It’s not entirely hyperbole to state that reggae in the United Kingdom wouldn’t exist without Dennis Bovell. It certainty wouldn’t have become what it did. The sound system operator-turned-producer, band leader of Matumbi, bass player, dub innovator, lovers rock songwriter and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s right-hand-man has been a vital force in popularizing modern Jamaican music in England for over 40 years. Bovell’s contributions to the genre in the U.K. are immeasurable.
Afropop producer Saxon Baird sat down with Dennis last autumn in his north London home to discuss his experiences bringing reggae music to English ears during the socially and racially tense period of the late 70's and 80's.
Saxon Baird: You moved to London when you were 12. What was your impression of the city, arriving from Barbados?
Dennis Bovell: As a community, I thought it was pretty scary that all the houses were so close together. In Barbados, the next-door neighbor’s house wasn’t up right on our house. When we moved here to London, there was a neighbor on either side of my parents’ house. And if we were quiet, we could hear what was going on next door. It felt like a lessening of privacy, moving here. Also, the temperature suddenly dropped from what I was used to. In Barbados, I was quite fond of walking around barefoot. And where I came from, the beach was only 30 yards away. So to have that suddenly gone and to be in what Bob Marley refers to as a “concrete jungle” was something I had to adapt to.
But at the end of the street where I lived there was a park where lots of kids congregated. It was there that I got to meet kids of all nationalities, and make friends with them and get into their musical likes and dislikes. Which was something I was interested in because I was a student of the guitar at the time. I had lots to talk about with other young musicians because the school that I went to in London had a full orchestra with a wind section, a horn section, and a string section. So I had lots to talk about with many of the boys that I met. We talked music, lived music, and breathed music, you know? It was a very different atmosphere than it was in Barbados.
On the island my grandfather was a minister at the church. Non-religious music was not allowed in our house. It was frowned upon. So we didn’t listen to the songs that I heard on the radio when I wasn’t at home. Artists like the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchner. Others like Ray Charles, Ben E. King and The Drifters. I didn’t hear those in the house. Instead, we heard classical music. There was no end to spiritual singers in the house either. Racks and racks of that!
S.B.: When you were hanging with the boys in the park, what were you listening to? What was the music that you chatted about?
D.B.: When I came here to London, it became pop. The Beatles were the rage, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, groups like that. Then came Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and the Pioneers. And then the whole scene started to open up in England. On Top of the Pops you started to hear guys like Max Romeo. It was very encouraging for us to form a reggae band even though there weren’t that many reggae bands in the UK specializing in strictly reggae.
S.B.: What about reggae made you gravitate towards that style of music and not pop music or another style?
D.B.: Well, the reggae band was the third band we started. We had a rock band and we had a pop band, too. And we gravitated towards reggae with the coming of Osibisa. That put a different light on rock. Groups like Spooky Tooth-- then hearing B.B. King, and Albert King, and Billy Boy Arnold and all that blues stuff. Then the Motown stuff: Jackson 5, the Supremes, and the Four Tops. All of that was here, getting play in London. It was a big pool to choose from when deciding what kind of music we should play. But I thought a lot of bands were doing Motown, Stax, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. People were doing that. Young groups were coming up and they would try and emulate the Jackson 5 or someone like that. But there weren’t that many groups emulating Toots and the Maytals or Boris Gardiner Happening or even Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.
S.B.: Sounds like black music, whether from the Caribbean or the States or elsewhere, was the hot thing in the UK at the time.
D.B.: Yeah! In fact, the first time I played bass guitar in front of an audience it was at a school assembly and I was 13 and the other boys in the band were 16. Actually, they told me to stand on the piano with the bass guitar when we got on stage because I was so young. During that show we played songs like “My Girl” or “Green Onions” by Booker T and people were like, “Wow! Take a listen to that!” Before that we played Rolling Stones tunes and The Beatles and a favorite group of ours called the 1910 Fruit Gum Company which had a song called “Simon Says,” which was popular at the time. So my group, which was called Roadworks, was a bit ahead at the time when we started to do songs like that. Then Jimi Hendrix came along and I had a band called Stonehenge that was like a Hendrix tribute band with loud guitars and feedback and all those weird and wonderful noises.
