UK’s Reggae Archive Records has done it once again – released a previously unissued album of a band among the many unsung heroes of reggae music. Last year they dropped Capital Letters‘ Reality and now they have released a “new” album from Black Symbol, a set that collects singles, compilation cuts from the two volumes of Handsworth Explosion and unreleased material from the early 80s. This is an album that does their music justice and place them among other reggae greats from the UK.
The first thing that comes to mind when listening to this self-titled set is whether this is Burning Spear or not. Vocalist and founding member Fatman, who is just like Burning Spear from St Ann’s in Jamaica, has a similar vocal style and the music itself is just as haunting, political and spiritual as the material The Spear turned out in the 70s.
This is roots reggae at its best and Black Symbol doesn’t sound like any other reggae band from the UK. They were darker, slower and more uncompromising always being conscious and cultural often with religious and radical themes.
The CD version comes with 16 tracks, of which four are versions, while the double vinyl collects twelve tracks. Both do however contain sleeve notes based on interviews with original band members Fatman, Blobbo and Rhino plus archive photos provided by bandleader Fatman.
Black Symbol didn’t put out much under their own name back in the days, but they did much for the local reggae scene in Birmingham because of the two self-financed volumes of Handsworth Explosion. Hopefully this solid collection of confident and faithful roots will provide them with new fans and followers from the UK and beyond.
UK reggae legends Capital Letters reformed in 2013 and it hasn’t taken them much long to get back in the business and they have already announced a number of live dates in 2015.
Last year Reggae Archive Records released a set titled Reality, an effort collecting 15 tracks originally recorded in 1985, but not out until last year. And now they have a brand new set on Reggae Archive Records’ sister label Sugar Shack Records to share with their audiences around the world.
Wolverhampton is the first all new Capital Letters album in 30 years. It has been preceded by the rootsy single Wolf, which was – just like all other cuts – recorded together with former Taxi Gang and Maytals keyboard player Noel Browne. He has previously worked with artists like Luciano, Freddie McGregor, The Wailing Souls and Papa San.
This set is mainly roots themed and it kicks off in fine style with no less than three hard hitting roots gems in a row. But even though Wolverhampton revolves around politics and conscious messages the music is often upbeat with memorable melodies. Capital Letters also manage to throw in a number of more heartfelt tunes. The title track is one such and Jamaica and Movie Star are two others.
A number of UK reggae bands from the 70s and 80s have recently reformed and most of them have presented solid sets after leaving the music industry for many, many years. Wolverhampton is one such effort and it doesn’t sound like Capital Letters have been away for 30 years.
In retrospect it’s interesting to note which albums that broke big and which didn’t. It often has to do with financing; distribution and marketing. Or maybe the circumstances surrounding the release weren’t right. Or the market wasn’t ready for the sound. Or the sound was regarded as outdated at the time.
The latter may have been at least one of the problems why Sceptre’s debut Essence of Redemption Ina Dif’rent Styley didn’t break at the time of its release. The interest for deep roots reggae in the mid-80s wasn’t huge. Dancehall and slick lovers rock ruled the scene at the time.
Fortunately the reggae champions over at Reggae Archive Records have a mission to reissue long lost UK roots dating from the late 70s to the mid-80s. And they have now dusted off this gem.
Sceptre was founded in 1981 in Birmingham and dropped Essence of Redemption Ina Dif’rent Styley in 1984. It’s a strong set with six out of ten tracks being essential early UK roots. Get up And Go is more on a funky tip, while the three remaining cuts lean more toward lovers rock with Jean McLean singing lead vocals.
It’s certainly a versatile set that has stood the test of time.
For this year’s Record Store Day, Reggae Archive Records released a limited edition vinyl version of Black Symbol Present Handsworth Explosion Vol. 2. Now, ahead of the release of a CD combining both volumes, they have put out Black Symbol Present Handsworth Explosion Vol. 1, and once again it’s available in its original format – vinyl.
And just as with the second volume, the original of this release suffered from limited distribution and the original release sold in scarce numbers. Today it’s heavily sought after and fetches around £100 on the collectors market.
For this ten track compilation Black Symbol provided four other Handsworth (an area in Birminghm) based bands the opportunity to record their songs in a proper and well-equipped studio and then gave them a platform with this album, and each band get two cuts to showcase their talents.
The sound is rough and sparse and most tracks are underpinned by heavyweight backing tracks. Sceptre’s Ancestors Calling is one of the brightest moments with its refreshing female lead – alternating singing and deejaying – and deep bass line.
