The Birth of the Bristol Sound

Ska Revival! The 2-Tone Record Label & Dub-Poets

© Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

The Specials © Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

The early 80s saw a big revival of Ska, primarily through the 2-Tone record label in the UK. Distinctive black and white graphics on record sleeves featured Rude Boys in two-tone suits and loafers, which were the fashion of the day. 2 Tone produced a string of hits including ‘Too Much Pressure’ by The Selecter (1980) and ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials (1981) (pictured). Influences from Punk were clear, with rebellious and political lyrics from artists like Dub-poet Linden Kwesi Johnson, using Jamaican patois to express Britain’s social issues of unemployment, racism and heavy-handed policing. The Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher throughout the decade, was held accountable for many of these issues of decaying infrastructure and aggressive policing, with The Beat creating ‘Stand Down Margaret’ in 1980, calling for Thatcher to leave office. The Task Force lead by Michael Heseltine in 1985 introduced new measures for inner city areas. This led to the creation of the Centre for Employment and Enterprise Development, or CEED, in Bristol, which started a project that later became popular Bristol radio station Ujima Radio 98FM!

The Legacy of a Legend & Reggae in Bristol

Talisman 1 crop

Talisman © Sugar Shack Records

Although Bob Marley sadly passed away in May 1981, after a malignant melanoma in his foot, Reggae in Britain continued to grow in popularity.

In Bristol, political band Talisman (pictured – who started in the late 70s as Revelation Rockers) released their first 2 singles on local label ‘Recreational’ based in the Bristol Institution ‘Revolver Records’ shop in Clifton. Gaining a reputation for political lyrics, in 1981 the band released the track ‘Dole Age’, taking inspiration from the grave of Scipio Africanus in Henbury. They were soon gaining nation-wide respect, touring with Burning Spear, The Clash and The Rolling Stones and featured on many live TV shows, including a John Peel special. Rival Bristol Reggae band Black Roots, considered ‘militant pacifists’, produced more than 10 albums. 1984 was a momentous year for the group, releasing their second album ‘The Frontline’, which featured a series of melodic tacks, projecting their philosophy: ‘one love for all, one aim and one destiny’. The title track was composed at the request of the BBC for a new television comedy series of the same name. With momentous tracks like Talisman’s ‘Wicked Dem’ (1981) and Black Roots’ ‘Bristol Rock’ – co-written by singer Bunny Marrett – these Bristol-based Jamaicans were not afraid to represent Black Bristolians in their criticism of the authorities for their unjust treatment of Black youth. Other Bristol Reggae artists of the day included Dan Ratchett and Joshua Moses, who have attracted renewed interest recently as re-releases emerge from record label Bristol Archive Records.

Musicians Exodus – Caribbean & Jamaica to the UK!

© Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

Gregory Isaacs © Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

Meanwhile, UK tours by Jamaican Reggae singer Gregory Isaacs (pictured) and Lovers Rock star Sugar Minott, as well as favourite Alton Ellis were selling out. Ellis played at legendary Bristol nightclub ‘the Bamboo Club’ and more underground Shebeen ‘Ajax’s’. His son Troy Ellis, settled later in St Pauls, Bristol and is now a singer in his own right, covering some of his father’s famous tunes. Reggae was quickly gaining commercial success in the UK Pop Charts, with Aswad’s No 1 hit ‘Don’t Turn Around’ (1988). UB40’s ‘Labour of Love’ album (1983) and Smiley Culture’s ‘Police Officer’ and ‘Cockney Translation’ (both 1984). Fusions of Reggae melodies mixed with Rock and Pop elements were also emerging, such as Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ (1982); massive Police hit ‘Walking on the Moon’ (1979) and international hit of Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ (1982).

UK Rebels & Riots


Courtesy Bristol Record Office

Youth unrest and disturbances took place over the decade in Toxteth in Liverpool; Handsworth in Birmingham and Brixton and Tottenham in London. On 2nd April 1980, the Police raided the Black & White cafe on Grosvenor Road in St Paul’s, Bristol, a popular community venue for local black youths. The raid escalated into a riot as young people reacted to the on-going ‘Stop and Search’ laws (SUS) and constant police harassment. This altercation became known as the Black & White riot, not only from the cafe’s name, but also because youths of all races joined forces to display their anger against the police and social conditions in inner city Bristol. Following the riot, The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee held a session in Bristol and Home Secretary William Whitelaw held meetings with local authorities and representatives of the black community. Relations between police and the local community remained tense and reached a low point in 1986 when 600 police raided the Black and White Café again in an action named Operation Delivery. It took intervention by local Member of Parliament William Waldegrave to persuade the police to scale down their policy of containment. The Black and White Café was eventually closed down after Bristol City Council pushed through a compulsory purchase order on the cafe which was demolished in 2005.

The Beat of the Drum and the Boom of the Bass

© Urban Image Collection

© Urban Image Collection

Reggae was evolving once more and, inspired by latest technology, a new energetic rhythm to the music was allowing new artists to break through. Smiley & Michigan’s ‘Rub-A-Dub-Style’ (1979) heralded the start of a transition from Roots to Dancehall. Other musicians-turned-producers Sly & Robbie were at the forefront of innovative production changes, creating a string of hit records for Reggae artists like Gregory Isaacs and mainstream artists like Grace Jones. It is estimated that the duo worked as musicians, singers or producers on over 200,000 recordings. The duo changed the face of Reggae several times: having introduced a harder beat called “Rockers” in 1976, which quickly replaced the then-prevalent “One Drop” style, they then introduced the “Rub A Dub” sound in the early 1980s. Rub-a-dub was mostly heard on the ‘hifi’ systems, like King Tubby’s Hifi or Black Harmony Hifi and special rub-a-dub instrumental versions of tracks were produced, with an emphasis on the live vocals in dancehall sessions.

