In a serendipitous irony of mid-to-late 70s UK roots reggae, bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Misty in Roots first found a home in the burgeoning punk scene before they were embraced by Caribbean communities. All three of these groups took part in the Rock Against Racism campaign alongside The Clash, X-Ray Spex, Elvis Costello, and others, and regularly shared stages with the best-known British punk bands of the time.
“In a funny kind of way,” says photographer Adrian Boot, “the punks themselves, these white kids, were also a bit disenfranchised; they didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have anywhere to go. A lot of punks liked reggae music; they all lived on the same housing estate. Jamaicans were very good at putting on parties and the white kids that went along developed their own style. Bands like the Beat and the Specials adopted reggae and mixed it in with punk, so it crossed over a lot.”
Indeed, one can hardly imagine British punk and post-punk without these relationships. But groups like Steel Pulse soon moved to more traditional reggae venues, and to the premier Jamaican label, Island. In the 90s, their onetime vocalist Mykaell Riley founded another multicultural music fusion project, the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, and he currently works as a Principle Investigator at the University of Westminster, where he is Director of the Bass Culture Music Research Unit, a “three-year academic research project exploring the impact of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music on British culture,” examining “how and why this music’s influence has and continues to transform British pop from Susan Cadogan or The Clash to Stormzy.”
This past month, Riley and Boot staged the London exhibit Bass Culture 70/50, a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Windrush and the 50th anniversary of reggae in the UK. The exhibit featured photographs of the 70s roots reggae scene by Boot, who got his start photographing Bob Marley and Burning Spear while teaching physics in Jamaica (he published those photos in the 1977 book Jamaica: Babylon on a Thin Wire). “We thought it would be a fantastic idea to tell the story of Jamaican music in the UK,” he told Huck magazine, “not just its effect on music but also the culture, the fashion, and the language itself.”
“Back in the 70s,” Boot remembers, “London was quite grey. It was a dark place. There was racism, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and riots. Nobody had any money. The children of those who came over on the Windrush ships suffered the same discrimination their parents suffered.” And yet, he adds, “you know what they say, you need hard times and stress to make good music.”
Boot captured the making of some of the best UK reggae and ska to come of out of the decade, from Aswad, Steel Pulse (above, promoting the single “Ku Klux Klan”), to the Specials and beyond, for magazines like NME, Melody Maker, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. The exhibit may have ended, but you can see some of his historic images here and learn more about the Bass Culture Research project at their site.