Then you have Truth & Rights, a crew that doesn’t sound British at all. Their New Language is a fine slice of early Jamaican dancehall in classic Henry “Junjo” Lawes style, and Saddest Moment, is a bit similar to Wayne Smith’s Prince Jammy-produced Time is a Moment in Space.
Also included is Burning Spear-influenced reggae, as on Black Symbol’s Spiritual Reggae, and the smoother sound of Gerald Love, who offers a slightly more polished approach and a more commercial feel.
This is classic roots demonstrating the quality of what Birmingham had to offer the reggae scene in the early 80s. Unfortunately it was overlooked at the time, and this is a well-deserved and long overdue reissue.
April 19 was Record Store Day and for that very special occasion Reggae Archive Records reissued a limited edition version of the extremely rare compilation Handsworth Explosion II, a set collecting and revealing talents from the Birmingham area in the early 80s.
All ten tracks were produced by Fatman, founder of Black Symbol and the band’s musical director. The sounds are deep, dark and haunting. Especially tasty are the two socially conscious cuts from dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who has a melodic and effortless flow. Other acts included are Mystic Foundation, Man from the Hills, Black Knight and of course Black Symbol.
Handsworth Explosion II is a musical capsule and unveils underground acts that shed light on the early Birmingham reggae scene.
Reggae Archive Records have also partnered with Fatman and licensed the entire Black Symbol back catalogue. Together they aim for a comprehensive reissue program throughout the coming year, including a combined CD release for both volumes of Handsworth Explosion.
A while back the crew at UK’s Reggae Archive Records headed from Bristol to Wolverhampton to meet Capital Letters’ bass player JB. When they headed south again they brought with them tapes and a scrapbook with photos and press clippings from Capital Letters’ short career in the late 70s and early 80s.
Capital Letters only released one album – the acclaimed Headline News in 1979. They also dropped a number of successful singles, and they’re probably best known for the marijuana anthem Smoking My Ganja.
Could the treasure found in JB’s house be a second album from Capital Letters? Yes, but the original tapes were unusable. But that didn’t stop Reggae Archive Records. Instead of shelving the tapes they gave the unmixed recordings to producer and mixing engineer Dave “Oldwah” Sandford.
Reality is the result. It’s a brand new, yet vintage, 14 track Capital Letters album from 1985, the year when everything was recorded. Five of the tracks are the band’s original 1985 mixes, one track is a live recording and the other eight are newly mixed from the original session tapes.
Among the 14 tracks are several dub versions and another mix to their hit song Smoking My Ganja. The album is mostly up-tempo in a punchy, almost ska-driven, style. Check the skanking This is Club Dance or Cocaine.
It also no less than four versions of the title track – the original vocal and the original dub as well as Sandford’s vocals and dub.
Not as great as the band’s rootsier debut album, but it’s nonetheless nice to hear previously unreleased vintage British reggae.
Successful British reissue label Bristol Archive Records have increased their operation to include long lost material from other UK towns and cities via the newly established sister label Reggae Archive Records.
Its initial release is the lone album from Birmingham’s Eclipse, also known as The Eclipse Band. The original album title was Eclipsed, and has been reissued by French label Onlyroots on LP as Inner Reggae Rhythm.
To confuse things further the album from Reggae Archive Records is titled Corrupted Society and collects the original eight tracks plus both sides of the bands final single along with two previously unreleased live recordings with surprisingly good audio quality.
Eclipse were friends and contemporaries with Grammy winners Steel Pulse and were together for ten years, from 1975 until 1985. In that time they managed to release this Sidney Crooks-produced album and three 7”, a small and powerful legacy that definitely deserves to be recognised by a new and wider audience.
The material on the album was recorded and written over 30 years ago, but sounds surprisingly fresh, both musically and lyrically. Titles such as Corrupted Society, Immigration and Six Dead deal with familiar topics and are as relevant today as they were in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Fans of early UK roots with household names such as Aswad, Black Slate, Black Roots, Misty in Roots and the aforementioned Steel Pulse won’t be disappointed with this set available on CD and digital platforms.
The record business has been in a bad shape for years, and you don’t often hear success stories anymore.
UK-based reissue label Bristol Archive Records is however one such. The label came from seemingly nowhere when the acclaimed compilation Bristol Reggae Explosion was put about one year ago. This compilation has been followed by two new volumes as well as other albums and singles.
Thanks to the success of Bristol Archive Records Mike Darby – the man behind the label – has shifted focus on his other label, Sugar Shack. This label was previously releasing British rock artists, but from April and onwards reggae is the focal point.
But that’s not all. Mike Darby has also taken the initiative to launch another reissue label. This one’s called Reggae Archive Records.
I’ve talked to Mike about the success of Bristol Archive Records and its history and future. Check the story over at United Reggae.