By the time I got to 17 or 18, though, reggae was a little-known beat. And people seemed to be foxed by it and mesmerized by it. People would wonder, “How do they do that? Where’s the beat?” And I’d say, “Hang on a minute, you can’t feel that? It’s there!” And then we started to play the reggae beat and became good at it. It was something else! A lot of people tried to play reggae but they didn’t really catch it good, you know? They didn’t catch it right way. But for us we couldn’t see why, because it seemed quite plain to us. Maybe you just had to feel “that.” Then it was a like a special thing to be able to drop that and drop it the right way. You’d get noticed then. So that’s when we decided we were going to have a reggae band. Reggae was also the kind of music where you could dance right up close with girls…nearly every song! (Laughs). So guys would follow us around. “We’ll go where there playing because there will be a lot of girls there!” (Laughs).
S.B.: What were the venues you were playing at like? Were you immediately accepted, or was it difficult to get gigs?
D.B.: The first gig we played was, ironically, for some U.S. airmen on a base in London called Alconbury. They booked us as a soul band. And we said, “Well, we’re going to surprise them!” So we played a couple of soul tunes and then we were like, “Okay, you boys, this some beat that we got here called reggae.” And after the first couple of shows they were excitedly saying, “Yeah! You guys play that island music, right? Let’s hear how it goes again!” And these were American servicemen in Alconbury.
Then after that we played a club called The Georgian. It was in Croydon and it was a grown-up club. That’s where our parents' generation went “clubbing.” We got a gig there, and decided we were going to play reggae. Now, while a lot of those people liked reggae at home, they would go out and would want to hear someone like Edwin Starr or James Brown. And a lot of groups were doing that. There were so many James Brown and Drifters style bands going around at that time! So we went into an establishment where we knew they loved that kind of thing, but we also knew that they must have reggae at home. So we played a lot of what was likely a part of their collection at home. Some Desmond Dekker tunes, some Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster style. And they kind of warmed to us eventually.
But you see, we also broke the mold of being formal on stage at that gig. Bands would get on stage and stand up straight and be like [in a very formal voice], “Good evenings ladies and gentlemen…” while we would get on and be like [scratchy and deep] “W’happen? Wha g’wan?” You know that real kind of ghetto-style talk. And people would say at first [proper English voice], “My! Who are these young boys who come up here improperly dressed. We’re all dressed to the nines at a dinner party and they're dressed like street boys!” See, we had this style where we would roll one of our trousers leg up and have a different colored sock on that one. Or sometimes we would just have half of the shirt on and the other half just sort of tucked in. So like a full sleeve with a cufflink and a necktie just sort of hanging off.
S.B.: Where was that coming from?
D.B.: I don’t know. It was just a rebellious kind of thing. It’s what we saw as a rebellion against the way these people were acting and dressed.
S.B.: And this is with Matumbi?
S.B.: Was this the first time that some of these people had really seen Jamaican-style music played live?
D.B.: The kind of the music we played you only heard on record. You didn’t hear too many live bands playing it. And a lot of those bands that played it in Jamaica hadn’t yet made the step to performing live in London. It was a rarity. In fact, when Pat Kelly, who was very popular in England and being played on national radio toured across Great Britain for the first time, Matumbi was his backing band. So we became known for that.
S.B.: How did that come about? Was he the first Jamaican artist that you backed in England?
D.B.: Yes, he was the first Jamaican artist that we backed on stage in England. We had signed with Trojan Records by that time and he was signed through them as well. And he had heard that we were going around and playing reggae. He needed a band one night, and we did it, and we forged a relationship and did a couple of tours together. We did the same thing for Johnny Clarke. His very first tour in England when he released "Move Out A Babylon," Matumbi was his backing band.
