Music of the Caribbean has had an influence on classic rock and youth subcultures in Britain, such as the Mod and Skinhead subcultures. Skinhead came from the Rude Boy/Rudie subculture from Jamaica. A few reggae and ska songs crossed over into the top 40 in the 60s and 70s. Rock bands have made covers of ska and reggae songs. The late 70s marked the start of a ska revival, the two tone era. In the 90s there was another revival of ska, especially with Ska punk.
How did ska and reggae get to Britain in the first place and influence so many musicians there? Jamaican immigrants in the 50s and 60s brought music with them. During the 60s and 70s a lot of Jamaican musicians moved to the UK to further their music careers. Record labels like Chris Blackwell’s Island and Lee Gopthal’s Trojan brought Jamaican music to the UK.
Let’s look into how ska came to be and how it spread in popularity. We will also look at musicians of Caribbean (mostly Jamaican) descent who had a big influence as well.
Where did ska come from?
According to a book called “Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation” by Heather Augustyn, it was a combination of cultures that shaped ska and made it what we currently know it as. These influences include:
- Arawak (Native Caribbeans): They used instruments such as trumpets made of wood or leafstalks, flutes made of cane, and drums made of tree trunk and manatee skin. Arawak songs were made for a historical purpose and were about daily events. There were happy songs and sad songs. Similarly, ska songs can be political and about every day life or just about fun. Sadly since there is no existing Arawak music because it was passed down through oral tradition and none of it was written down.
- Colonial Influences: From Spain and the UK.
- African Influences: Slaves were taken to Jamaica in the 1600s. They brought with them music and spirituality. African traditions are a huge influence on Caribbean cultures in general, not just in music. Instruments similar to African instruments were made by slaves in Jamaica. Music made by slaves was for all kinds of life events such as funerals and ceremonies. Some songs were lighthearted to lift up their spirits. Even after slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the 1830s there was still a class system in Jamaica that determined according to someone’s ethnic background who could play at which venues. Ska was considered inferior.
- Calypso: This kind of music came from Trinidad and originated in the late 1700s-early 1800s. It had all kinds of influences in and of itself from European to Venezuelan. Naturally, calypso made its way to Jamaica. Music from one part of the Caribbean spread to all other parts of the Caribbean. Calypso fused with Jamaican revivalist music and jonkunnu traditions and this became Mento.
- 20s-40s American Influences: Jazz arrived in Jamaica in the 1920s. Myrna Hague-Bradshaw even claims that jazz is really Jamaican and not American. Tourism went up in Jamaica and it’s a big part of the economy. Naturally, resorts wanted to appeal to Americans and provide entertainment that was geared towards them so they would hire orchestras to play jazz and big band music. The next wave of Jazz came during World War II with Americans being stationed in Jamaica. Whenever Americans are stationed overseas, they never fail to bring things from home, including music. The soldiers needed entertainment and a morale boost. Jamaicans would buy jazz records that they would play on their own record players. Some Jamaicans would even make their own record players. Some Jamaicans bought radios that would get signals from American radio stations that played jazz music.
- 50s American Influences: R&B was getting more popular in the early 50s and it was replacing jazz as the dominant music heard on American radio stations. Not every Jamaican had access to radio at this time. Deejays would play between band sets at clubs. Deejays started “toasting” over R&B tunes. This sound was percussive and was jazz influenced (scat singing). Deejays would say things like “dig it dig it” or “come on come on.” Ch-ch or he-da sounds were made too.
Music was what brought people together and lifted up moods and was very important to Jamaicans. It was empowering and uplifting. Ska came before reggae and dancehall. The saddest thing about ska was that many of the artists got ripped off.
What ska and reggae songs were popular or influential?
Here are some songs that were important from throughout the 60s and 70s:
1. The First Ska song was made in 1959 “Easy Snappin’.” It was by a pianist named Theo Beckford. Many debate who really invented ska with many musicians claiming the title of inventor of ska.
2. Prince Buster is highly influential in ska. He claimed that he coined the term “ska” as an abbreviation of scatter. His song “One Step Beyond” was covered by British ska band Madness. Other songs of his I recommend are “Madness” and “Al Capone.” “Al Capone” went to #18 in the UK Singles Chart.
3. “The Tide Is High” was originally by The Paragons and was released in 1967. It was covered by Blondie in 1980 and it was a number 1 hit. This song was written by John Holt. Later on John Holt got a Top 10 hit in the UK with a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
4. Millie Small’s 1964 version of “My Boy Lollipop” is considered the first ska song to make it big on a worldwide level. This song went to #2 in the UK. It was kept out of the top spot by The Four Pennies’ “Juliet”.
