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Counter Culture Portobello
Psychogeographical History
by Tom Vague.

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‘Exodus, movement of Jah people… open your eyes and look within, are you satisfied with the life you’re living? We know where we’re going, we know where we’re from, we’re leaving Babylon, we’re going to our father’s land.’ Bob Marley and the Wailers ‘Exodus’ 1977
The most important rock and pop route of Notting Hill isn’t Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove, the Westway or All Saints Road, or even Talbot Road-Blenheim Crescent, it’s Basing Street. From the late 60s, the sidestreet between Portobello and All Saints has been twinned with the New Orleans jazz label Basin Street as the site of the Island/ZTT/Sarm West recording studios and offices. Island Records was founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica back in the late 50s, with his first jazz release. A member of the Crosse & Blackwell soup family, Chris is related to the Trellick Tower architect Erno Goldfinger, who married Ursula Blackwell. Golden Ear also came to own Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye house in Jamaica, after working on the 1961 Bond film ‘Dr No’. After his first hit with Laurel Aitken’s ska single ‘Little Shiela’, Blackwell founded the actual Island label and moved to London in ’62, to import American and Jamaican r’n’b and ska records. In ’64 he became the UK’s premier ska importer, and had his first production company hit with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. On tour with Millie, Blackwell discovered the Birmingham r’n’b outfit, the Spencer Davis Group, out of which came Steve Winwood and Traffic.

As Island became the first big independent label in Notting Hill, as well as ska, rocksteady and reggae, their roster went through folk, prog and glam rock, and the Basing Street studios were frequented by Jimmy Cliff, Bad Company, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Free, King Crimson, Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Martyn, Mott the Hoople, Robert Palmer, Quintessence, Roxy Music, Sparks, Cat Stevens, Spooky Tooth, Jethro Tull, Traffic, the Average White and the Sensational Alex Harvey Bands. The premises were also used by such non-Island acts as the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits and the Clash.

Having released the first Wailers single in 1966, Blackwell resumed his association with the group 6 years later. After Jimmy Cliff covered Cat Stevens’s ‘Wild World’, in the first rock/reggae crossover at the end of the 60s, Cliff left Island in the wake of ‘The Harder They Come’, and Bob Marley reappeared – from Neasden – after playing with Johnny Nash and being busted for grass imports. In 1973 Blackwell perfected the rock-reggae crossover on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ‘Catch A Fire’ Zippo-sleeved album, featuring ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Stir It Up’, and the first Wailers UK tour was organised on Basing Street. Blackwell’s introduction to reggae came from being rescued from a reef by a group of Rastas in 1958; then the Wailers rescued him from prog rock. In the 60s he merged with Lee Gopthal as Trojan Records, which was based at the Saga Centre on Kensal Road, and set up the Blue Beat distribution network. The Indian-West Indian Windrush passenger Lee Gopthal built up his Musicland/Muzik City reggae record shop chain from his original Portobello market stall.

After Bob Marley was shot in the run up to the December ’76 ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert (probably by a supporter of the JLP political faction, as the gig was promoted by the rival PNP), the Wailers went into Babylondon exile to record their chart breakthrough album ‘Exodus’, on Basing Street. On April 6 1977, Bob and the Wailers bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett were heading back to the King’s Road BMW HQ after a Basing Street ‘Jamming’ session, on the same route as Hendrix’s last journey, when they found themselves held up in traffic on Ladbroke Grove outside 101 Ladbroke Road – Notting Hill police station. Bob and Family Man were duly found to be in possession of Cannabis, and interviewed for the Notting Hill Babylon journals.