S.B.: At that point then, Jamaican artists had heard Matumbi …
D.B.: Yeah, they started hearing about us, and when they would come over, they’d play with us. When I-Roy did his first tour in the UK, Matumbi was his backing band. Same for Ken Boothe in ’74, which led to him having a number one hit in this country with “Everything I Own,” with Lloyd Charmers as the producer. Up until that point, Ken Boothe had been touring around England with Matumbi as his backing band. So Matumbi gained a reputation as knowing how to play reggae.
S.B.: When you were on the tours, what was the crowd like? Was it mixed?
D.B.: Yeah, they had all kind of fans. And then we, of course, would use that fan-base to promote our own music. The trend at the time was to cover well known pop tunes and you would get instantly noticed. We wanted to write our own songs the same way Toots and the Maytals or Bob Marley wrote their own songs, and we eventually did. But it wasn’t that easy to get the public to warm to them unless you could get them played on the sound system or if your band is playing live with a visiting Jamaican artist. That’s a perfect audience right there. And that’s how we were able to break our lover’s rock classic “After Tonight.” That was after we left Trojan, because they just weren’t the company for us. We couldn’t really…live with those guys. So with me being a recording engineer and qualified to run a recording studio, we realized we didn’t even need those guys to record. We just needed to have the right songs, and I could record them in the studio. And to be honest, instead of paying any money to my boss, I would gamble my wages against studio time.
S.B.: What studio is this?
D.B.: The studio is called Gooseberry. I was a sound engineer there. Instead of my boss paying me money, I would just tell him, "I am going to take 8 hours of studio time." In that sense, I was the perfect engineer because all he had to do when the studio had no one working in it was to go, “Dennis you want some time in the studio?” And I would be like, “Yeah!” And then that would cancel out any money he would owe me. I did that quite often.
S.B.: I'm curious about how Matumbi came to cultivate its sound, because it is very unique. It's been written that it’s a very U.K. type of sound as well. And I am assuming that’s because you were influenced by so many different types of artists outside the realm of Jamaican music.
D.B.: That’s correct. Whatever I liked came out in the songs I wrote, and came into the shaping of the style of music that I wanted to play or be involved with. For instance, there was a time when reggae went very dread, very Rasta and very biblical. There were not a lot of female vocalists (during this time) outside of Marcia Griffiths and maybe Susan Cadogan who had one hit there. And yet, in London, there were a lot of young females who could sing or had something to say or books of songs, and they needed to be heard. So I then directed my attention to these young, “would-be Supremes."
S.B.: Name some of the female singers in the UK that grabbed your attention.
D.B.: Marie Pierre was the first one. Then Louisa Mark, Black Harmony and Janet Kay. The test of time has proven that Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is probably the most popular of the lover’s rock songs from the ‘70s.
S.B.: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that The Wailers were some of your heroes. But their music was also very much what you are talking about when it comes to being very dread, very Rasta, almost a militant style. So what I am hearing is that it wasn’t that you didn’t like that style of reggae, but rather that you just wanted to bring women into it. But also maybe that some of the stuff these bands and singers were speaking about didn’t necessarily apply to what was going on in the UK?
D.B.: At all. Exactly. You’ve summed it up, man. I have to say that a lot of what was going on with the Rasta movement and the roots and culture movement didn’t really apply to what was going on in the UK, particularly to the young ladies who wanted to be performers, but were being left out of what was going on. And I wanted to be of help to them, to get what they had to say out there.
