My Reggae 1980s in Australia
In early 1982 I was just out of my teens, staying with a houseful of revivalist mods in the Brisbane suburb of Greenslopes and en route to the UK. My high school and early work years had been spent in Tauranga, a provincial city in Aotearoa/New Zealand where I’d been a little Pakeha reggae nut since the mid ’70s, captured by this inside-out version of rhythm and blues with its skanking guitar, incredibly weighty, sinuous drum and bass and whole other worlds of lyrical concerns. I grabbed whatever Island, Trojan or Virgin label (sometimes even Jamaican-pressed) records made it so far south and was starting to order imports from the UK. Reggae had a considerable impact on New Zealand and by the early ’80s I had already seen local bands like Chaos and the dynamic and original Herbs rocking mostly Maori and Pacific Island crowds with their homegrown roots reggae.
Herbs had released their excellent debut, ‘What’s Be Happen?’ in 1981 and toured Aotearoa with the fine London band, Black Slate. The main influence on reggae tastes in Aotearoa, like so many parts of the world, was Bob Marley & The Wailers whose style was to have a lasting impact on local music. Bands like Unity, Dread Beat and Blood, Sticks and Shanty and Aotearoa presented songs driven by social concerns (often about Maori political and cultural justice) and steady, so-called ‘One Drop’ rhythms created by the Wailers. As a student journalist I’d managed to bag an interview with Uncle Bob when he’d visited Auckland in 1979 and the experience had given me the incentive to head for a place where reggae was well established. Kingston was the dream, but London seemed more possible.
In Brisbane my notions of Australia as a ‘rock dungeon’ were dealt a sound blow by two great bands, No Fixed Address and Un Tabu. Un Tabu led by seasoned singer Ronnie ‘Ras Roni’ Jemmott was the ’80s expression of the destruction of the White Australia policy in 1973. A band comprising members from Barbados (Roni), Trinidad, Fiji and Puerto Rico by way of New York, Un Tabu was a terrific live act, tight and danceable and obviously satisfying a growing hunger in Australia for real reggae. I don’t recall the venue I saw them in, but I remember a nice conversation with Roni before the show and then the energy of a confident band successfully vibing a big crowd with an authentic take on reggae, far from the music’s birthplace.
I was just as fortunate to attend a gig at the University of Queensland and witness the legendary No Fixed Address led by drummer/vocalist, Bart Willoughby. Bart is really one of the most important pioneers of reggae in Australia. As a Pitjinjatjara youth of 17 growing up in Adelaide he had caught Bob Marley and the Wailers playing ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ on TV and his mind had been blown. He was especially amazed by the drummer, Carlton Barrett and his brother Aston aka ‘Family Man’ on bass. Bart told me a few years ago that at that moment it was confirmed for him that this was “the coolest black band in the world.” No Fixed Address were cool too – stars of a newly released film, Wrong Side of the Road, performers of anthems like ‘We Have Survived’, with a rugged, road-tested mix of reggae and rock propelled by Bart’s drumming and distinctive raspy voice. My memory of that gig was one of a sudden introduction to the anger and pride of Indigenous Australia, wildly dancing Murri people singing at the top of their lungs, “We have survived the white man’s world…and the hate and the torment of it all…and you know, you can’t change that!” I was witnessing the foundation of a great tradition of Indigenous Australian reggae which continues all over this continent. For living proof check out the Zennith Boyz from Kuranda or the Bush Bands Bash in Alice Springs.
After a year or so in post-riots Brixton, grimy council estates in Kentish Town, vibrant Notting Hill Carnival, blues parties in Kennington, Lloydie Coxsone’s sound system in Peckham, gigs with golden-period reggae royalty like Culture, Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Prince Far I, Aswad, Misty In Roots, Mikey Dread, Brigadier Jerry, David Rodigan and record shops like Daddy Kool and Dub Vendor I returned, penniless, to New Zealand and soon thereafter fled to the bright lights of Sydney.