Other Bob sites in the area are the Mangrove and the Apollo on All Saints Road, the Globe and the house of the Wailer chef Trevor Bow (of Sons of Jah) on Talbot Road, Portobello Green – visited by him during the ’77 Carnival, the legendary House of Dread Rasta centre on Lancaster Road (and/or bordering George Melly’s garden on St Lawrence Terrace, according to ‘West 10’ magazine), his wife Rita, of the I-Threes, lived on Basing Street opposite the studios in one of the Island flats, and his son Julian lives locally. Trevor Bow was described in the music press as ‘guitarist/percussionist/lead singer/songwriter/close Marley confidant’, and Sons of Jah also featured the Wailers’ Aston ‘Family Man’ and Carlton Barrett. In recent years various tenuous Wailer Sons of Jah could be found manning Red’s Rasta stall/cab office at 253 Portobello Road (opposite the Market Bar, on the north west corner of Lancaster Road). In the early 80s the closely related King Sounds and the Israelites were described as the Carnival stalwart All Saints/Ladbroke Grove group. The Lancaster Road to Tavistock Road dreadzone of Portobello market was founded in the early 70s by the Heptones, the rocksteady reggae outfit of ‘Fattie Fattie’ fame; consisting of Earl Morgan, Barry Llewellyn and Leroy Sibbles; posing for Adrian Boot at the Tavistock Road junction.

By all accounts, Bob Marley was initially sceptical of punk rock, and more inclined towards prog. In his exile on King’s Road, as Chris Salewicz put it in ‘Songs of Freedom’, ‘at first Bob strongly resisted what he perceived to be simply another manifestation of Babylon.’ Don Letts recalls being chastised for wearing bondage trousers, when he was managing the King’s Road punk shop Boy, with Bob asking him: “What yuh wan’ look like all them nasty punk people feh?” But, in Notting Hill, during the course of the ‘Exodus’ sessions he was won over to the cause. Don says he assured him that the Clash were reggae fans, not ‘crazy baldheads’, and the Island press officer Viv Goldman lent him ‘The Clash’ album. As a result, Bob, Lee Perry and Aswad came up with the notorious ‘Punky Reggae Party’ track.

‘The Wailers will be there, the Slits, the Feelgoods, the Clash... rejected by society, treated with impunity, protected by their dignity... It’s a punky reggae party, we hope it will be hearty.’ At the same time, the least serious Wailers number and the definitive Portobello pop song, best representing the market’s commercial multiculturalism, ‘Punky Reggae Party’ was the Wailers’ first top 10 single. But this was entirely due to ‘Jamming’ being the flipside. In both punk and reggae circles it’s ignored as much as possible, or openly derided. In ‘Bass Culture’ Lloyd Bradley doesn’t hold back any punches out of respect for Bob, dismissing the lyrics as lamentable, trite and vapid. Although it sounded alright to me on Portobello the other day, relatively speaking. Bob is recalled on Basing Street playing practical jokes on Aswad, like hiding table-footballs and encouraging them to believe it was Chris Blackwell persecuting them.

At the 1976 Reading festival, as well as Gong, Mallard, and Supercharge, Virgin promoted ‘the Frontline in Jamaican music’; U-Roy’s ‘Natty Rebel’, ‘Dread Inna Babylon’, and the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Right Time’. Soon after docking on Portobello, Richard Branson had set sail for the Caribbean as the pop Admiral Vernon, to plunder Chris Blackwell’s hitherto exclusive reggae domain and start the pop ‘war of Jenkins’ ear’. After Virgin signed the most militant Wailer Peter Tosh for ‘Legalise It’, a distribution deal was struck with the dub producer Keith Hudson’s Atra label. Richard Branson’s open-door hippy ethos came to an end in early ’76, after the pop admiral’s quarters on Denbigh Terrace were stormed by the disaffected Atra crew, inquiring after their share of the treasure, in the time honoured tradition. Branson managed to escape to Vernon Yard, in his trusty underpants, then a wiretapped meeting between the labels in Back-a-Yard café, at 301-3 Portobello Road, was raided by police Keystone Cops-style. But, in the end, Branson failed to identify the accused in court.

