ROOTS AND WANDERINGS: SOUNDS OUT OF THE DIASPORA
"Other than The Clash, of course, I DJ'ed alongside most of the bands of the era. The Cramps and The Ramones -- whose early records I love to this day -- were particular favourites. Cramps' tunes like 'Human Fly' and 'Garbage Man' are extraordinary and the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop' was a life-changer. The Heartbreakers were always a treat too. In '77, I toured as a DJ with Dr Feelgood. Another band I really loved and saw a lot was The Slits, who I believe absorbed the deeper power of reggae into their musical souls. Patti Smith and her group also hold a very dear place in my pantheon of greats. Besides these bands and other than the occasional raid through my dusty and 'scratchy' singles collection, I don't listen to much from the punk days now, because -- without denigrating it at all -- a lot of punk was music of its time, parochial in some respects, which had a meaning within its own time frame. There again, much of the attitude and aggression is, in itself, timeless."
Greg Whitfield interviews punk soundsmith DJ Scratchy for 3AM.
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3AM: How did you get involved in the unfolding scene in the late 70's?
BM: I was looking for something else -- no question about that. A lot of people felt an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the then prevailing situation. We were looking for some spark of ignition. Punk turned out to be just what was required. In 1976, I was DJ'ing at Dingwalls Dancehall, a club in Camden Town in North London -- this was the time of pub rock and aggressive r 'n' b artists like Dr Feelgood. When I played my DJ set, I was throwing in early Stooges tunes from Fun House and Raw Power. The Stooges were a band I always loved, and still do. Iggy had the blues as his roots and The Stooges had this solid rockin' foundation. Seeing them at Donnington this year was even better than I could ever have imagined. I was also playing the Dolls, the Velvets, Bowie and the MC5 with their 'Kick out the Jams', up-against-the-wall-motherfucker politics. Besides that, I started playing a lot of reggae and ska, and mixing that up with some soul, early garage tunes and rockabilly music. The mix worked really well, but it was when I saw The Ramones on their first tour in the UK that suddenly everything came together. The whole picture was clarified for me. The Ramones changed everything with that first album. Nothing could ever be quite the same after that.
3AM: Did you know many of the other key people on the then emerging scene?
BM: I was doing my set at Dingwalls club in Camden Town and I knew people like Viv Albertine of The Flowers of Romance -- and later The Slits. She'd worked at Dingwalls and used to pop in. It was a watering hole for many bands and the Clash used to drop in for a drink too. I knew Steve Jones and Paul Cook, but I never really got to know John or Sid, though Sid wanted to borrow my bass once when he was supposed to be playing a gig with Johnny Thunders. I was a little concerned Sid was going to destroy it, so I kept a watchful eye on it. There was always a lot of rivalry between the punk bands, especially the Big Three: The Clash, The Damned and The Pistols. Most venues wouldn't let the Pistols play, and some venues didn't even want their records played. Even when I was DJ'ing at Dingwalls, the management tried to persuade me to stop playing punk music, an attitude I just couldn't go along with. The Pistols were due to play, the week after The Ramones, but the club enforced a ban, albeit temporary, on the UK bands, even though they continued to book the American acts.
3AM: How did the audience respond to your eclectic mix of garage, rockabilly, r n b, early punk and dub?
BM: The earthy mix of tunes I played just worked really well, mixing tunes from Gene Vincent to Big Youth to The Stooges, some garage nuggets, to King Tubby's. I was also playing heavier funk and southern soul tunes from the likes of Sly Stone, The Meters and the Stax crew. This was music with raw physicality -- and all of it had a groove, that certain something that is often indefinable, but you instinctively know what it is, when it hits. I've never had a problem connecting all the diverse strands of music that move me, into a coherent entity.
3AM: Did you play in any bands too?
BM: Yes, I played in punk and garage bands from around 1975. I took over the bass in The Snivelling Shits from Steve Lillywhite, who was on his way to becoming a well-respected producer. Giovanni Dadomo who wrote for Sounds, as well as writing some lyrics for the Damned, was the front-man. I wrote for Sounds too and I covered the Clash's four-nighter at the Music Machine for the paper, as well as making my debut on the decks for the band. In the '80s I concentrated more on being a musician. One of my bands, Khmer Rouge, has just put out a retrospective CD on Hip Priest. They and Trash County Dominators, my garage band from the end of the decade, are the bands of which I'm particularly proud.
3AM: Can you tell us about any other bands you DJ'd for and which other bands stand out for you from that time?