I was drawn to Sydney by reports from a friend of hugely well-attended sound system nights where Jamaicans and Aboriginal people were running things. I later discovered this to be the pioneer sound system in Australia, Soulmaker, owned and operated by Jamaican ex-pat, JJ Roberts who had arrived in Sydney in 1972 and begun his musical activities not long after. I spent quite a few evenings in the 1980s enjoying JJ’s selection; these days I select records alongside him. JJ has maintained the Jamaican musical tradition which is not based on bands but monster PA systems with customised amps, records (or maybe Serato these days) and live mic entertainment. If you didn’t know already, it’s the foundation of hip hop, trip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and half a dozen other styles, but only in recent years has reggae ‘sound’ been properly appreciated in Australia, a country where bands have traditionally ruled. JJ’s son, Danny Ranking was the able MC or ‘toaster’ as they were called back in the day. Soulmaker was especially active in Redfern and spent a lot of time playing at the Black Theatre in Cope Street (right near Radio Redfern) and at a squat in Cleveland Street, but the crew also regularly played suburban pubs and private parties and kept successful dances at the Graphic Arts Club in Regent Street, near Railway Square.
Also putting on ‘dance parties’ were a group of South African exiles and their supporters united under the banner of the anti-apartheid, Black consciousness party, the Pan African Congress. Their regular fund-raiser Afrika Nite dances turned into one of the biggest social events for music-loving migrants, activists and fellow travellers in the ’80s, starting out in St. Peter’s Church hall in Surry Hills and finding a home at the Paddington Town Hall. Mixing reggae and African music on the turntables and featuring local reggae bands like Mataqali Music, Randy and Jah Roots, Na-Whom, and Kalabash, as well as Aboriginal performers like Bobby McLeod, the PAC group combined politics and partying like nobody else. In March 1983 they even pulled together an Australian tour by the militantly anti-apartheid reggae superstar and one time Wailer, Peter Tosh. Although a financial disaster (with well-founded suspicions the tour was partially sabotaged by the established music industry, aggrieved that political activists had scored such a coup), Tosh’s Aussie tour gave “reggae a boost and our [anti-apartheid] work a boost as well,” according to one of the main organisers, Neville Legg.
Following the success of Afrika Nite, Jamaican DJ and entrepreneur, Ted Vassell established his own Jamaica Nite which also utilised the Paddington Town Hall and other venues. Vassell went on to establish the long-running Powercuts reggae night in the 1990s. The aforementioned bands along with others like Shango and T-Vibes (featuring two other stalwarts of the reggae and Caribbean music scene, Jamaican, Patou Powell and Errol Renaud from Trinidad and Tobago) played at venues around town, often pubs but sometimes club venues including the popular Palms in Oxford Street, Paddington, which was known as a reggae-centric nightspot in the early ’80s. Mataqali Music featured musicians with Maori (Cappy Cowen on drums and Norman Jacobs on bass) and Fijian heritage (keyboardist Joel Knight) as well as Ras Roni Jemmott on vocals for a period. Mataqali was a fairly high profile reggae-style band in Sydney in the 1980s. Despite having a substantial live following and even building their own recording studio they did not release any records. However, they did manage to win the 1985 Star Search national talent competition on the Ten network, maybe the only official accolade Australian reggae has ever achieved. They even got to shake hands with Greg Evans.
As well as Mataqali Music, the other well known reggae band in Sydney in the 1980s was Kalabash lead by Yaw Glymin, a bassist and drummer originally from Ghana. Kalabash continued the mix of African music and reggae and offered up the ever-requested Bob Marley tunes Australian audiences never seem to tire of. Few international reggae artists made it to Australia and in the early part of the decade only UB40, Peter Tosh and Toots and the Maytals made the journey after The Wailers initial incursion in 1979.