As Virgin got the Pistols, and all the accompanying publicity, they started to make a profit from reggae. Having failed to get Peter Tosh or Keith Hudson on a commercial footing with Bob Marley, out of the blue, Greek Chris Stylianou at Virgin exports reported a massive upsurge in orders from Nigeria for records by the toaster U-Roy. After Johnny Rotten’s mutiny from McLaren’s sinking ship, on the way to Rio, he first resurfaced in Jamaica, as part of the Virgin Frontline A&R crew put together by Branson to cash in on the African demand for toasters. The pop pirates of the Caribbean came ashore captained by the pop admiral himself, with the modern equivalent of a treasure chest – a suitcase full of American dollars. At a punky reggae Portobello market extension in the Kingston Sheraton Hilton, Rotten/Lydon oversaw auditions and the signing of Prince Far-I and Tapper Zukie. Although Branson failed in his main objective of the trip, to get John to rejoin the Pistols, he enjoyed himself so much, doing the toaster deals on a tropical island, that he bought one of his own, Neckar – the Virgin Virgin island.

Penny Reel’s NME ‘Dread Tale’ of Keith Hudson began ‘outside the Jamaican pattie shop in Portobello Road.’ As a car pulled up containing Militant Barrington Dunn, Jah Lacy, Tapper Zukie and King Saul (a reputed former Rachman enforcer), Reel (who’s male, and not to be confused with Pennie Smith the Clash photographer) considered ‘whether or not I can cross the street and vanish into Tavistock Road, when I heard a large “Wh’appen, Jah Reel!”, and suddenly Militant Barry is striding over to me and pumping my right hand in greeting. “Iry”, I reply.’ After complaining to Reel about Branson’s attempts to make him the new Bob Marley, Hudson produced Barrington and Tapper Zukie’s ‘Pistol Boy’ reggae tribute to Sid. Barry Ford of Merger came up with another punky reggae track ‘Rebel Rebel’, as Nick Kent’s ‘Notting Hill behind closed doors’ NME feature presented the Merger manager John Maxwell-Worrall as ‘the reggae McLaren’. Nick Kent compared Rotten’s intimidating attitude with the Rastas of All Saints Road, and Viv Albertine described Sid as having “this fantastic disguise of a loping, get-wise Jamaican expression.”

In what’s widely regarded as the classic Portobello pop pose – even outdoing the Clash – Aswad’s Brinsley ‘Dan’ Forde, Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye, Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson and co were photographed by Adrian Boot outside the Golden Cross pub (now the Market Bar) at 240 Portobello Road, around a young-ish Sledge the Rasta (in an undread woolly jumper). Aswad’s local history can be traced back further than the Clash’s, almost as far as Eddy Grant’s and continues into the 21st century, making them the (more or less undisputed) top local band, as well as the number 1 British reggae act. The guitarist/actor Brinsley first appeared in ‘Leo the Last’ in 1969, and was already famous from the ‘Double Deckers’ kids TV series. Mostly bred, and in Drummie’s case born, locally, Aswad made their debut in ’75 at the decidedly undread West Kensington pub rock venue, the Nashville (though Drummie reckons it was Acklam Hall), and recorded their first album on Basing Street. Originally they were on their own Harrow Road-based Grove Music label, then Island, CBS, Simba, Atlantic, then Island again. Their manager was described as the ‘Buddha of Ladbroke Grove/Harrow Road… Michael ‘Big Dread Grove Music’ Campbell… the man with the longest dreadlocks on Harrow Road’, and ‘the original Michael Campbell’ – to distinguish him from the Clash Mikey Dread Campbell (and the full name of Michael X was Michael Campbell de Freitas). In the late 70s and early 80s Harrow Road was a ‘reggaemart, pumping sinuously from Ladbroke Grove to Harlesden’, as Penny Reel put it. As the NME crowned Aswad ‘Kings of the Concrete Jungle’, in Sounds they were the ‘young lions of Ladbroke Grove’.

