Reggae Britannia, BBC Four’s latest archive-heavy trawl through music history is notable for the absence of concrete setting. There are ironic settings: Tony Blackburn — not a DJ known to covet dubplates — strutting outside Broadcasting House in period attire and the leafy suburb of John Hassel (whose Hassel Recordings pressed much independent British reggae vinyl), complemented by Good Life-type footage of neurotic neighbours mowing their lawns. Then there are the gritty urban settings: the Coventry estates, around which the Specials started their ska revival, and to the west of them the perma-grey Birmingham streets where UB40 seem to have been filmed standing around smoking, studiously affecting the pose “Unemployed of Thatchers Britain™” for much of the early 1980s.
But what of the places in which British reggae musicians met, danced, smoked and drank in? The many makeshift venues, such as the shells of houses in Notting Hill where blues parties were held, and the licensed reggae clubs run by Caribbean émigrés and pioneering white promoters, dotted around the UK: Count Suckle Cue Club in 1960s Paddington, for example; or the Bouncing Ball in Peckham, run by Admiral Ken in the 1970s?
In many ways, Reggae Britannia’s companion piece is Legacy in the Dust, the 2008 documentary that follows the same chronological arc (beginning with the release of Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” in the 1960s) and shares many of the same talking heads, such as Dennis Bovell, Bunny Lee and Don Letts. The key difference is, while Reggae Britannia looks at history from a mannered distance, Legacy… tells it better by zooming in on one venue in particular, the Four Aces on Dalston Lane in Hackney.
This multistoreyed, multi-roomed, Victorian-built hulk was labyrinthine — a reggae centre as if concocted in the mind of Jorge Luis Borges — and at different times had been home to myriad clubs, such as the Rambling Rose, Cubies, 007 and the Hideaway; as well as, in one large abandoned auditorium for a period of time, a car showroom. The bricolage of imagery, stock footage mixed with images that the film-maker Winstan Whitter recorded in the later years of acid house and jungle raves at the appropriately titled Labyrinth, reflects the venues three-and-a-half decades. Whitter, whose father was a barman and chef at the venue, highlights its role in the evolution of reggae into dance music, from ska, to rocksteady, to dub, to lovers, to dancehall and the evolution of jungle.
Legacy… may never be on general release due to copyright issues (there is the odd screening), but it nails the vital autonomous role that cultural spaces such as these played, necessarily out of sight and underground for a demographic under the cosh. Kingston-born Newton Dunbar, Four Aces’ proprietor for over 33 years, today tells of National Front threats outside his door and being constantly “fitted up” by the police — he was taken to court over 14 times but never convicted of anything.
Four Aces was just one venue that contributed greatly to the evolution of reggae music in Britain. The Bamboo Club, which was run by Tony Bullimore, later a round-the-world yachtsman, in Bristol; the Venn St Social Club in Huddersfield that welcomed Gregory Isaacs and John Holt; they have pretty much all disappeared, succumbing to the genre’s inevitable slide out of fashion. But many were forcibly closed down. When the Four Aces closed it was in the sights of Hackney Council for years. Dunbar was handed a compulsory purchase order in 1998, to make way for a cinema that never came. After the theatre was demolished in 2007, Dalston Square, four Barratt Homes tower blocks were erected on the site next to the new Dalston Junction station. Provocatively and without consent, one was named Dunbar Tower.
“Until black people in England can achieve representative influence in national institutions, and a fair amount of control over their own cultural institutions — especially the reggae industry — they will remain isolated in sub-standard worlds,” reflected the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr in 1976 in his essay “Black London”, based on a London visit while black-run clubs were common in comparison to today, when Form 696, introduced by the Met a few years ago, has made it difficult for grime and R’n’B acts even to perform or DJ at venues without intrusive checks being made. He was pessimistic about reggae’s potential for black British youth even at its height. “Reggae is the channel for urging forth an inevitable and drastic social change,” he wrote, before adding a proviso: “…soon.”
Reggae Britannia is on BBC Four from Friday 11 February.