What happened, actually, was that there was a talent competition that Matumbi was the house band for, at a place called Hammersmith Palais. And the entrance to get in was mostly made up of women. And that’s what made me really sit up and listen and think, “Hang on a minute! There are no women vocal performers in the UK right now. They are all backing vocalist! There are no front women in the UK scene.” So I started to look for some, and meanwhile make the music tough, music that would stand up on the sound systems. If a song didn’t stand up on the sound system, it didn’t get played. So we had to have female vocalists with some tough rhythm tracks that would cause people to sit up, so they would hear what these girls were moaning about or complaining or singing about (laughs).
S.B.: And in the scene of people who listened to reggae and Jamaican music, it blew up, correct?
D.B.: That’s correct. It got real serious. In fact, by the time that we’d recorded “Caught You in a Lie” by Louisa Marks, the sound systems were already set to receive what we were recording in London. See, the sound systems were the main critics of London recordings. They would often say, "The music is not heavy enough; It sounds light, the mix, not good," whatever reason. And they were very often right when you compared them to the 'Jamaican counterpart,' whether it be the sound of the vinyl or the sound of the studio. So I was like, “Okay, it’s not the equipment because most of that equipment is made in the U.S. or Japan or England. So it’s got to be the players and it’s got to be the means of recording, the mic positions, the frequencies accessed.” So I studied that. And being a sound system operator, I got to hear what records sound like at 25,000 watts. Or in the studio, I could compare what I was making in the studio to what it’s going to sound like on the big sound system.
I was fortunate enough to be on both sides of the “pitch” when it came to listening and playing records and then actually playing as a musician, opposed to a DJ. Because when I played as a DJ with a big system and I was playing my own records alongside records by The Wailers, or Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs; if mine didn’t have the same (impersonates snare) and the same (impersonates bass guitar) then it was back to the drawing board.
S.B.: It’s interesting because despite that, there was still resistance against lover’s rock and it being considered “real reggae,” correct?
D.B.: Well, we broke that barrier down with “Silly Games.” The BBC couldn’t stop playing it because it was a song constructed with a verse and a chorus and a bridge and a “tickling piece” at the end and an intro to catch you so you would have to sit up and listen to what was coming next. Not to mention that, to ridicule music further, when reggae bands came on Top of the Pops, they would have to play with the BBC orchestra. And the BBC would sometimes not quite grasp the beat. Although they were great musicians, they just didn’t quite get the groove right. Then sometimes the singers would be maybe a little too accustomed to singing in the studio where if you did something wrong, you could patch it up real quick. But to do one performance, and one straight performance right through, sometimes the pitch would go off a bit because of monitoring positions or something. Because if you are far away from the monitor you might wrongly perceive the note, you know?
S.B.: So when Janet Kay appeared on Top of the Pops, you saw it as something of a victory for lover’s rock?
D.B.: Yeah, because I knew she could sing and they expected her to sing live. And I actually preferred her to sing live than to try and mime and it look a shambles. On TV, if the sound is going one way and your mouth is going another, the audience is going to go, “That’s a fake.” And some people are not good at miming even if it’s them on the record. And so when they said they wanted her to perform live to get the lip-sync right, said, “That’s fine, grab the microphone.” And when she did, she tore it up. She started singing and I remember thinking, “Whoa. This is serious.” To this day, that song is still on the radio constantly. But that song, it was constructed to be a hit.
S.B.: You had that in mind?
D.B.: Yep. The first thing about it was to change the beat of the drums. Now, reggae had been through many phases including a phase with that disco kind of hit on it, declared as “disco.” When reggae did that with Johnny Clarke with “Move Out A Babylon,” with Santa Davis playing those kind of beats, when soul wasn’t there yet. When Dennis Walks sang “Margaret,” you hear the drum beat on that? Disco wasn’t there yet. We used to call that “flying cymbals.” (impersonates) That’s coming directly out of ska. The Skatalites and Lloyd Knibb were the ones who invented that but he played it very fast. (impersonates) Then Sly Dunbar and Santa Davis and all those guys slowed it down. (impersonates) Then reggae had a whole set of that. Then reggae went to something else, and we called it “ticklers” (impersonates) and then there was the one-drop and the “steppers.” (impersonates) Sly Dunbar was king of (steppers) and everyone wanted to start to do that.
