Virgin pushed the reggae front line forward

Virgin Records started releasing reggae albums in 1974, and the label’s initial release was B.B. Seaton’s Dancing Shoes, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Virgin decided to start a subsidiary – Front Line – dedicated to put out only reggae music.

So, in early 1978 Sex Pistols’ front man John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, went to Kingston to interview and sign the hottest new acts. Richard Branson – founder and owner of Virgin Records – had booked an entire floor at a Sheraton hotel, and artists and groups like Big Youth, U Roy, I Roy, Culture, The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds and Johnny Clarke were signed.

Over the next 18 months or so, the Front Line imprint put out 46 albums and 26 singles absorbing roots, dub, lovers, instrumentals and dub poetry. It was reggae of the highest calibre and among the very best Jamaica had to offer. But the label’s ambitious journey soon and suddenly came to an end, and in 1979 Front Line was dropped by Virgin.

Now – 35 years after Front Line’s demise – a new celebratory 5CD collection demonstrates what made Front Line so special and why the label is regarded as one key proponents in making reggae available to a broad audience. And Front Line managed – just as Island Records – to popularize reggae on the global arena in the late 70s, just when Bob Marley became a superstar.

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Virgin Front Line – Sounds of Reality features no less than 92 tracks, of which several are long forgotten and previously unreleased gems that make their debut on CD and digital download. Each of the first three discs comprise tracks from original Front Line albums, while disc four highlights a dozen of the discomixes released by the company between 1977 and 1979. The fifth CD brings together some of the long lost gems that until now were left all but forgotten in the vaults.

The package also includes a 52 page booklet, jam-packed with images, facts and recollections, with contributions from John Lydon, Front Line’s label manager Jumbo Vanrenen and designer Brian Cooke, ensuring the most authorative history of the label ever told.

When Virgin started the subsidiary they wanted to capitalize on Bob Marley’s stardom and Island Records’ success with him along with several other key reggae artists, including Burning Spear.

But Front Line’s albums were more dread, more eerie, compared to what Island put out. Just look at each label’s logo. Island had a palm tree. Front Line had a clenched black fist, gripping a length of barbed wire with blood dripping down the wrist. Front Line was Island’s unruly, anti-establishment cousin from the tough streets of Kingston.

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