BM: Other than The Clash, of course, I DJ'ed alongside most of the bands of the era. The Cramps and The Ramones -- whose early records I love to this day -- were particular favourites. Cramps' tunes like 'Human Fly' and 'Garbage Man' are extraordinary and the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop' was a life-changer. The Heartbreakers were always a treat too. In '77, I toured as a DJ with Dr Feelgood. Another band I really loved and saw a lot was The Slits, who I believe absorbed the deeper power of reggae into their musical souls. Patti Smith and her group also hold a very dear place in my pantheon of greats. Besides these bands and other than the occasional raid through my dusty and 'scratchy' singles collection, I don't listen to much from the punk days now, because -- without denigrating it at all -- a lot of punk was music of its time, parochial in some respects, which had a meaning within its own time frame. There again, much of the attitude and aggression is, in itself, timeless.
3AM: Can you talk to us about touring with The Clash?
BM: I'd DJ'ed for them here in London, and later I was in their film Rude Boy. I'd always been a wanderer -- so when they said "Do you want to tour with us?" it was a dream come true. I toured with The Clash for two years. Check out the sleeve of my Trojan album, which is a Bob Gruen picture of me, Joe, Topper and there's even Bo Diddley in the background, which will give you a feel for how it was. I'd been an inveterate traveller ever since sticking my thumb out around Europe and the States, earlier in the seventies. Being on the road twice with the Feelgoods in '77 had whetted the appetite for more touring. Nothing could've then been more perfect than heading out, over the next couple of years, with The Clash. Rock'n'roll and travel all wrapped up in one perfect package. Not enough bands or promoters understand the value of having a linking DJ at concerts -- a concert should be about the atmosphere from the moment a punter walks in the door to when they leave through it at the end of the night. The Clash understood this: from the bands they had supporting them to the music that played between the acts. For those two years, they actually chose to take a DJ along with them, which was more than fine by me.
3AM: How did you get on with The Clash on a personal level?
BM: I think very highly of each member of The Clash, and hold them in high regard. They were all really into their music. Joe and Paul always had Ghetto blasters with them, pumping out a real wide cross-section of music. Mick had one too, more for personal use. We all loved roots music, and by that I mean roots of all varieties. As well as their music, a huge appeal for me was the band's convictions. Joe had a deep political consciousness, which I could relate to in particular.
3AM: Can you tell us how your new Trojan compilation album came about?
BM: It was a true pleasure putting together this album -- I went through my vinyl collection of JA 12"'s and 7"s, selecting tunes, planning the pacing and dynamics as though it was one of my sets and then took them down to be re-mastered, doing my best to remain faithful to the original vinyl. I didn't want the sound to be so clean it lost all the atmosphere of analogue; I wanted all the rawness of the original vinyl, with all the depth of bottom end, whilst preserving much of the high-end sizzle. It's vital to pay attention to the bass when mastering reggae, but to me, that bright treble noise was so important to the whole experience as well, really central. Every track on the two CDs has a deep resonance for me. I love the version of 'Invasion' by Jackie Edwards on the CD. It's right there, on the edge. This is a rare version you won't find on CD anywhere else. That's also true of the Stars/Tappa Zukie production of Errol Dunkley's 'Stop the Gun Shooting'. Another track I really adore for the truthfulness of the lyrics is Bruce Ruffin's 'The Bitterness of Life' -- that's the only tune I have of his, but what a moving, truthful piece of music that is!
3AM: You love a wide variety of music, from 60's garage, to rockabilly to punk, funk and dub -- is there any uniting principle behind the music you play as a DJ?
BM: What I love is music with true soul, music that "comes from the hips" and the heart, music with sexuality -- I love visceral, roots music -- and there is something which creates that vibe for me, and that vibe can be present in everything from Cajun to Eastern European brass-band music to Roots Reggae. I recently DJ'ed for Jah Wobble, and one of the high points of his set was his performance with classical Laotian troupe Mowlam Lao, and it was amazing. They were dressed in traditional garb, dancing their graceful movements, making their intricate hand gestures, whilst one of their number plays the Khene, which sounds kinda like a South East Asian melodica -- but all the while there was this massive dub bass totally booming and surrounding them. Incredible!
3AM: Clearly you love original roots music -- do you appreciate new digital reggae?
BM: Yes, I do listen to contemporary digital dub too, though I'm not convinced it quite matches the genius of King Tubby's. I do enjoy it though, and listen to it more and more. I'm happy labels like Blood and Fire, Soul Jazz and Pressure Sounds are re-releasing a lot of classic roots reggae too, and making sure the original artists are paid properly -- as they surely should be. It was great fun wading through my original reggae vinyl releases whilst compiling the album. Luckily, I still have most of it, including all that wonderful Yabby U stuff and Phase One music, but it's so important it's all being re-released and made available for everyone, digitally, on CD.
3AM: Besides music, what else has made you the person you are?
