"It ain't the names that matter,
you got to be able to hear them first…"
Fodderstompf, August 2007
© 2007 Fodderstompf.com / Greg Whitfield, with special thanks to ViciousRiff.com
Punk archive website ViciousRiff.Com recently unearthed a handwritten letter (circa 1978-80) from John Lydon to a fan that's asking him advice on reggae. Apparently impressed by the tone of the fan's letter Lydon draws him an extensive 2 page list of artists he would recommend.
The impressive list of Gunter Grove favourites features many obscurities, and is guaranteed to whet the whistle of PiL reggae-heads. With the kind permission of ViciousRiff.Com, we have set up a direct link via these thumbnails.
As you will see the list includes the likes of Johnny Clarke, Augustus Pablo, Prince Jammy, Dennis Brown, Pablo Gad, Keith Hudson, Hugh Mundell, and many, many more…
It is notable that many of the Jamaican artists Lydon previously publicly namechecked do not appear – such as Big Youth or Dr Alimantado – but lets make it CLEAR. This was a private letter between John Lydon and a fan. It was never meant to be seen by anyone else. It is not meant as a definitive list or as music-snob bragging rights.
However, Fodderstompf feels this list is a rare insight into John Lydon's (and PiL's) much discussed love of reggae; and deserves to be documented. It's hard to imagine any of the punk / reggae faker's coming up with anything like this… This is ain't no white man in Hammersmith.
Lydon had been a reggae fan from an early age. He knew "The Goods" from the bad; and had been building a collection for years. While in Jamaica, in early 1978, he stocked up on a pile of rare pre-release's and dub plates. In his 2004 3am Magazine interview with Greg Whitfield, Keith Levene also talked of PiL going down to the Virgin / Front Line offices to get JA soundsystem dub plates and pre-release's. The network of Gunter Grove associates and visitors – such as Jamaican DJ's like Tapper Zukie and closer to home John Gray – also provided a reliable source for new and interesting reggae. All these factors helped give Lydon a genuine knowledge and understanding of the music; and a collection that even most Jamaicans would be envious of.
He has since stated that he loved the fact you could pick up reggae singles, with little clue, or even no idea, who was actually on them! He's been quoted as saying he didn't particularly care. It was only the music that mattered. And that's all that really matters. Just because Johnny Rotten likes them doesn't mean you have to. But if you want advice on 70s Jamaican and UK reggae, you won't do much better than this…
Trainspotter Alert: Note the water-marked PiL headed paper!
Reading the letter inspired reggae enthusiast – and regular Fodderstompf contributor – Greg Whitfield to send us some background information on the records, and some of the artists…
The letter shows very, very clearly that John Lydon really knew his stuff. Deeply. Well specialist, well impressive. It deserves a place in UK reggae culture for sure…
Interestingly, it also gives more insight into John's knowledge and personal tastes, since we usually only hear about one or two artists/records he namechecks; for good reason too I imagine. I am guessing he probably wouldn't like the idea of people slavishly saying: "Oh well, John likes it so it must be good, I will go and buy it too." Instead, it seems Lydon prefers to leave it up to us to search out what is good, and not to slavishly follow the leader. Good point in my view, if that was his intention.
"It ain't the names that matter you got to be able to hear them first, or it's a jerkpork…"
Nowadays, the reggae reissue market means
at least some of that music is relatively easy to get if one is prepared
to search around – but in the late 70s – that
list shows a really esoteric knowledge and taste, and a deep understanding
of really specialist, rare music, no doubt about it.
In the late 70s/early 80s, a lot of the records he mentions would have been very rare, and therefore expensive too. Soundsystem records, some of which reached London in very small amounts indeed. They'd be imported from Jamaica in small amounts, and sold hand-to-hand amongst serious collectors and soundsystem men. A small clutch of those records John mentions would arrive from Jamaica, and be snapped up by collectors and sound men within days; if not hours. Eagerly haggled over in basement stores, listeners propped against the front desk of the store, ears attentive. Pound notes at the ready, bidding against others in the know, keen to get hold of the hardest bass lines and the most transcendent, spiritual vocal sides.
Obviously, John didn't mention any specific tunes and sticks to artists / producers he recommends. However, with the help of some other reggae-heads I think I have tracked down a couple of the records…
Black Black Dub - Rockers
The 'Original Rockers' compilation showcases a great selection of Pablo productions from around this time. Lydon famously picked Pablo's 'King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown' on his 1977 Capital Radio interview.
Pablo / Rocker's - Away With your Fussing and Fighting
However, that's more than an understandably easy error to make on John's part, since artist names and credits were usually so haphazardly stamped on those old JA pressings, or often scrawled on labels by hand.
'Away With your Fussing and Fighting' is a real gem. It is available on 'Rockers International 2', a Greensleeves CD which collects Rockers/Pablo 12"'s. Prior to the re-release, it had long been a deleted rarity.
Kalphat / Clint Eastwood - African Land
Lydon mentions Carol Kalphat and Doctor Pablo, my guess is he was listening to this record; which is a real stormer. To my knowledge, it's the only record Kalphat recorded with Pablo, and since Lydon mentions their names one after the other, it seems almost certain it was this record…
Fodderstompf Additional Note:
On July 26th 1979 Lydon appeared on BRMB, Radio Birmingham picking some of his current favourite tracks; and talking about reggae, music, and PiL. The 4 reggae artists he picked appear on the above list, and therefore possibly refer to the following tracks. This would also approximately date the letter to mid 1979…
Levi - Jah Heavy Load (original)
Unfortunately, the original version appears to be unavailable on CD.
Uhuru - No No No
This track appears to be unavailable on CD.
Isaacs / Christine - Rock On / Saturday Night
The track now appears on 'Rock On: Greatest Hits From The Observer Label' compilation CD, and as a revival 7".
Boothe - Got To Get Away
The track appears on the 'Who Gets Your Love' album, and on several Boothe compilation CD's.
Fodderstompf readers may be interested in the following
thread on the excellent Blood and Fire message
board regarding John's letter:
Also of interest may be the tracklisting to Lydon's, now legendary, interview on Capital Radio 1977: The Punk and His Music - Tommy Vance Show, July 16th 1977
We also have a full
transcript of the BRMB interview:
BRMB Radio, Robin Valk, The Rock Music Show, July 26th, 1979
Jah Wobble's Top 10 Dub Tracks as picked for The Independent, August 13th, 2004
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
John Lydon's reggae recommendations letter – courtesy ViciousRiff.Com
Various Jamaican reggae 7" labels – courtesy Greg Whitfield, with thanks to the following:
Tapir's Reggae Discography, Skysaw, Graal Records, elrockers.org & roots-archives.com
All sleeves/labels are copyrighted by their respective copyright owners