1985 also saw the arrival of Digi-Dancehall, through producers like Prince Jammy, who introduced electronic instruments into the Dancehall genre, joining the dots between Reggae and Electronic dance music, descending from House and Disco. Such productions were to have an enormous influence over the UK bass-heavy genres that followed.

The Birth of the Bristol Sound

Ultimate Wild Bunch, Dug Out, 1984 - Milo, Daddy G, Nellee, Willie Wee, 3D copy 2

The Wild Bunch © Beezer Photos www.beezerphotos.com

Pioneered by groups like the German electronic band Kraftwerk, computer technology heavily influenced music in the 1980s. A new genre was emerging in Bristol’s underground club scene, fusing Soul, Funk, Jazz and Hip-Hop. Bristol’s vibrant club culture, including ‘Tropic’ and ‘The Dug Out’, became a hotbed of emerging new musical talent. ‘The Dug Out’ was a melting pot of people from all over the city: Punks, Soul boys and girls, Rastas, Afro-Caribbeans, students and ‘Clifton trendies’; artists and musicians. More importantly it was the focus for collaborations of Bristol’s dance music architects. Resident Dug Out DJ in 1982 was Grant Marshall, later Daddy G of Massive Attack, who was joined for a regular music night by sound-system The Wild Bunch (pictured). Competing Bristol ‘crews’ like The Wild Bunch (who later became Massive Attack), 2Bad Crew, City Rockers, UD4 (Roni Size’s brother) and FBI Crew were battling it out on home-built speaker sound systems in disused buildings. The Wild Bunch were legendary for their much-attended parties between 1983 and 1986, where music sets combined Punk, Reggae and Rhythm and Blues. Members included Nellee Hooper, Robert Del Naja (3D) Adrian Thaws (Tricky), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom).

Massive Attack was formed as a spin-off production trio of Daddy G, Mushroom and 3D, who created indie single “Any Love” in 1988, featuring the falsetto vocals of singer-songwriter Carlton McCarthy. After support from female rap sensation Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack went on to sign a six album record deal with Circa Records. Nellee Hooper went on to work with Soul II Soul, Madonna, Neneh Cherry and U2.

Rob Smith & Ray Mighty

Rob Smith & Ray Mighty

Smith & Mighty, who began as the Three Stripe Crew, were equally pioneering in this new sound. They honed their production skills, utilising early drum machine Roland 808, four-track tape recorders, reel-to-reel Revox recorders and a variety of keyboards. After co-producing Massive Attack’s first single, Smith & Mighty produced two ground-breaking UK tracks. ‘Anyone (Who Had A Heart)’ (1987) was the first of two Bacharach/David covers with local singer Jackie Jackson, following with ‘Walk On By’ (1989), a reworking of the Bacharach & David 1963 production for Dionne Warwick. Smith & Mighty had crafted a slice of down-tempo Hip- Hop, utilising Dub Reggae techniques and Soul/soundtrack type emotion. They went on to produce a cover of R&B Rose Royce’s hit ‘Wishing On A Star’ (1988) for Fresh Four (made up of DJs Krust, Flynn, SUV and Judge).

Before there was Street Art there was Graffiti

Wall Posse B-Girl, St Paul's Carnival, 1986 copy 2

© Beezer Photos www.beezerphotos.com

1980s club music was influencing the arts scene in the UK, influenced by the American graffiti sub-culture firmly attached to the Hip-Hop scene in New York. Bristol was quickly developing its own graffiti sub-culture, which bred new artists like Inkie, 3D (of Massive Attack fame) and Banksy, whose images typify the satirical and often subversive side of Bristol. The legacy of this explosion of graffiti in Bristol can be seen in the recent Street Art Festival ‘See No Evil’, although graffiti was not always so welcome in the city, with a city-wide crack down called Operation Anderson.

Sounds from the Underground – Pirate Radio Pioneers in Bristol

Bristol has always had a history in radio programming. During the 1980’s several illegal  ‘Pirate’ Radio stations emerged, pioneering new styles of music that were largely ignored by the mainstream audience and commercial radio stations. They were set up with transmitters on multi-storey tower blocks and were strongly condemned by Ofcom and the police, who regularly confiscated equipment and issued fines. In Bristol, stations like For The People (1988), Emergency Radio (1988), St Pauls and Easton Community Radio (1989) and B.A.D (1987) were championing new music styles. Emergency Radio was host to many DJs and producers championing the new ‘Bristol Sound’, whilst FTP later became Galaxy Radio as the authorities began buyouts and issuing legal licences to combat the pirates. B.A.D Radio, as Bristol’s first Black/West-Indian pirate station, played Funk, Soul and Hip-Hop and lasted until 1989. S.P.E.C lasted until the early 90s, reappearing later as an RSL station (restricted-service licence). The legacy of pirate stations like these remained strong in Bristol into the nineties, with Passion Radio Bristol, BCFM, the all-female RSL station Fem FM and Ujima Radio 98FM.


Share this article:
No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>