was scrabbling around for a coherent sense of identity in the wake of the decline of empire, and waking up to the harsh realities of the 1970s: the oil crisis, the Three-day Week, IRA bombs and the SUS Laws. Out of this social meltdown, punk and reggae became unexpected bedfellows – twin voices of resistance that found common ground in the rubble-filled streets of London.

Drawing on her own heritage as the child of Jewish German immigrant parents, Goldman was attracted to punk and reggae as both were forms of outsider music, giving voice to disenfranchised first-generation black kids and pissed off white kids, unable to see any hope in an era of racial tension, unemployment and street violence. The echoes of dub seemed to reverberate in psyches that were otherwise filled with dread and anxiety; the uncertainty of dub trajectories mirroring a world permanently on the brink of collapse.

For punks, dub and reggae opened up spaces for both musical and social experimentation, allowing them to disrupt the hierarchies of postwar British society. Yet she made the point that the cultural transfer was in many ways a one-way street: while bands like The Clash and The Slits drew heavily from reggae, the same was not always true the other round. As she put it: ‘no one was sitting up in Burning Spear’s house in St Anne’s, Jamaica, listening to The Jam’. Equally, not all elements of reggae, and in particular, Rastafari, resonated with predominantly white punk culture. Yet the concept of Babylon – an easily-identifiable enemy that encompassed the police, the state, and the establishment – definitely did.

Alongside this partial borrowing from Rasta lexicon came an opportunity to explore and break down gender identities. As a female journalist having to battle the entrenched misogyny of the music press – writing for major music journals of the day including Sounds, Melody Maker and NME – Goldman noted the explosion of female participation in punk, citing Ari Up of The Slits and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex as two examples of trailblazing women who refused to conform to notions of how women should dress, talk, behave or perform. But even in this more tolerant atmosphere, the sight of women with weird haircuts dressed in a mishmash of men’s clothing didn’t always go down well with some of the more ‘Old Testament’ reggae heads.

Towards the end of the show, which featured a constant soundtrack of seminal punk/reggae/post-punk tracks, as well as photos of some of the major musicians from the era, the air of nostalgia took over slightly; the cohort of former Bristol punks bemoaning the decline of record shops, the music press, and the lack of militant music of the same calibre as that made during the 70s and early 80s. Arguably, the clear social and political fault lines that defined a generation growing up in that era no longer exist in an age of instant information, free downloads, and – despite a general disillusionment with the political class – a lack of a clear alternative.

Yet as one audience member pointed out, all is not lost. The protest movements that swept the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years have all had their own forms of protest music. However, the galvanising force has increasingly been hip hop, which, when looked at from its South Bronx sound system origins, also has its roots in reggae. So, resistance to Babylon in its many manifestations continues, though instead of underground zines, shebeens and benefits parties, maybe the soundtrack is made using cracked software and shared on social media.

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