So I thought to myself, “OK, if you want to take the mantle, you got to change the beat!” So I got on the drum set, and I invented a beat that led with the high-hat. (impersonates). Now I had been working with Fela Kuti and a group from Nigeria called The Funkees. They had an afrobeat that went (impersonates). So I decided that for my reggae I was going to (impersonates) find a place between “Afro” and “disco.” Then the reggae comes in…(impersonates ska guitar, then drums) in slow motion against a really vibrant drumbeat. So reggae is on the backbeat. Then with a sweet girl singing on top of the tune? It’s like the icing on the cake. That was the formula!
And remember that record “Silly Games” is made by only three people: Drummie Zeb playing drums, singer of Aswad, Janet Kay singing and me. I am playing the bass, the guitar, the keyboards, and the synthesizer. Actually, I had planned to make 20 or 30 tunes with that beat but by the time that tune came out and became so popular, I didn’t dare do it again.
S.B.: Some would say that lovers rock was influenced by the likes of Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. And that maybe, even their work could be seen as the original “lovers rock.”
D.B.: Listen, I consider myself possibly the number one, if not the top-ten fan of both those gentlemen. Dennis Brown, in particularly, was a great friend of mine. I knew him for a number of years and he sang with my band on his first debut show in Scandinavia that was recorded on Swedish Radio (Dennis Brown with Dennis Bovell Dub Band). In fact, we used to call each other “DB.” Then it got changed to “DeBro” and “DeBo” (laughs). On his first trip to London, he stayed in an apartment owned by my friend Errol who was the chief of Suffers Sound. And he shared an apartment with Eaton who was the bass player of Matumbi. So we were very close. And I love all of Dennis’ work. So it must have influenced me. Probably more than Gregory did. Although Gregory was called “The Cool Ruler” and he was called “cool” because he sang so many love songs. I actually have some “inside information” on good authority that Gregory’s nickname was Mills & Boon [Editor's Note: Mills & Boon is a British publisher of trashy romantic novels, with such classic titles as A Thoroughly Compromised Lady and Definitely Naughty]. (Laughs). He’d just read a Mills & Boon book and write a song about it. And it’d be about some love affair or something.
S.B.: So you may have been influenced by the work of Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, but it was never a conscious decision to emulate them.
D.B.: I was doing what I was doing with love songs. Take Marie Pierre’s “Walk Away.” She wanted to express that moment when someone is fed up with a particular situation and wants to remove them self from it in the same way that Diana Ross and the Supremes might try and depict something similar. So we formed the words and set up the chords, etc. And on that note, I’ve always been a great lover of chords. Two-chords seem to me like the chorus. So another set of chords should be the verse. Then another should be just the interlude. Don’t get me wrong, though. Some songs that have just two chords kill! For instance, “Choose Me” by Marie Pierre is basically just two chords. But take a tune like “Black Skin Boys.” The chorus has just a few chords, but then I said to myself, “Okay, now tell me why black-skin boys are better” and so we change the chords. Before we get back to the chorus, we do a little bit of an instrumental thing here or there. For me, this was quite interesting and was different like a lot of Gregory Isaac tunes and Dennis Brown tunes. And different pulses in the song to punctuate what the words were saying, you know?
S.B.: Another interesting aspect of lovers rock is that it gained popularity in the UK during a very socially and politically charged time.
D.B.: Well, that’s where Linton Kwesi Johnson comes in. He’s the dub-poet, you know? He’s the “social-comment man.” Matumbi made some socially-commentary songs, too, but Linton has always been king of that. When he was writing about the police brutality and social issues, I became involved with him on that level because I felt my musical ability lent itself to what he was doing. If you listen to the music with Linton Kwesi Johnson, it’s a whole new bag. Just in the way he’s talking and not attempting to sing. Just trying to get his words across the same way that the Last Poets did. That’s the reggae side of the social commentary.
