How punk and reggae united and went "outernational" to rule the world
This past March 5, the French punk label Guerilla Asso quietly slipped a genius album into the marketplace: Rocket To Kingston, credited to Bobby Ramone. The melding of the isolated vocal tracks from nine of Bob Marley’s most deathless classics to edited Ramones backing tracks, it sounds like a joke on paper. The cover even Photoshopped Marley’s face onto Dee Dee Ramone’s body. But honestly, who does mashups anymore? How 2003 can you get? Thing is, it works. Spin “I Don’t Wanna Stand Up,” Kingston’s recasting of “Get Up, Stand Up” or “Glad To See You Cry,” which is “No Woman No Cry” given the Bobby Ramone treatment. Marley’s rebel songs gain ferocity backed by Johnny Ramone’s relentless rhythm guitar assault, while the Ramones finally have purposeful lyrics, other than “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg.” It’s punk rock’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup!
Rocket To Kingston created an immediate sensation all over the world with its release. The initial vinyl pressing sold out within days, and the website’s declaration of a repress doesn’t appear to be any closer to reality. It’s available via every good streaming service, YouTube and can be digitally purchased and downloaded via Guerilla Asso’s Bandcamp page. No one seems to know who the mad scientist is who created Kingston—the label certainly isn’t coughing up the info. Whoever the mystery artist is, they deserve some sort of award. What could’ve easily been a shitty novelty record is really the 21st century’s first righteous restatement of the deep connection between reggae and punk.
Reggae was natural for punk to mine as inspirational fuel, just as earlier rock ‘n’ roll eras gleaned ideas and energy from blues and R&B. Many Black listeners embraced the rebel sounds of a genre that itself would pave the way for hip-hop in the 1980s. In the U.S., only Millie Small’s1964 ska breakout “My Boy Lollipop” and Desmond Dekker’s 1968 early reggae classic “Israelites” penetrated popular consciousness. The U.K. had been primed by indie powerhouse Trojan Records since 1968, building huge hits importing such stellar Jamaican records as Bob And Marcia’s “Young, Gifted And Black,” Dave And Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel,” and Toots And The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop.” The Tighten Up budget compilation series also helped cultivate British tastes, introducing the music to a generation of white listeners. The rise of Bob Marley And The Wailers and the soundtrack to Perry Henzell’s 1972 Jamaican gangster film The Harder They Come helped reggae gain dominion worldwide, especially in the U.S.
First-wave English punks, likely possessing more than a few scratchy Trojan 45s in their record collections, had reggae in their blood. The social justice poetry of Marley especially granted a moral authority to the more politically charged U.K. bands, while the graphic design of albums like Prince Far I’s Under Heavy Manners lent punk a few ideas, as well. Don Letts, a first-generation British Rasta managing punk haberdashers Acme Attractions, spread the influence with his reggae mixtapes for the shop. Once London’s first dedicated punk venue The Roxy hired him as house DJ, he bolstered spins of the paltry number of punk records then available with heavy doses of dub (reggae’s original remix sound) and the rootsiest Jamaican sounds. U.K. punk was ready to get fully dread. Here are the 10 crucial events in the reggae/punk connection.
The Clash: White Riot in Teenage Babylon
If Letts’ DJing infected punk with reggae-itis, the Clash were Patient Zero. No punk band used reggae more to bolster their rebel credentials, beginning with their 1977 debut album’s rock-up of Junior Murvin’s “Police And Thieves.” Bassist Paul Simonon grew up in a heavily Jamaican neighborhood, learning his instrument by practicing to reggae records. Lead guitarist Mick Jones’ arrangements brought upstroke guitars and dub dynamics (i.e., instrumental dropouts, incorporation of space and silence, deep echo) to the nonstop pogo party. Singer Joe Strummer’s lyrics infused reggae’s righteous poetry into his leftist rants. This went far beyond lacing Trojan standards as “Pressure Drop” with distorted punk power chords or collaborating with legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry on early 45 “Complete Control.” It led to incredible fusions such as “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” arguably the best Clash song.
