GARTH CARTWRIGHT: Britain's rude awakening to reggae
PUBLISHED: 11:00 05 November 2018
A new film tells the story of Trojan Records and, with it, the birth of multicultural Britain. GARTH CARTWRIGHT reports.
Not many record labels can provide the basis for a decent film. Yet not many have such a clear narrative arc, and tell such an important story, as reggae label Trojan Records.
While ostensibly detailing the rise and fall of a tiny firm in the music business, new feature length documentary Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records sees the label as a conduit – and perhaps a mirror – for changes in British society across the late-1960s and early-1970s. By popularizing Jamaican music, the film argues, Trojan helped shape a brave, new, multicultural Britain: one nation under a Caribbean groove of sorts.
Having recently premiered at the London International Film Festival, Rudeboy is being shown at three different London cinemas this month as part of the Doc ’N Roll film festival. Of the 28 music documentaries showcased, Rudeboy stands out for its cultural resonance – this is a film that looks not simply at music and musicians but the effect the records had in a UK that, at the time, remained very white and often openly racist.
“It’s amazing to look at footage of Jamaican emigrants stepping off the Empire Windrush and then consider the impact that this has had on British culture,” says the film’s producer Sam Bridger. “Jamaican culture has enriched British society. It’s an honour to tell that story with this film.”
Trojan Records was founded in London in 1968 by two young Jamaicans determined to get the music from “back home” heard in the UK. Chris Blackwell and Lee Gopthal initially met through Blackwell renting office space in Kilburn from Gopthal in 1962. Blackwell quickly proved himself a music industry tyro, his Island Records scoring hits with The Spencer Davis Group.
Gopthal, noting the profits being generated, began distributing Jamaican music and setting up record shops to sell it. In 1968 the two men combined forces as Trojan Records and helped unleash a cultural revolution.
Initially, Trojan licensed recordings from Jamaican record producers for the UK’s Afro-Caribbean community. Success meant the label was soon signing reggae artists and mentoring such maverick talents as Desmond Dekker, John Holt and Lee Perry.
Very quickly reggae began peppering the UK singles charts and a new youth cult – the skinheads – chose Jamaican music as an alternative to long-haired, hippie rock bands.
1968 also saw Enoch Powell deliver his infamous Rivers Of Blood speech so firing up anti-immigrant vitriol. Trojan found itself a lightning rod for an increasingly divided UK, its vision of music uniting everyone on the dance floor at odds with both racists and a very white, rock-oriented music industry.
Trojan rose quickly then fell hard. It began to come unstuck after Blackwell sold his share of the label to concentrate on running Island Records. Gopthal, now sole owner, focused on pumping out 45s (often adding strings to sweeten Jamaican recordings) while Blackwell, having signed former Trojan artist Bob Marley to Island, developed the singer for the album market, thus launching reggae’s first superstar.
By 1975 Trojan was consumed by debt and Gopthal lost his label. Post-Trojan he maintained a low profile before dying of a heart attack in 1997. By then, Trojan had gained legendary status – both its music and Greek helmet emblem are now recognised as badges of timeless cool.
Trojan’s story is celebrated in both Rudeboy and the recently published book The Story Of Trojan Records (Eye Books). Laurence Cane-Honeysett, the author (and an adviser to the documentary), first fell under reggae’s spell when a schoolboy in the late 1960s and recalls Trojan tunes being spun at Stamford Bridge every Saturday before kick-off.
When, a decade later, the rise of 2-Tone – The Specials, Madness, The Selecter – reignited interest, he became the label’s most prominent print champion. As Trojan’s masters were horse-traded, subsequent owners needed an employee who knew what was on the tapes, thus they hired Cane-Honeysett in 1992 and he’s overseen Trojan’s reissues ever since.
“Trojan crashed in 1975,” says Cane-Honeysett, “and while that was the end of the label as a creative force, there have been all kinds of attempts at reissuing some or all of the thousands of recordings it owns. Trojan’s been sold twice since I started working there but, fortunately, the new owners have always kept me on.”
The current owners are BMG, the German corporation now the world’s fourth largest record label. And it was BMG’s determination to ensure Trojan’s 50th anniversary was both properly marked – and the label rebranded in the market place as something akin to a ‘British Motown’ – that led to the book and film (and The Trojan Records Box Set, containing six CDs, four LPs, two 45s, a book of album covers, poster, patch etc).
As Cane-Honeysett worked on all three projects it’s refreshing to note a lack of repetition; where The Story Of Trojan Records is intensely detailed and covers the label as it’s sold on (and on) across the decades, Rudeboy takes more of a big picture approach, suggesting Trojan’s records helped unite black and white youths. The film acknowledges that Trojan was, first and foremost, a business venture but the label’s determined championing of reggae would prove to have far greater resonance than chart placings and profits.
“Record companies don’t often get this opportunity to repackage a label,” says Cane-Honeysett, “so BMG ensured that Trojan’s 50th anniversary was a unique celebration. Its great that BMG have been able to portray the label as it was. Trojan’s legacy, all the things it stood for, is now being recognised.”
BMG gifted Rudeboy with a lavish budget beyond that of most music documentaries (few other Doc ’N Roll features will have enjoyed such largesse). Thus it blends archive footage of London and Jamaica from decades past alongside scenes where actors dramatically recreate incidents at Kingston dances and London recording studios that were never filmed at the time. British director Nicolas Jack Davies skilfully weaves old and new together, letting both the musicians and fans who experienced Trojan’s golden era carry the film’s narrative forward as they reflect on what was, for all, a defining time in their lives. Davies is white and his previous documentary feature focused on Mumford & Sons (a band whose music and background is the polar opposite of Trojan’s artists). This makes him, he admits, a somewhat surprising choice to helm such an Afro-Caribbean story.
“I learnt quick by involving the people that were there, taking advice and really listening to people about it,” says Davies. “I hope that the film appeals and does justice – in its own small way – to the Afro-Caribbean community who place great value in that period of history and Trojan as a label. I felt it was vitally important to get it as right as possible for that reason alone.
“For the time we live in, I thought a positive story about the effects of immigration and the power of music and culture to have more effect than politics or religion was the basis of Rudeboy. The music is incredible and still not known enough but the societal impact of Trojan is an amazing thing to try and highlight. And, I feel, makes the story of the music more contemporary and vital in 2018.”
Indeed, Rudeboy stands as a history lesson – and a particularly timely one, in the context of the Windrush scandal. Its underlying theme is how people from a former colony came to Britain and shared their culture, so enriching the local music and youth culture.
“Trojan’s success meant, for the first time, people of Afro-Caribbean heritage were regularly appearing on television and radio,” says Cane-Honeysett. “This not only sent out an extremely positive and inspirational message to black Britons, but also ensured a degree of respect – which up until this time had been largely lacking – from their white counterparts.
“It introduced reggae to the world, gave so many now-famous musicians their first break, helped create contemporary British music and youth culture. Trojan changed everything.”
Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records has three screenings at the Doc ‘N Roll Festival, on November 4, 10, 15. To find out more, visit docnrollfestival.com/films/