I had a bit of a problem when I first half-heard the title track on the recent Bristol Reggae Explosion collection – I thought it was about the horrors of living in Dulwich. Rather than being a paean to one of the posher bits of South London, it was about living in the Dole Age of the early eighties. All becomes clear when they call Thatcher a criminal and old folks like me can feel at home with the message and the medium. The Eighties was a golden age for reggae in the UK – bands combined political, religious and cultural statements with big rumbling beats and sweet sounding choruses. The Roots movement was peaking and biblical-sounding lines would work their way into lyrics, lending a sense of depth that perhaps wasn’t deserved. Bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad (before they went all pop), the other Bristol band – Black Roots, and, of course, the transcendental Misty In Roots set a new high water mark for solidity of purpose and danceability. Let’s please not factor in the contemporaneous UB40, who started out well-meaning but dull before developing into twee, popular,irrelevant and dull……..
Talisman’s second track, Free Speech, is another hardship song and a sweetie too. It wasn’t all hard times for the reggae musician and plenty of songs are about the tribulations of love or the lack of it. Wicked Dem is the last of the four tracks from their 2 singles and condemns iniquity. There is some very nice guitar work illustrating throughout and sax for colouration. It makes a heady sound and one simultaneously cool and accessible to nearly anyone with a pulse. The four studio tracks make up less than twenty minutes and are fleshed out with nearly an hour of live songs – not one of them a repeat. The live tracks show the band had the chops for real and the bass is deeper yet. All the songs take their time and last a minimum of six minutes a piece, some as long as quarter of an hour. Horns, echo and dubby touches send me into raptures. Songs like Nothing Change, Calamity and Ah Wha U Seh take you back to a time when politics was real and personal, while others, like Shine On, give some hope and uplift. The set is a smooth fusion of steady dance music and sloganeering that will make you wonder how this band is not better remembered. They went on to record a couple of albums in the next few years before fading away.
If you have any time at all for Steel Pulse or Aswad, you will REALLY like this.