Johnny Rotten plays reggae on Capital Radio
July 16, 1977: Independent London radio station Capital Radio and its star DJ Tommy Vance invited Sex Pistols mainman Johnny Rotten down for an interview and to spin records from his personal collection. It infuriated manager Malcolm McLaren, who’d crafted an image for the Pistols as dangerous, imbecilic thugs out to destroy everything, especially rock ‘n’ roll. Instead, alter ego John Lydon showed up, Rotten occasionally peeking out to lash out here and there, especially at other punk bands. Still, Lydon’s general, disarming message? “I like all sorts of music.” He queued up everything from Captain Beefheart to Tim Buckley to Neil Young. Especially prominent? Much reggae, which he announced he’d grown up with: Augustus Pablo’s crucial dub plate “King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown,” Peter Tosh’s ganja anthem “Legalize It,” Culture’s “I’m Not Ashamed.” Especially poignant: his selection of Dr. Alimantado’s “Born For A Purpose.” “Just after I got my brains kicked in [i.e., he was attacked twice by royalists bearing knives and chains in the wake of “God Save The Queen”], I went home and played it,” he explained. “There’s a verse in it: ‘If you have no reason for living, don’t determine my life.’ The same thing happened to him. He got run over because he was a dread.” Lydon took deep inspiration from Alimantado’s cry of defiance. As surely did many a British youth tuning in that day.
Bob Marley records “Punky Reggae Party”
“Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas,” reggae king Marley told Sounds journalist Vivien Goldman in the summer of 1977. “So they are bound to defend what we defend.” She’d just played the Clash’s rendition of “Police And Thieves” for reggae’s biggest star and influential producer Perry, who had produced Murvin’s original. Both quickly understood the similarities of the cultures and what punk was learning from reggae. Perry’s response? He produced the Clash’s anti-record business single “Complete Control,” then returned to Marley for his own “Punky Reggae Party.” Amid a roll call of U.K. punk icons—the Damned, the Clash, the Jam—and such reggae stalwarts as his own Wailers and Toots Hibbert’s Maytals, Marley proved he understood the similarities between punk’s struggles to the rastas’: “Rejected by society/Treated with impunity/Protected by my dignity/I search for reality.” Marley granting his imprimatur to the new scene was all the license many needed to join the party.
The Punky Reggae Party goes Outernational
From here, the reggae/punk virus exploded. U.S. punk poet Patti Smith found the same motivational juice in reggae as her U.K. counterparts—wearing Rastafarian T-shirts onstage, incorporating the rhythms into such songs as debut LP Horses’ “Redondo Beach.” Smith and her guitarist Lenny Kaye made the connection explicit in ‘77, providing a four-years-later U.S. release of DJ Tapper Zukie’s deep, mysterious, murky Man Ah Warrior LP on their Mer label. Letts, meanwhile, managed the proto-riot grrrl outfit the Slits, whose singer Ari Up eventually adopted dreadlocks and spoke in Jamaican patois. Their choice of producer when they finally recorded their debut LP, Cut? U.K. dub master Dennis Bovell. Generation X’s second 45, glam-punk stomper “Wild Youth,” was paired with B-side “Wild Dub”—the same song remixed with dub’s vast silences and echoes, singer Billy Idol toasting at the end, “Heavy, heavy dub/Punk rockers!” British activists Rock Against Racism reacted to the rise of the neo-fascist National Front attempts to annex the punk scene by promoting high-profile gigs pairing such British reggae bands as Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots with artists such as Generation X, the Clash and Sham 69. Ireland’s Stiff Little Fingers appear on British soil bearing such a heavy Clash influence, they’d pepper sets with their own punky reggae covers, such as Marley’s powerful “Johnny Was.” Second-generation punk leading lights the Ruts emerged from London in 1979 with the most powerful reggae fusion yet: steaming punk anthems utilizing rasta language, including “Babylon’s Burning”; pure reggae skankers such as “Jah War”; guitarist Paul Fox’s extensive use of an echo unit, to lend his playing dub textures. Then there was the Police, who became massive worldwide with a highly commercialized version of the reggae/punk crossover. Reggae was now fully part of punk’s vocabulary—musically, visually, spiritually and linguistically.
Post-punk: Art-Punks Born In Babylon
Come 1978, several bands materialized who felt liberated by punk’s smashing of rock ‘n’ roll cliches but wanted to utilize an exploratory vocabulary, rather than three-chord pogo-rock. This frequently meant reggae techniques becoming more firmly incorporated into what was ultimately dubbed post-punk. Public Image Ltd.—the post-Pistols home of Rotten, now reverting to his Christian name of John Lydon as he sued McLaren—were among the first to employ this musical language extensively. Jah Wobble’s booming, hairy basslines sounded torn directly from various dub plates, as was the band’s production, especially on second LP Metal Box. Gang Of Four incorporated dub’s heavy use of instrumental drop-out and space into their arrangements, not to mention singer Jon King’s homages to Augustus Pablo’s three-note melodica hooks. Bristol’s Pop Group used similar dynamics to shocking, violent effect, especially on epic, gorgeous debut single “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”: “My little girl was born on a ray of sound,” singer Mark Stewart howled. All these band’s individual expressions of love were their rays originating in Kingston.