BM: My father's political radicalism informed me, enlightened me, and that's stayed with me ever since. He was brought up in England but born in South Africa. He returned there after WW2 but had left there in protest at apartheid. He moved back to England, and that's where I was born and I've spent most of my life in North London. I wouldn't say I am politicized in a conventional sense: I've never felt the need to get involved with rigid positions and the dogma that joining groups implies -- I never wanted to join any political group, just rock'n'roll ones, but I've formed my opinions from what I've seen around me, the injustices of this life. I just observe what is around me. That's what I always liked about Strummer. We were of the same generation, loved similar music -- reggae, blues, rock'n'roll and rhythm and blues -- but also because Joe was politicized: Joe was a complex individual politically, and didn't fit into conventional categories.
3AM: How about other art forms?
BM: I've always been fascinated by film and photography too, and I studied at film school before turning to still photography. I was bewitched by the silver screen at a tender age and spellbound by filmmakers like Billy Wilder with his films like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and Stalag 17. Billy Wilder was brilliant, whether doing screwball comedy or darker biting commentary. I could list virtually all his movies and there wouldn't be a dud in there. He was also a master of Film Noir, which as a genre overall captured the angst of my youth and beyond. Sergio Leone was another superb director, who I greatly admire, who took the Western to new dimensions.
3AM: Which photographers do you rate?
BM: It's generally been the reportage and documentary photographers who've interested me, from Lewis Hine to the Magnum collective, Marc Riboud to Mary Ellen Mark, Walker Evans and the rest of the FSA team to Robert Frank. But I've also found great pleasure in the work of those with a more surreal bent, like Man Ray and Bill Brandt or great portraitists like Irving Penn and Arnold Newman. I'm also partial to the new breed of Magnum snappers, some of who often crop up in National Geographic. As a colour photographer myself, I find the way the likes of Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey and Susan Meiselas use colour and shadows, utterly inspirational. I can spend hours looking at photographs: so real and yet so abstract at the same time. I mean, just how real can a two-dimensional image be! Photographs take you to fascinating places and faces, split-second frames of life and then leave it to what's inside your own head.
3AM: Any other influences?
BM: As I've already said, travelling has always informed and inspired me. My father's background was Lithuanian Jewish, an Ashkenazi Jew, whilst my mother's was Syrian Sephardic, which means that her family had been expelled from Spain at the time of the inquisition and in other waves of persecution. If anything has come out of this particular Diaspora experience, it's that I still feel like a rootless nomad in many ways. But this is not only a condition I accept but one I eagerly embrace. I'm reading Che's Motorcycle Diaries again at present, which makes me thirst for the road even more. Gabriel Garcia Marquez 100 Years of Solitude is another of the books that has had a big impact on me.
But it is music that has inspired me over and above every other form of expression -- music has been an all-consuming world in itself for me -- an art form that has always held enough fascination, in and of itself.
3AM: Any final thoughts?
BM: It's been a wonderful opportunity to have compiled this selection from my own vinyl through Trojan -- it was a real joy. This album sounds raw, powerful, with the integrity of the original vinyl preserved for CD and, with a number of rare tracks included too, I feel as if I'm able to give back a little of the immense pleasure that reggae music has offered me down the years. It's great to be DJ'ing again too, spinning my own mix that encompasses Rockabilly, Soul, 60's garage music, Bluebeat and Dub music, a blend of music that spans the last 50 years and more and knows no borders either. It all has a spirit which unites it, an organic power which makes it stand head and shoulders above the majority of the deeply bland and banal music that dominates today.
3AM: So what is on your turntables these days?
BM: OK -- here's a couple of lists, of outstanding reggae and r n' b/soul, a combination of classics and tracks that currently feature heavily on my decks.
As well as absolutely everything that is on Scratchy Sounds, another ten, in no particular order:
Dr. Alimantado 'Born for a Purpose'/'Reason for Living'
General Echo 'Arlene'
Trinity meets Dillinger 'Jesus Dread'
Ethiopians 'Train to Skaville'
Don Drummond 'Man in the Streets'
Rockers Allstars 'Pablo Meets Mr. Bassie'/'Mr. Bassie Special
Wailing Souls 'War', (the full 12")
Lopez Walker/The Phase One Allstars 'Jah Jah New Garden/Garden in Dub'
Abyssinians 'Declaration of Rights'
I-Roy 'War and Friction'
Richard Berry 'Louie Louie'
Andre Williams 'Bacon Fat'
Lowell Fulsom/Otis & Carla/the Mohawks 'Tramp'/'Tramp'/'The Champ'
Lee Dorsey 'Ride Your Pony
George Perkins & the Silver Stars 'Cryin in the Streets'
Dyke & the Blazers 'The Wrong House'
Jamo Thomas 'I Spy for the FBI'
Sugar Pie deSanto 'Soulful Dress'
Wilson Pickett 'Ninety-Nine and a Half (Just Won't Do)
Howlin' Wolf 'I Asked for Water'
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Greg Whitfield writes about music and art. He also writes promotional press releases and publicity copy for various London-based record companies.