Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King
by Lloyd Bradley
Viking Books UK, 573pp, £12.99
ISBN 0-670--85563-4

To those who love reggae music, its story is known by heart, as the stories of Moses, Noah and the Creation would have been to its Jamaican originators. It is the story of how the little island of Jamaica created an indigenous ska music out of the American rhythm & blues of the 50s, a music which then slowed down and became rocksteady, in turn becoming reggae itself, from which sprang the truly radical DJ and dub phenomena, and so on, changing the course of musical history world wide.
However, outside the Jamaican diaspora and reggae's small but devoted body of white fans, this is a story which like the music itself is largely unheard, despite the international success of Bob Marley. It is a measure of Lloyd Bradley's achievement that he writes with such ease for both audiences. In his hands the growth of Jamaican music becomes a gripping adventure story even though its essentially collaborative nature means that reggae has a cast of many thousands and a potentially treacherous morass of detail awaits its musical historian. But Bradley has the gift of conveying a complex situation deftly and swiftly, for instance neatly summing up both the alienation of the ghetto poor from Jamaican independence euphoria in 1962 and the increasing capacity of the music to express it with the comment "Of course, the music industry came to the party, with tunes such as "Independent Jamaica" or "Forward March" but their collective B-side was an equal number with titles such as "Babylon Gone", "Time Longer Than Rope'". His tone is refreshingly humorous and irreverent, describing a veteran UK dreadlocks as beaming out "from under a peaked tam not quite big enough for its own postcode."
While organising his material deftly and economically, Lloyd Bradley never makes the mistake of oversimplifying or retrospectively imposing a musical plan that never existed. His book revels in the rich coincidence and creative use of necessity which has always been the glory of reggae music. He reveals for example that at a dockside line-up in 1959 the great Prince Buster was refused a visa to cut cane in the United States because his hands were too soft. Such visits, in the days before an indigenous Jamaican music, were the prime means for Jamaican sound system operators to buy the rare and obscure US rhythm and blues records they played at their dances. So Prince Buster stayed on the island, recorded local talent at a Kingston studio instead, making the most of necessity as reggae music always has done, and so became instrumental in its birth. Such anecdotes, like the tale of the 1950's Jamaican operator of a massive sound system who tried to convince a baffled Miami marine equipment salesman that he needed 'the type of loudspeaker that ocean-going liners would use to herald their approach in foggy conditions" in order to play records, are a constant source of delight throughout the book.
Of particular interest to British readers is the UK slant which Lloyd Bradley, born in London in 1955 to recent Jamaican immigrants, gives to his story, Bass Culture itself being one of London based dub poet's Linton Kwesi Johnson's best known albums. Lloyd Bradley breaks off his Jamaican narrative at regular intervals to devote a chapter to an independently developing British scene which he knew at first hand.
The subtitle of his book, When Reggae Was King, implies that for Lloyd Bradley the golden years of reggae are over, and indeed the broad sweep of his narrative ends in 1985 with the advent of digital rhythms through the humble Casio Rhythm Box. To the subsequent ragga phase of reggae music, which has after all been current now for fifteen years, he devotes only two reluctant chapters. Lloyd Bradley is a sharp critic of dancehall, objecting to what he considers its lyrical preoccupation with guns, consumerism and misogyny, its lack of musicianship, and, in his view, excessive domination by such American phenomena as gangsta rap. Yet with characteristic optimism he draws attention to such cultural forces as Morgan Heritage and Luciano, declaring that "knowing how swiftly Jamaican music can change direction, total reinvention could come sooner rather than later."
Lloyd Bradley's ability to tell a complex story graphically and swiftly is shared too by that great Jamaican film The Harder They Come, the story of Rhygin, country boy come to town to make it as a reggae star but becoming instead a ghetto gunman who meets his end in a hail of bullets. If The Harder They Come tells in a direct and simple form the quintessential post war Third World story of the flight from the countryside to the urban shanties and slums, then Lloyd Bradley tells that other universal Third World story, the former colony which realises itself as an independent nation and seizes for itself a sense of its own identity. In the case of Jamaica, especially for its poor and dispossessed majority, this self-realisation was achieved through reggae music. Despite much that is depressing in the recent history of Jamaica, Lloyd Bradley's story is essentially one of hope and the triumph of creativity and originality. This is a fine book and in the words of Prince Buster "Jamaican music at last has the book it deserves."