2 Tone: Punk meets ska, goes nutty
While post-punk represented the art school absorption of the punky reggae party, a more proletarian manifestation of these principles was required. An embodiment of the dissolution of racial walls was especially crucial. The advent of 2 Tone was exactly the ticket: mostly mixed-race casts wedding punk basics with reggae’s peppier ancestral sound, ska. Witnessing the Black and white—in both racial makeup and palette—late ’70s rude boys of the Specials bouncing around, resembling the ultimate manifestation of what the Clash wrought with their punked-out “Pressure Drop,” was an awesome sight. And there was more where they came from. The Selecter, fronted by the ferocious yet warm Pauline Black, felt even more dread and threatening than the Specials. Then there was Madness, the rare all-white cast in 2 Tone, who owed as much to music hall and Ray Davies’ mid-period songwriting as Prince Buster, eventually the most successful pop group of the bunch. It was all too brief a moment, but 2 Tone’s echoes resounded through the years in the most interesting of places.
Bad Brains destroy Babylon
Four Black youths from D.C. playing jazz and funk converted to punk rock in 1977, leading to Bad Brains’ helping spawn punk’s most ferocious strain: hardcore. Attending a Bob Marley And The Wailers performance the following year, they felt the fire of his righteousness and convictions. Come 1980, Bad Brains were full-blown rastas, able to stop on a dime from performing the most savage of hardcore assaults to skank into the heaviest, deepest live dub. These weren’t dilettantes dabbling in Jamaican culture. Bad Brains’ rasta-fication came from a profound place, their message ultra positive and righteous. Many responded, leading to ripples through punk history as off-center as the ones 2 Tone created.
Operation Ivy and Rancid prime the Sound System
Years after hardcore peaked and thrashed its way up its own backside, a Berkeley outfit were tearing up Gilman Street—home of American punk’s fourth wave—with what sounded like 2 Tone wed to thrash rock. Named for the U.S.’ eighth set of nuclear tests, Operation Ivy released one album, Energy, with a long tail of influence, both via such untamed rockers as “Knowledge” and prescient skankers a la “Sound System”: “Contained in music, somehow more than just sound,” singer Jesse Michaels snarled. “This inspiration coming and twistin’ things around.” Breaking up two years later, guitarist Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman eventually formed Rancid, who seemed to want to pick up the Clash’s old punky reggae mantle and give it a polishing for a new era. Solid senders such as “Time Bomb” from 1995’s …And Out Come The Wolves proved Rancid were now the punky reggae party’s full-time hosts.
Second-wave American ska punk mash the nation…and the world
Meet the American children of the Specials and 2 Tone. Just as it took punk’s fourth generation—Green Day, Rancid, Offspring, etc.—to bring it into the mainstream once and for all, a third wave of ska punk finally commercially legitimized that sound. The biggest was likely No Doubt, whose romantic breakup chronicle Tragic Kingdom became ska-punk’s Dookie. Gwen Stefani’s Debbie Harry-like star power and such glorious punky reggae hits as “Spiderwebs” made the band mega worldwide. Specials singer Terry Hall even granted them his implied endorsement, making a cameo in their “Sunday Morning” video. Sublime, meanwhile, created a huge posthumous splash (following leader Bradley Nowell’s 1996 overdose) via their self-titled third album and its massive, reggae-drenched hits such as “Santeria.” Then Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones, at it since ‘83, busted radio and MTV wide open with the anthemic “The Impression That I Get,” possessing a precise, dynamic mix of skanking verses and power-chord choruses. It drove fifth album Let’s Face It into platinum-hood and still sounds powerful to this day.
Punky-Reggae In 21st century Babylon
Besides the Bobby Ramone project, the most predominant 21st century manifestation of punky reggae appears to be ska punk. Every town in the U.S. seemingly has at least one outfit bouncing up and down to amped-up Skatalites rhythms. Los Angeles’ Interrupters are the most omnipresent manifestation of the sound these days. Centered around charismatic singer Aimee Allen (aka Aimee Interrupter) and the three Bivona brothers—Jesse, Justin and Kevin—operating instruments, their three studio albums demonstrate that they’re both raw and tuneful enough to be the ska-punk Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Singles such as “She’s Kerosene” are instant classics, and they even have the imagination to recast Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” as a credible power-chord skanker. The punky reggae party is in no danger of dying down, with bands like the Interrupters on the case.