I became involved in radio in 1985 when I took over from Errol Renaud’s tenureship as host of a Caribbean music show on 2 SER-FM. I limited my focus to reggae and called the show Splashdown, it ran for nearly 20 years. An earlier and vital reggae radio programme was Dogs of Babylon presented by long-time reggae aficionado, Tom Zelinka on the ABC youth network, Double Jay. Other programmes I recall being impressed by were Pounding System on 2MBS-FM, presented by Clay Caplice and Mark Ottignon and Rebel Music presented by the self-effacing and much-loved Janice Chisnall on Radio Skidrow. African Connections DJs on Radio Skidrow would also play reggae tunes amongst their African selection, following the pattern of their Afrika Nite dances. Records of course were the main way to keep connected to the well-spring of music production from Jamaica. I would buy a certain number of singles and LPs by mail order from Dub Vendor in London, but most of my purchases were from Anthem Records which, when I first went there, was located in the prime urban setting of Town Hall subway station. My memory is clear of listening to a 12 inch cut of a powerful 1984 UK track, ‘Mi God, Mi King’ by the Saxon Sound MC, Papa Levi and wondering about the extra bass patterns until I realised it was trains far below us rattling the shop.
Didgeridoo Records in Kings Cross also had a comprehensive selection of reggae albums, though a limited range of 7 inch 45 singles which is where the real action is for Jamaican music. Record dealers, Joe and Alan who had been associated with Anthem set up their own lower George Street shop Floppy Disk which later became Unsound. Joe and Al are fondly remembered as the purveyors of reggae to many enthusiasts in the 1980s and 90s.
In terms of Australian takes on reggae, only a few bands had produced any records which took the form seriously, despite obvious reggae-influenced pieces like ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work and ‘Boys Light Up’ by Australian Crawl. Un Tabu and No Fixed Address had both issued good records, with Un Tabu’s 12 inch disc ‘Open Your Eyes’ (1981) on the Larrikin label still standing up as a fine track many decades on. The instrumental reggae of The Igniters made up of experienced Sydney session musos also made it on to disc with a bit of help from Triple J radio.
Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons did perhaps the most creditable attempt to develop a pop reggae approach that respected the integrity of the music with tracks like ‘I’m in a Dancing Mood’, ‘Hit and Run’ and ‘Shape I’m In’ – Joe Camilleri being one of the few Australian vocalists who could sing in a keening reggae voice without embarrassing faux-Jamaican mannerisms. Honourable mention must be made of the first Australian dub reggae LP (dub being the studio producer’s deconstruction of instrumental reggae invented by the likes of King Tubby and Lee Perry in Jamaica). Ten Dubs That Shook the World was released in 1988 and credited to Sherrif Lindo and the Hammer (actually Sydney producer, Anthony Maher.) The record matched the creativeness of many international dub innovations and paved the way for many similar electronic experiments in the ’90s and beyond.
Unfortunately, at the end of the decade the level of Australian reggae musicianship had perhaps degenerated somewhat and was not up to backing a Jamaican artist. Popular singer/songwriter Bob Andy best known for his work on the legendary Studio One label spent several months in 1989 trying to hone a local band to play his songs, culminating in a very ordinary gig in an Oxford Street nightclub in which he publically castigated both audience and band.
For me, perhaps the highlight of reggae in Sydney in the 1980s was creating and successfully running a sound system dance called Massive Reggae in 1988 with a group of broadcaster/DJs including Mark Ottignon, Clay Caplice and Andrew Thomas. In a collaboration with JJ Roberts and the Soulmaker sound system we converted a Tae Kwon Do practice space above a service station in Cleveland Street, Redfern into an authentic reggae dancehall. It was a hugely successful night and proved reggae had a solid following in Sydney. Hearing and more importantly feeling reggae pumping on a big system in a smoke-drenched hall, packed to the rafters with people of all backgrounds remains my musical and social utopia, a place to return to again and again.