5. “Keep On Running” was originally a ska song by Jamaican musician and songwriter Jackie Edwards. This song went to number one when The Spencer Davis Group did a more rock sounding version of it in 1965. Jackie Edwards was working for Island Records as a songwriter and Chris Blackwell brought the song to The Spencer Davis Group. Another Jackie Edwards song, “Somebody Help Me” was a number 1 hit for The Spencer Davis Group. Jackie Edwards’ version was more R&B sounding than ska sounding.
6. “Israelites” (1969) by Desmond Dekker was the first ska song in the UK to be a chart topper. The lyrics were about the Rastafarian religion and Rude Boy culture.
7. “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash was from 1972. It was #1 in the US and #5 in the UK. Johnny Nash is actually American. He recorded music in Kingston, Jamaica.
8. “Pressure Drop” by Toots and The Maytals (1969) was one of quite a few songs that were covered by 2 tone ska bands. This song was covered by The Specials, The Clash, and The Selecter. “Monkey Man” was covered by The Specials and No Doubt. Some of my favourite songs of theirs are “Louie Louie,” “Funky Kingston,” and “54-46 (That’s My Number).”
9. “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff (1972). One of his best known songs. It was made for a movie by the same name. Another song I like is “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.”
10. “Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley (1973) was one of his first hits. It charted in the Netherlands and New Zealand. Bob Marley’s highest charting songs in the UK were “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Could You Be Loved,” and “Buffalo Soldier.”
Honourable Mentions/Epilogue: The 80s and 90s:
1. “Pass The Dutchie” by Musical Youth. They were a reggae band founded in the UK in 1979. The members were all very young, ranging in age from 11-15. It was the fastest selling British single of 1982. It was a number one for the band in the UK. The music video is funny and you can see some sights of London.
2. “Red Red Wine” by UB40. UB40 were also a British reggae band. They were ethnically diverse and had one member of Jamaican descent and another member of Yemeni descent. The song was a reworking of a Neil Diamond song. It was a #1 in the UK in 1983, and later on in the US when it was re-released in the late 80s.
3. Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you? You may know this lyric from “Cops.” You might not know who sang this song unless you took a close look at the credits. The song is “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle, a Jamaican reggae band. The song did well in the early 90s in Scandinavia. It was a number one in Norway and Finland, and a number two in Sweden.
4. Another 90s TV show with a reggae theme was Kablam, on Nickelodeon. There was yet another ska/reggae revival in the 90s. The Toasters did this song, “Two Tone Army.” They were signed to the ska label, Moon Ska Records.
5. Another 90s show that had a reggae theme song was “Arthur”. The theme song is called “Believe in Yourself” and it was by Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy Marley, with his band The Melody Makers.
What rock bands were influenced by ska and reggae?
The Kingsmen: Covered Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” in 1963. The song is about a Jamaican sailor who wants to return to find his love. The lyrics were so mysterious when The Kingsmen recorded it that the FBI wanted to listen to see if the song was dirty. Hardly anyone could understand the lyrics, but it didn’t stop it from being popular. It was a #1 in the US.
The Beatles: Two songs in particular had a ska influence. “I Call Your Name” (written mostly by John Lennon) and “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” (written by Paul McCartney) One minute and 10 seconds into “I Call Your Name” you hear the ska sound. The name Desmond in “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” is a reference to Desmond Dekker.
The Pretty Things: Referenced Baron Samedi in the song “Baron Saturday” from their classic concept album SF Sorrow, released in 1968. Baron Samedi is the loa of the dead from Haitian Vodou. Loa (from the French word for law, “loi”) are intermediaries between Bondye (comes from French for Good God – “Bon Dieu”) and humans. People serve the loas.
After the death of S.F. Sorrow’s wife, he runs into Baron Saturday, who takes him on a acid trip like journey through the underworld – as told in the songs “The Journey” and “I See You”. Baron Saturday takes him to what appears to be the moon, but actually Sorrow’s face – going inside his mouth, and he walks through the doors to a hall of mirrors. Each mirror has a memory from Sorrow’s life. Baron Saturday tells him to take a good look at it. The journey isn’t very pleasant and Sorrow loses trust in everything and secludes himself, calling himself the “Loneliest Person”.
Led Zeppelin: “D’yer Ma’ker” (pronounced Jamaica) was on the album Houses of the Holy. The title was chosen because of the reggae sound of the song. The song title is not in the lyrics.
