Guest writer Martin Hywood works in Pharmaceutical IT and was first diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy more than twenty years ago. Undaunted by the increasing physical effects of his condition, Martin and his huge team of supporters from all over Britain have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help fund hours of vital research into the condition since, earning him the endorsement and friendship of many prominent figures in sport, entertainment and music. Here Martin explains his love for the reggae and ska sounds he first heard when growing up.
Hi, I’m Martin, I usually write about living with a disability or going to football. Lately I’ve been inspired to write about another passion of mine – music, specifically Reggae and Ska and all that comes with them.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in a newly built concrete jungle just outside of London, a massively multicultural overflow town. I’m not sure where or how it started, but at some point I became obsessed with reggae and ska. Many things could have been the catalyst; Gregory Isaacs Night Nurse album on my cassette player, finding and purchasing a vinyl copy of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come at a middle school fete, maybe the hand-me-down singles of the 2-Tone era, or even the release of Legend by the late and great Bob Marley. Whatever it was, a fever gripped me and ever since it’s been my genre, my forte when it comes to music.
Recently I watched the story of Trojan Records and also the Small Axe films and immediately started reminiscing about the joy of listening to the 2-Tone and reggae that was around when I was growing up. With that came curiosity enough to go backwards and find out about the origins of these great movements. As I’m writing this and thinking, in the background I can hear Tony Tribe’s Red Red Wine, one of the reasons why I need explain my love for this, them beautiful, original sounds!
As I said, most of my music was handed down to me by friends or my older brother, little gifts of gold. After starting my paper round and earning my own money I’d then head into town to Berwick Street in Soho to buy my own vinyl. You couldn’t beat shuffling through the racks, an experience which gave similar feelings of excitement to my childhood hobby of collecting Panini football stickers, thinking either ‘got’ or ‘need’. I always wanted to come back with something from these trips, because it felt good just carrying a record shop bag, mostly because nobody else liked what I liked apart from a few kids on my estate, a small but very cool group of us.
During the 70’s and 80’s there were changes in this branch of the musical tree. Ska and Blue Beat were the precursors to Reggae, but it’s growth in popularity outside of Jamaica was driven by Chris Blackwell and the Island label. Island had begun releasing singles in the 1960’s and then began to champion artists like The Wailers, Burning Spear and Steel Pulse, pushing them into the mainstream British and American markets. Some said the movement’s anti-establishment message had been diluted to become acceptable, but Blackwell had achieved what he had set out to do, which was to put lots of Jamaican records and artists under our coffee tables, albeit having nurtured a style which had become more aligned with pop and rock so it might appeal to a global audience.
With that, like anything, there will be artists who strip a sound back down again, bringing a new attitude too. Perhaps strangest of all was punk and reggae’s love affair, with The Clash covering Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and Stiff little Fingers doing Marley’s Johnny Was, a relationship that had started with Don Letts when he began DJ’ing at punk gigs. With all that exposure and people like Blackwell making it so easily available it was no wonder that we had a big rise in Ska, Reggae and Two Tone.
With the music came a look, the things we wore telling others what we were into. This meant a Fred Perry shirt or the buttoned down Ben Sherman, Farah slacks or tight jeans, desert boots, a pork pie hat when you went to the occasional dance – and in my case the skinhead with as longer side burns as possible.
Both then and now it was an image that got hijacked, mostly by those on the far-right who were on the rise and this was to be met head on; we were similar looking people with totally different attitudes. Reggae in particular wasn’t made for them, it message of unity against the man was one that many people listened to but only some truly heard. The National Front at the time were recruiting in numbers both at dance halls and football stadiums, convincing what youth they could to join their cause, whilst on the other hand Peter Tosh was singing Equal Rights, you cannot be both of those things.
Just up the road doing exactly that was Eric Clapton, on stage in Birmingham reciting Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and openly supporting the NF by shouting “Keep Britain White” at the audience. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Photographer and former Clapton fan Red Saunders immediately founded Rock against Racism, publishing a recruitment letter in the NME and the subsequent gigs saw The Clash and Steel Pulse sharing the same stage and spreading the same message.
In fact everyone was welcome at the dance halls and everyone got on, because the skinheads were the fashion version and not the fascist version. After lots of fighting at gigs however it became obvious something had to be done and Punk and Reggae artists came together and launched Rock Against Racism. This inspired the Clash’s Joe Strummer to pen the song ‘White Riot’, which ironically some saw as fuel to the fire of a race war in the UK, when the intention was the opposite.
This is what makes me proud to have fallen in love with these genres of music because of everything they give back to me, they can be political, positive, persuasive, passionate and powerful. In the 90s things changed though and I found myself listening to more Dancehall and Lover’s Rock than Ska. Beenie Man’s Many Moods of Moses topped the reggae charts, number one was it’s number with the stand out track ‘Who Am I’ but the album carried weight for me in telling the story of Steve Biko. Biko was a South African freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid leader and at the forefront of the black consciousness movement. He was arrested in 1977 and died in police custody after being beaten, a crime which nobody was found guilty of until 20 years later a policeman confessed.
Hopefully now you can understand that it’s about so much more than just music, me and my wife danced at our wedding to many reggae and Ska songs and we’ll do the same at parties in the future, it’s on in the car on the school run, I share it on my social media channels, I exercise to it in the Dojo and I’m listening to it right now (Johnny Too Bad – The Slickers).
Like I said at the very top, I don’t usually write about music, normally I write about my disability. It’s one that’s very painful physically and difficult to write about, but one good thing about music is when it hits you, you feel no pain.