Reggae and the British Empire

In the mythical rulebook of Rock’n’Roll, the UK has always been the place to break an act to give access to the European markets and often the rest of the World. This is particularly true with ‘foreign’ artists or music genres.

The same is true for Jamaican music, initially imported and sold as ‘Jamaican Blues’ for dancing to at Soho Blues Parties. Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae all came from one small Island with a total national population of around three million, little more than the population of south London, to the shores of a much larger island five thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

There are many reasons Chris Blackwell of Island Records arranged for, what turned out to be the best selling live record of all time, to be recorded at The Lyceum. (Bob Marley and the Wailers Live at The Lyceum) Chiefly the venue was in London, which in 1975 was the epicenter of Reggae, outside of Kingston JA, and key to the world. Reggae in its many forms has used this time honoured step to global success.

Since 1948 subjects of the Queen of the United Kingdom and of the British Empire (re-branded in 1949 ‘Commonwealth’) had been relocating from the West Indies to the ‘Mother Country’ Great Britain, bringing with them music and culture and food alien to the native British. As is well documented the process was not a peaceful or easy one. Old hatreds and new fears combined, whipped up by politicians and public alike.

One thing however that did not fail to cross the drawn boundaries was music. Good music always wins.

From around this point Reggae or Ska as it was still known, became a two-way street. Jamaican Musicians, the likes of Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker and Rico Rodriguez would visit and live in London and play their music to not only the West Indian community but increasingly and eventually predominantly white working-class audiences. The British kids would dance and buy the records and the Jamaican musicians would reply with ‘Scene specific’ songs like Symarips ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’, an anthem for the burgeoning early Skinhead Reggae scene.

By the late 1960s, there was a West Indian population in London large enough to support a thriving music business, with record shops and venues and working musicians and, peculiar to Jamaican culture, Sound Systems in the Capital and in Cities across the UK. It hadn’t taken long for post-war British kids, now known as baby-boomers, to turn on to the exciting dance rhythms as a counterpoint of the exotic in the backdrop of the still bomb-damaged Britain. Importantly it sold in bucket loads. Trojan Records Reggae compilation series entitled ‘Tighten Up’ consistently sold so well that the BBA charts authority were ‘forced’ to change the rules to disqualify all compilation albums from the charts.

It’s truthful to say that in the 1970s Reggae’s influence began to change the shape of Britain both culturally and, by proxy, politically. By 1978 an entirely British style evolved out of the Midlands towns of Coventry and Birmingham and further south in London. Two-tone by definition was mixed race. Inner city Black and White kids appropriating the Ska Rhythms and style of the West Indian immigrants of 15 years before, and representing it with an impetuous and hard edge akin to the punk they were also listening to.

Many of the bands that spearheaded the Two-Tone movement were dismissed at the time as mere revivalists but time has shown their true impact both musically and in a social context. The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were all writing socially conscious songs which have entered the UK national psyche as reference points to those turbulent times.

Despite Anglo-fixation the British obsession with purely Jamaican music has never ceased with many UK club-nights and Sound Systems like Brighton’s Roots Garden and Jah Shakka Sound System playing the latest imported J.A cuts alongside home-grown JA sounds.

There are also the various strains of native British music that are entirely reliant upon Reggae but their roots but are grounded very much in the UK. Definite Reggae influence can be heard in British originated Jungle spearheaded by artists like Congo Natty. Also Drum’n’Bass and more recently Grime. All the ingredients are there, rhythm led, heavy on the bass with a healthy disdain for the status quo delivered with the confidence of conscience.

Written by: R. Vee – 2018


Bob Marley and the Wailers Live in London: 


Prince Buster Ska in London:


The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’:


The Selecter – ‘Too Much pressure’:


The Beat  – ‘ Stand down Margaret’:


Congo Natty – ‘Police in Helicopter’: