photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
GEORGE CLINTON is the man. just want to get that out of the way right at the beginning.
the DON LETTS-directed BRITISH television documentary GEORGE CLINTON: TALES OF DR FUNKENSTEIN (BBC, 2006) recounts his enduring cultural legacy for permanently expanding the sonic and thematic parameters of the R&B/SOUL idiom with his revolutionary, conscious-expanding, psychedelic FUNK bands PARLIAMENT and FUNKADELIC. CLINTON himself is interviewed throughout the film as well as current and former band members, writers and notable acolytes including MACY GRAY, ANDRE 3000 (OUTKAST) and SHOCK G (DIGITAL UNDERGROUND).
one of the big takeaways from the film is how much of a pied piper CLINTON really was and still is, by not only attracting all the eccentric musicians (famously BOOTSIE COLLINS, BERNIE WORRELL, WALTER "JUNIE" MORRISON and EDDIE HAZEL) and experimental artists (PEDRO BELL), but also letting them flourish. PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC was his band, but functioned more as a collaborative party. case in point, he would record with players that were unfamiliar with each other and even have people play instruments they were inexperienced with or make non-vocally trained individuals sing. it all feels very CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-esque in its pursuit of putting to wax something new. this was all, of course, the antithesis of MOTOWN RECORDS and traditional R&B/SOUL music of the period which attempted to project an image of BLACK AMERICA that was contained and dignified. PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC was pure id. unrestrained, unadulterated creativity and artistry. being in the moment and letting your freak flag fly.
it makes total sense to me that the later HIP HOP generation caught up with CLINTON and incorporate his music and, for the most part, the social/political mindset he established with PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC. i speak of essential groups from the NYC HIP HOP, NATIVE TONGUES and WEST COAST HIP HOP movements like PUBLIC ENEMY, DR. DRE, ERIC B. & RAKIM, DE LA SOUL, DIGITAL UNDERGROUND and so on. since the filming of this film i feel his role has yet to wane in modern AMERICAN culture. we are still very much attuned with the mothership connection.
the title a reference to a former BRIXTON sound-system enjoyed long ago by JAMAICAN WINDRUSH GENERATION immigrants, SUPERSTONIC SOUND: THE REBEL DREAD (3FILMGROUP, 2010) is a film about famed director and PUNK ROCK icon DON LETTS and the CULTURAL and PERSONAL HISTORY of BASS over three generations of his family in BRITAIN. its an interesting topic criminally overlooked, especially since, as DON states, "bass is JAMAICA's gift to the planet."
the film is a dialogue of sorts with his son JET, who is an upcoming DUBSTEP producer, which interestingly continues a family legacy that was started with DON's father ST LEGER who set up a small sound-system on the steps of a church after service. in a sense, this intermingling of RELIGION and MUSIC was what got that first generation of immigrants through ECONOMIC, POLITICAL and CULTURAL racism from a new home country that rejected them.
what i found interesting about the film was the interplay between ROOTS REGGAE and the beginnings of BRITISH PUNK ROCK in the late 1970s and how such carried over to NYC HIP HOP in the early 1980s. the through-line between such seems obvious in retrospect (REBELLION, PERSONAL FREEDOM, UNINHIBITED CREATIVE EXPRESSION), but the seeming recognition and collective interest of such at the time by active participants in each scene is pretty remarkable. it also provides an explanation for the formation of BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE (of which DON co-fronted), which was a band i never completely understood after being raised on THE CLASH.
i also found it remarkable how levelheaded JET was about the legacy of his father, how he doesnt feel a need to live up to some outside expectation, but nonetheless appreciates to learn what he can from him. and his father in return sees value in his evolution and appreciation for the use of BASS in his music. it is pretty remarkable.
of course this film was recorded long before the catastrophe of BREXIT and the UNITED KINGDOM's fall back into state-sanctioned RACISM and rampant XENOPHOBIA that led the way for TRUMP and globally ascendent authoritarians worldwide. i can only imagine what this film would look and sound like just 6 years later. my sense is that a common love of BASS would nourish that family's soul and provide a respite just as it did during the post-WORLD WAR II period with the WINDRUSH GENERATION. scary to think about.
as an AMERICAN it is difficult to hear the story of the spread of JAMAICAN music (SKA, ROCKSTEADY and REGGAE) in BRITAIN and not hear echos of the role AFRICAN-AMERICAN music held in the UNITED STATES (JAZZ, BLUES, R&B, ROCK AND ROLL, SOUL, FUNK, HIP HOP) in demanding both respect and representation from an oppressive white power structure that sought to exploit them for their labor, uninterested in their culture (or so they thought). its just too similar a narrative not to mention. AMERICAN music is BLACK MUSIC. likewise, JAMAICAN music influenced everything it touched in the UNITED KINGDOM (FASHION, POLITICS, ATTITUDE).
the recent documentary RUDEBOY: THE STORY OF TROJAN RECORDS (PULSE FILMS, 2018) outlines this compelling narrative from both a JAMAICAN and BRITISH perspective, as the two are deeply intertwined with one another. it does this through interviews with the musicians (TOOTS HIBBERT, DERRICK MORGAN, DANDY LIVINGSTONE, MARCIA GRIFFITHS, ROY ELLIS, KEN BOOTHE, FREDDIE NOTES, GEORGE DEKKER, DAVE BARKER, NEVILLE STAPLE, PAULINE BLACK), producers (BUNNY "STIKER" LEE, LLOYD COXSONE & LEE "SCRATCH" PERRY) and former TROJAN RECORDS officials (LEE GOPTHAL, ROB BELL & DAVID BETTERIDGE) that participated in bringing JAMAICAN music to the UNITED KINGDOM as well as writer NOEL HAWKS, filmmaker DON LETTS and most impressively of all, original JAMAICAN soundman KING EDWARDS THE GIANT.
the film also has some superbly choreographed reenactments with exceptionally visceral cinematography. the result is that we are taken into the streets of mid-century KINGSTON and the immigrant basement parties in 1960s ENGLISH council estates as the musical form and its audience developed. all this while the main participants act almost as voice-over narrators. really cool stuff that results in a highly immersive viewer experience.
as i've covered in other documentaries on the same topic (i.e. ROOTS, REGGAE, REBELLION and THE STORY OF SKINHEAD) the basic background is that the BRITISH NATIONALITY ACT OF 1948 gave BRITISH citizenship to all members of the commonwealth and the right to settle in BRITAIN, which led to a population boom of roughly 150,000 CARIBBEAN immigrants between 1951-1961 known as the WINDRUSH GENERATION. this had ramifications both culturally and politically.
LEE GOPTHAL was a BRITISH entrepreneur of INDIAN descent (who immigrated from JAMAICA) that owned a small string of record stores aimed at the burgeoning youth market represented by the children of the WINDRUSH GENERATION. at some point he realized he could sell imported 45s of JAMAICAN music to this growing second-generation immigrant population. he could not keep up with demand. in the late 1960s he established TROJAN RECORDS in partnership with CHRIS BLACKWELL's ISLAND RECORDS, which had connections to JAMAICA (thus its name).
once they started churning out records for the ENGLISH market, a funny thing happened: it caught on with the children and young adults of the working-class WHITE population. this led to the SKINHEAD movement of largely WHITE enthusiasts of JAMAICAN-imported music, fashion and attitude. essentially they wanted to look like the RUDEBOYS. their parents tolerance for this upstart youth culture was another story entirely sad to say. what is super interesting is how some participants of this documentary, PAULINE BLACK of 2-TONE SKA upstarts THE SELECTER and filmmaker DON LETTS (both second-generation immigrants), essentially were introduced to music of their ancestral homeland vis-a-vis the SKINHEAD movement.
at that point in the late 1960s, it could be argued that the music had become another facet of BRITISH popular culture. it even started getting regular airplay on BBC radio after years of being confined to offshore pirate radio stations. the intransigence and outright racism of radio programmers and gatekeepers on television was essentially nullified by the power of the collective popular appetite for this music. now a distinctly BRITISH sound rooted in its former colonies. i have no doubt that subsequent musical traditions rooted in immigrant populations in SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA and the INDIAN SUBCONTINENT no doubt gained entry to the ENGLISH radio-sphere through the efforts of TROJAN RECORDS and their audience demanding representation during this period.
TROJAN RECORDS is just a record label. it sought to expose and profit from music they believed in that was not exploited in the marketplace. they created that market and the culture that organically rose up around it in BRITAIN is still there today decades later after the label went bust in 1975 after not being able cover costs and taxes after it produced too many records. it created a musical and cultural dialogue that linked the UNITED KINGDOM with its former colony and made it reconsider its role in a newly multi-cultural society. i don't think BRITAIN was ready at the time, as evidenced with BRITISH MP ENOCH POWELL's xenophobic 1968 "RIVERS OF BLOOD" speech in which he stated that "in this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man" and the subsequent rise of the NATIONAL FRONT.
to BRITISH music lovers the legacy of TROJAN RECORDS is that of being a crucial preliminary step in the nation's hopeful progress towards INCLUSION, DIVERSITY and MULTICULTURALISM. yes there are setbacks (look no further than the xenophobic madness of BREXIT) and a brutal history (not unlike that of the UNITED STATES or GERMANY) defined by slavery and colonialism. one would hope recognizing the good in another's culture is the first step towards abandoning a shallow nativist stance and myopic, nationalist view of the world.
one can only hope.
great documentary worth checking out with superb cinematography and storytelling.
the cultural roots of the SKINHEAD subculture are rather fascinating. the fact that in our modern nomenclature the term has a dark, far right-wing, xenophobic connotation ironically belies its origins in a cultural moment that brought a diverse confluence of cultures and styles together. its a term with many embedded identities that is at war with itself. its a subculture that is complicated and serves as the perfect metaphor for the UNITED KINGDOM's complicated relationship with its former commonwealth and itself.
DON LETTS' film THE STORY OF SKINHEAD (BBC, 2016) explores the SKINHEAD subculture and its inherent contradictions. the story begins with the UNITED KINGDOM's policy in the wake of WORLD WAR II of allowing inhabitants of its greater commonwealth entry and work visas to work in the island's borders. this set off shortly thereafter beginning in the 1940s what is now known as the WINDRUSH GENERATION, former inhabitants of the CARIBBEAN (JAMAICA, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO, etc) that begin working in ENGLISH factories and living in council estates. DON LETTS hones this narrative squarely with his own, as he was raised in SOUTH LONDON on a council estate by JAMAICAN-immingrant parents from this generation. what happened was that despite their parents closeted racism, white kids on these council estates in LONDON began to adopt the style and music of their JAMAICAN counterparts. poor white urban identity in some circles became intwined with CARIBBEAN immigrant culture.
eventually this movement, which didnt have a name, but later got deemed SKINHEAD by outsiders, was largely innocuous as it was mainly a subculture based around white appropriation of black culture. the fact that eyes were raised by an older white generation didn't stop these kids, and its debatable whether or not they shared in their parents XENOPHOBIC-leaning views. it must be said that racial jokes about PAKISTANI immigrants were common on the radio at the time and the education system was far from progressive, with educators often being explicitly derogatory towards the dress, speech, mannerisms and culture of immigrant children. racism was in the air and open on some level during this time in BRITAIN.
eventually shops emerged to cater to this subculture and it spread north. by the 1970s haircuts and fashions changed as the original SKINHEAD culture merged with northern football culture. this new identity helped solidify a new uniform for the emerging football hooligan and their street gangs of fellow team supporters. violence and gang-mentality entered the picture as these squads with face off against rival supporters, but the ethos was still tentatively not explicitly race driven. again, its complicated. definitely some cognitive dissonance going on here. it may be that some elements that had far right-wing sympathies based on those that preexisted in the northern white working class population itself, but none that were rooted in the SKINHEAD subculture per se.
enter the NATIONAL FRONT. this WHITE NATIONALIST political party used football (as well as youth events, dancehall parties, self-published newspapers, etc) as a means of attempting to convert young men to their side in the late 1970s and early 1980s. those that embraced their XENOPHOBIC, RACIST views forever altered the meaning of the SKINHEAD subculture. it been infiltrated a segment of poor northern white kids.
but culture shifted again. this time to PUNK ROCK which largely embraced REGGAE and its bedrock political messages wholeheartedly. but it wasn't a good fit for the SKINHEAD kids that went to their shows. too artsy. too posh. SHAM 69 bridged that gap. but unfortunately their gigs were infiltrated by NATIONAL FRONT SKINHEADS that caused SHAM 69 frontman JIM PURSEY to abandon the band and move on.
the 2 TONE SKA and OI PUNK movements of the early 1980s that came next didnt fair much better. famously they couldnt find gigs because of the fear around their following, which absurdly included NATIONAL FRONT SKINHEADS. this was much to their chagrin, since they named the movement 2 TONE as a means of delineating that they were on the side of multiculturalism and racial equality. OI PUNK was just a newer, more aggressive form of PUNK ROCK that placated to a generation of militaristic SKINHEADS looking for a community. again the NATIONAL FRONT infiltrated both to the point that it rendered them dysfunctional. this was especially the case after the SOUTHALL RIOTS OF 1979, in which SKINHEAD youth burned a pub in SOUTH LONDON in a largely asian community. OI was banned by MARGARET THATCHER and most of the bigger (non-racist) bands folded up, leaving only those funded by the NATIONAL FRONT in their wake. it was a coup for the ultra right-wing.
this in turn led to the SHARP SKINHEAD bands who were a reaction to these NATIONAL FRONT funded racist SKINHEAD bands. the SHARPS were explicitly anti-racist and that movement continues to this day.
its super interesting how this youth culture got hijacked and its "uniform" which was based on JAMAICAN style from the 1950s is now synonymous with WHITE NATIONALIST and NEO-FASCIST movements from POLAND, GERMANY, the UNITED STATES and even MALAYSIA. i even saw this in THAILAND where they sold NAZI paraphernalia in common markets with "SKINHEAD" gear. its truely bizarre and endlessly fascinating.
i have one other thing to add.
this contradiction of "loving" the music but "hating" the people is something that is not unique to the NATIONAL FRONT infiltration of certain segments of SKINHEAD culture. i've heard that contradiction by white AMERICANS my whole life. its a form of cognitive dissonance rooted in a potent cocktail of hubris and ignorance. the idea that you understand a people and a culture better than they do. its very AMERICAN and it deprives minority populations of controlling their own identity, which was probably the point in the first place. but what do i know, im only a former teacher. i saw this shit firsthand.
great documentary that brilliantly raises some unnerving issues about cultural appropriation and how hate can be used to subvert and infiltrate youth culture. endlessly fascinating.
PUNK: ATTITUDE (3DD PRODUCTIONS, 2005) by legendary DJ / MUSICIAN / DIRECTOR and original PUNK ROCK scenester DON LETTS is probably the most comprehensive documentary about the beginnings and evolution of PUNK ROCK, both stateside and in ENGLAND. it includes an exhaustive yet entirely impressive cast of participants, many now deceased, whose insights provide an appreciation for the wide array of interests and backgrounds that led to the formation of the genre. this includes, but not limited to, musicians such as JOHN CALE (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), JELLO BIAFRA (THE DEAD KENNEDYS), MARTIN REV (SUICIDE), CHRISSIE HYNDE (THE PRETENDERS), DAVID JOHANSEN, SYLVAIN SYLVAIN & ARTHUR KANE (THE NEW YORK DOLLS), MICK JONES & PAUL SIMON (THE CLASH), DARYL JENIFER (BAD BRAINS), POLY STYRENE (X-RAY SPEX), HENRY ROLLINS (BLACK FLAG), WAYNE KRAMER (MC5), PAT SMEAR (THE GERMS), SIOUXSIE SIOUX (SIOUXSIE SIOUX & THE BANSHEES), TOMMY RAMONE (THE RAMONES), CAPTAIN SENSIBLE (THE DAMNED), ARI UP (THE SLITS), STEVE JONES & GLEN MATLOCK (THE SEX PISTOLS), THURSTON MOORE (SONIC YOUTH), K.K. BARRETT (THE SCREAMERS), RAY CAPO (YOUTH OF TODAY), GLENN BRANCA (THEORETICAL GIRLS), KEITH MORRIS (BLACK FLAG / CIRCLE JERKS), ROGER MIRET (AGNOSTIC FRONT), PETE SHELLEY & HOWARD DEVOTO (THE BUZZCOCKS), DEE POP (THE BUSH TETRAS), ALICE BAG (THE BAGS), RICHARD MANITOBA (THE DICTATORS), JAMES CHANCE (JAMES CHANCE & THE CONTORTIONS) and film director JIM JARMUSCH, CBGBs owner HILLY KRISTAL and various managers, writers, artists and photographers.
i think one strong suit of this documentary is its ability to elucidate the long line of influence that followed one band to another over time. how bands like THE DOORS influenced THE STOOGES who influenced THE SEX PISTOLS and BLACK FLAG and NIRVANA and so on. in essence you see how bands such as THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, SUICIDE, THE DEAD KENNEDYS, PATTI SMITH, THE DAMNED and THE RAMONES (among many others) are all linked and part of a greater movement towards challenging, complicating, questioning and, in turn, revitalizing the form of ROCK AND ROLL.
examples provided included the concurrent POST PUNK and NO WAVE that came about after the first wave of PUNK ROCK. both took the ethos of originality and freedom and applied such to the music, creating new takes on song structures and experimented with expanded palette of instruments.
the HARDCORE scene of the 1980s was the opposite of such in that songs got condensed and sped up even faster. scenes that began with first wave PUNK adherents more interested in art and originality were taken over by HARDCORE bands that were largely aggressive and violent. part of that anger was political at the REAGAN administration as well as a feeling that their lives were set to be disrupted by economic uncertainty. that scene begat the ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene of the 1990s, or as JELLO BIAFRA puts it "punk inspired rock bands." as the 1990s dragged on you get bands like KORN and LIMP BIZKIT with their dumbed down break down sections and shocking lack of social consciousness.
there was nothing revelatory about this documentary, but it serves as a welcome definitive statement about a genre for anyone new or interested in the place of PUNK ROCK in music history. it really gets at the core idea of the genre in spite of its many permutations: that being the value being an individual. finding your voice, whatever that may be, and speaking your truth vociferously with an almost disregard for the opposition. thats a healthy sentiment for anyone to learn.
my only gripe with this film is that they spends way too much time talking about THE CLASH and JOE STRUMMER, but that is my own personal bias making itself apparent. i still find that band, despite their influence, to be full of themselves. just my opinion.