The Sweet: Released two calypso influenced songs, “Co-Co” and “Poppa Joe”. Both songs feature the steel drum. A bit different from songs like “Ballroom Blitz”.
Eric Clapton: Covered “I Shot The Sheriff.” His version did better on the charts than Bob Marley’s original. It was #1 in the US and Canada.
10cc: “Dreadlock Holiday” was written by Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart. It was based on a true story of what happened while Eric Stewart and Justin Hayward were in Barbados. It went to #1 in the UK. It combines reggae and rock music.
The Police: They were heavily influenced by reggae. Some songs where you would hear this influence are “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “So Lonely,” and “Bring On The Night.” Sting played Ace Face in Quadrophenia.
The Clash: On their official website they have their story about how they got into reggae. They liked what it stood for. They covered many reggae songs such as Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.,” “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals, and “Revolution Rock,” written by Jackie Edwards and Danny Ray. They remade The Equals’ “Police On My Back” as well. Some original songs that they wrote that had a reggae influence include “Guns of Brixton,” “Rudie Can’t Fail,” and “Washington Bullets.”
Rush: “The Spirit of Radio” comes to mind and it was one of their first reggae inspired songs (listen at 3:49). The reggae influence can also be heard in some of their 80s songs such as “Vital Signs” and “Digital Man”.
Can you name some British ska bands of the late 70s and early 80s and your favourite songs of theirs?
- Madness: “Baggy Trousers“
- The Beat: “Save It For Later“
- The Specials: “A Message to You Rudy“
- Bad Manners: “Special Brew“
- The Selecter: “Too Much Pressure“
Did any rock and pop musicians of Caribbean descent make it big?
The Equals: They were one of Britain’s first multiracial bands to get major recognition. Eddy Grant was born in Guyana and raised in the UK. Twins Derv and Lincoln Gordon were born in Jamaica. Pat Lloyd and John Hall were white British. They had a number one with “Baby Come Back.” Another popular song of theirs is “Police On My Back.”
Eruption: Disco group from the 70s who were popular until the 80s. The members of the band were from Jamaica, Curaçao, and Guyana. Their best known songs are “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (#5 UK and #18 US) and “One Way Ticket” (#9 UK).
The Foundations: Although they came out after The Equals, they were the first British multiracial band to get a #1. That number one was “Baby Now That I’ve Found You.” The band members were born in various countries: Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica, Sri Lanka, and England. Their music had a Motown sound to it, although they were never signed to the label. Their other best known song is “Build Me Up Buttercup,” written by Manfred Mann singer Mike D’Abo and Tony Macaulay.
Hot Chocolate: You’ll know their hit “You Sexy Thing.” It was a #2 in the UK and #3 in the US. It is the only song to be in the UK Top 10 in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Their lead singer, Errol Brown, was born in Jamaica. In 1969 they did a reggae version of “Give Peace A Chance.”
Rosko Gee: Was a member of Traffic and Can. He is Jamaican. He played bass on the album When The Eagle Flies (1974). He was in the 1994 Traffic Reunion. Here’s a video of him performing with them:
Boney M.: A disco group that were very popular in Europe in the 70s. The members were born in Aruba (Bobby Farrell), Jamaica, (Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett) and Montserrat (Maizie Williams). Liz Mitchell, Marcia Barrett, and Maizie Williams were raised in the UK, while Bobby Farrell lived in Norway and The Netherlands until he settled in Germany. They were best known for their songs “Rivers of Babylon,” “Rasputin,” and “Gotta Go Home.” In “Rivers of Babylon” you can hear some steel drum, an instrument from Trinidad and Tobago. The song was a cover of a reggae song. “Gotta Go Home” was sampled in the 2010 Duck Sauce song “Barbra Streisand.” It also features steel drums.
Billy Ocean: Was born in Trinidad and Tobago and was raised in the UK. Some of his best known songs include: “Love Really Hurts Without You,” “Red Light Spells Danger,” “Caribbean Queen,” and “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Gets Going.”
Phil Lynott: Born to an Irish mother and a Guyanese father. He was born in England and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He was best known for being the bassist and lead singer of Thin Lizzy. His solo work from the early 80s is also worth checking out.
Another video worth checking out: In the early 70s Phil Lynott formed a band along with fellow Thin Lizzy members Eric Bell and Brian Downey called Funky Junction. Phil Lynott played bass on the album, but did not do vocals. They released one album of mostly Deep Purple covers.