Slavery Days – Burning Spear
…do you remember the days of slavery?…
Andy Cornwell was a tall, white, loon-trousered, cooler-than-thou dude with an blond afro and teardrop glasses who ran the London School Of Economics ENTS group in the late 70s. I was studying Law in between going to gigs, smoking dope and listening to music. We all lived up by the Post Office Tower in Fitzroy Street in halls of residence and while we listened to DJ John Peel religiously and the punk wave that was sweeping through England, we also found reggae was just as likely to be on the turntable.
Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey was the big record, and the dubplate version Garvey’s Ghost was even better; The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Augustus Pablo, Marley, Dennis Brown, we couldn’t get enough. And the local scene was strong too – partly thanks to the championing by John Peel – Steel Pulse, Black Slate and Aswad were all setting the place alight. There was revolution in the air from all sides, and the musicians tapped into it and magnified it. So there we were, Andy and I, 2 of the twelve white people in the building, walking down the stalls of The Rainbow, Finsbury Park, clutching our tickets for our hero. We were in J11 and 12. There was a man sitting in J12. We showed him our tickets. He didn’t even look at them. A white security guard noticed there was an issue and asked to see our tickets. We showed him. He shone his torch at the black dude in J12. “OK, wait there, I’ll get Spear’s security” Off he goes. The place is filling up now. Aswad – our reggae band (they’ve already played LSE twice or three times in my first year) – have played the support slot and gone down very well. Now the place is expectant and charged for the real thing – the Jamaican reggae – the roots rastafarian from St Annes parish – and here’s two white students standing up – IN THE WAY. A large muscled rasta with a beard and radio shines his torch down. “Lemme see your tickets please”. He tries to take them but some primal instinct kicks in and we keep hold. “When you buy these tickets?” Can’t remember what we said. “These tickets upsteers, we sold out and sold dem all again”. No, I said, we’re not moving upstairs, we’re sitting here. The man in J12 sits facing forward unblinking. He somehow isn’t asked for his ticket. Then further down the row, Spear’s security turns his attention to – another white couple, sitting down “You two – you got to move upsteers”. They spurn this offer and people behind us start to shout “SIDDOWN MAN” as the lights go down and the electrically charged atmosphere starts to prickle and crackle and the noise becomes a tidal wave. Andy crouches improbably down in front of the me as half of my arse twists onto the seat and onto the stage comes dreadlocked Winston Rodney, Burning Spear himself and the place erupts.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the great great gigs of my life, spiced with that build up and introduction – but wait – Spear’s band : the drummer, the bass player, the guitarist, the backing vocals, the keys – were ASWAD !! This was so ridiculously impressive that they could play the support slot then, having presumably learned all of Burning Spear’s songs that week, actually play his music as he prowls around the stage, a magnetic righteous figure in red gold and green.
When he growled the words “Do You Remember The Days Of Slavery?” the crowd leaped to their feet and punched the air. It was the first time in my life that I felt like a white man. Clearly I’d led a privileged existence up to that point, but in a sea of angry black fists at least we were standing up, and stayed that way for the rest of the show. J12 man stood too. Weird thinking about it now, but I guess Spear was his hero too and he wanted to be down the front. I will never forget that gig, and Burning Spear remains in my top five LP choices anytime someone asks for them. Garvey’s Ghost since you ask. Why ? Because it is actually perfect.
the dub from Garvey’s Ghost : I and I Survive