For instance, Linton wrote a poem called “Reggae Fi Peach” about Blair Peach who had lost his life on a march against the National Front in Southall. This guy was from New Zealand, and he was lending his efforts to this demonstration. On this particular demonstration, the police went into the crowd, beat up a few people, and he died. So Linton was saying, “hang on a minute, the police killed that guy.” Fifteen years later it was admitted that the blow to his head could only have been done by a police truncheon. That went a long way to admitting that they actually killed someone and pay compensation to his common law wife. At the time, when Linton wrote the poem, I was like, “Boy, you’re going to be in trouble here. You’re going to get taken away, you’re going to disappear. “ Because the paramilitary arm of the police force that he was talking about had guns. Unlike America, there’s only a select few policemen who had guns here and those guys had them! They were the artillery, you know? And you didn’t stand a chance against those guys. If they were coming for you, that was it. So for him (Linton) to stand up and say that they did it and then for him to be proved correct? Wow.
S.B.: It sounds like you were very much involved in both sides then. There was the lover’s rock for the dances and then there was the more political, socially-conscious stuff you were writing music for.
D.B.: Yeah. I mean the first time Steel Pulse went into a recording studio it was the result of them winning a talent competition where the prize was a day in the studio with me. And they sang “Handsworth Revolution” on that talent competition and won. In fact, I ended up producing songs like “Nyah Love” and “Bun Dem,” the first Steel Pulse singles. Now, at the same time, the guy who came second in that competition is a guy named Gladwin Wright and he’s a lover’s rock singer! So I produced him as well. And the guy who came third was a social-conscious singer named Tabby Cat Kelly, and we did a song called “Don’t Call Us Immigrants. ” It’s a song about how we are referred to as immigrants even though, by all intents and purposes, we didn’t really immigrate to London. People of my generation who were born in Barbados like me were just relocating to the capital. Because Barbados was a British territory. I wasn’t immigrating. They wouldn’t say the same thing from someone who came from Northern Ireland.
S.B.: Was there ever a point when you started hearing stuff coming out of Jamaica and you realized that you influenced it?
D.B.: A couple of times. Brent Dowe who was the singer of The Melodians. His most famous song is “Rivers of Babylon.” He did a version of “After Tonight.” Derrick Harriot, he did a version of “Caught You in A Lie,” but that was all after I did it.
S.B.: How did that feel? I know you are not from Jamaica but it must have exciting to see yourself influencing the country where this music originates.
D.B.: It was cool! It was like, “They are listening to me now! The tables have turned!” (laughs). Also, Freddie McGregor recently did a version of “Man in Me.” I did that with Matumbi because I heard it from the Persuasions. I didn’t know it was a Bob Dylan song at the time. I took it and did it a different way by adding that guitar lick in the beginning (impersonates). I should have claimed a piece of the publishing because then Freddie McGregor re-did it with my guitar intro. So I called Freddie up and asked him where my credit was. Bob Dylan didn’t write that guitar part, Dennis Bovell did!
S.B.: Last question: Writer Lloyd Bradley, who you are friends with, told me to ask you about “dreadlocks” and said you had a very interesting take on growing them when you were younger.
D.B.: Well, as far as I understood it, the vow of the Nazerite is to set yourself aside from other men for seven years. My setting aside was growing my dreadlocks for seven years. And at the end of that, I had done my time. The whole idea of Rastafari is an idea that is a heartfelt cause. It’s not just about having a bunch of dreadlocks around your head.
S.B.: So you were just taking the general message of it, and applying it to your life.
D.B.: Yeah, of peace, and love and harmony. I didn’t want to get into deep discussions of who God is. I believe that we are all Gods because we are all able to give life. That’s one of the main criterion of being godly, you know?