As the cutting edge of London psychogeography shifted to Brixton before the ’81 riots, like the Clash, Aswad went south of the river in their film ‘Babylon’. Brinsley stars as the Ital Lion DJ ‘Blue’, in a sound-system clash with Jah Shaka and Thatcher’s Britain, the soundtrack features Aswad’s militant classic ‘Warrior Charge’ and the local producer Dennis Bovell. Lloyd Bradley recently cited the film as ‘the crowning achievement of British roots reggae.’ At the time, Brinsley was interviewed by Chris Salewicz in his flat ‘off Portobello’, but like Joe Strummer he later left Babylondon for the west country. As Aswad went from the Acklam Hall to the Albert Hall their militant ‘Warrior Charge’ took on ‘Rainbow Culture’ pop appeal. Carnival kings from the militant days of ‘Three Babylon tried to make I and I run’, after headlining the first Carnival stage on Portobello Green in ’79, they made the second stage in Meanwhile Gardens (alongside the canal and Elkstone Road) their own. In ’83 they were recorded there ‘Live And Direct’ at the ‘Notting Hill Gate Carnival’, on their return to Island.

The Dread Broadcasting Corporation was launched in 1981, after the death of Bob Marley, by his brother-in-law Leroy Lepke Anderson (Leroy’s sister Rankin’ Miss P has the inauguration in ’79). The Portobello pirate radio station had a market stall outside 303 (then the Black People’s Information Centre, formerly Back-a-Yard cafe), and 286 (Better Badges) as their mailing address. As they went ‘dread outta control’ from a Neasden garden shed, from 6 to 12 every Friday night on Rebel Radio 103.8fm, you could ‘tune in if you rankin’ to their militant insurgency. The DBC DJ line-up included Neneh Cherry, Paul Simonon, Keith Allen and Lloyd Bradley. As most pirate stations acquired licences, rather than sell out, DBC continued as a sound-system/stall and became big in Japan; in the 90s Leroy also managed the Globe on Talbot Road. Back in the mid 80s, his sister (and Bob Marley’s sister-in-law) Rankin’ Miss P was recruited by the BBC, from DBC, to host the Sunday night Radio 1 reggae show. Thus fulfilling DBC’s aim of getting a national radio show specialising in militant 70s reggae, though she had to moderate the Jamaican patois. In the early 80s the reggae scene revolved around the Upfront record shop on All Saints Road. Today Daddy Vigo’s People’s Sound shop maintains the tradition, as does Vigo himself in his ever expanding Rasta hat. Dub Vendor at 150 Ladbroke Grove, on the south-east ’76 riot corner of Cambridge Gardens, has become the reggae CD shop. Their first west London dub vending shack was over the road at 155, next to the station, while the original Dub Vendor is 274 Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction. ‘Bob’s Reggae Revive’, the 90s ‘conscious reggae’ shop at 331 Portobello Road, started out in Honest Jon’s at 276/8.

By the time the Slits signed to Island the punk girlpower group were more reggae than punk. After supporting the Pistols and Clash, they ended ’77 playing an anarchic Christmas party at Holland Park School, where the singer Ari was officially still a pupil, filmed by Don Letts, their onetime manager. Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell, the post-punky reggae producer of the Slits and Pop Group, Matumbi front man and Sufferer Hi-fi sound-system selector, appeared round the corner from Basing Street, at the Tavistock Road Metro youth club/community centre; his home venue in sound-clashes, and scene of police sieges and sit-ins. The early 80s in-house Island band, Basement 5, was the post-punky reggae brainchild of the Wailers and Pistols photographer Dennis Morris, featuring Don Letts, Richard Dudanski (of the 101ers and PIL), the Zigzag editor/DJ Kris Needs as their manager, and Basement 5 target T-shirts. Dennis Morris later resurfaced as Urban Shakedown, before returning to the dayjob. Through the 80s Chris Blackwell charted a middle course between Virgin and Rough Trade with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Aswad (on and off), Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Third World, Junior Murvin, Toots and the Maytals, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare… most reggae acts at one time or another, Grace Jones’ ‘Island Life’, Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Broken English’, U2, the B52s, Basement 5, Killing Joke, Robert Palmer, Nick Drake, Was Not Was, Tom Waits, and the Waterboys.

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