I was reading an article the other days about recording artists who have produced tunes particularly tied to a specific place, or by dint of recorded output or even reputation are somehow synonymous with a destination. In this case the subject was tunes about, or which evoke, London town. Examples vary as wide as the output of two recent girls with attitude, Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen, both of whom can be said to raise shadows of their hometown in much of their work, to The Kinks’ classics such as “Waterloo Sunset”, “Berkeley Mews” or “Shangri La”. Other examples of artists who have used Albion’s capital as a muse might include The Jam for example with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” or “In The City”, The Clash most notably with “London Calling”, or even our perennial British hip-hop favourites such as the London Posse or more recently Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal, and the newer wave of emcees bringing London’s voices to international success. Let’s not forget honourable mention at this stage also to the Pet Shop Boys’ eternally brilliant “West End Girls”, but that’s a different story
But it is a lesser known artist that I wanted to give props to here, one whose dalliance with fame was brief, but whose work can also be regarded as inextricably linked to his own upbringing on the streets of London, particularly his two greatest hits, “Police Officer” and more pertinently “Cockney Translation”. Reggae artist Smiley Culture, who died this week in sad and pretty tragic circumstances, was raised in south London. And yet it is his Jamaican heritage, as with so many black Britons in the post-war years, which led to a melding of West Indian and British culture, and which gave rise to a distinct UK style of reggae toasting, often originating from the inner cities. The immense Steel Pulse were forged in Harmsworth, Birmingham, but the UK reggae scene which gathered strength throughout the 1970s and 1980s was largely a London thing. And in the mid 1980s, Smiley Culture was one of the kings, emerging from the still mighty, mighty Saxon sound system (visitors to Notting Hill Carnival will always recognise Saxon as key stalwarts) and speaking for the black youth of London with his humorous yet often biting and on point social commentaries.
“Police Officer” from 1984 is the more obvious example of a song with a harder comment on police aggression behind its seemingly benign tale of escape from the long arm of the law through reggae fame, while our favourite “Shan A Shan” just bangs. But earlier single “Cockney Translation” also has its deeper points, this time masked by a quite brilliant Rastafarian’s guide to the particular language of the East End of London. Musically it is great, a lilting dub of simple piano notes and echoed drum splashes common to all dub tunes in a way, and lyrically it is just inspired. A trip of nostalgia for all those who grew up in the 1980s, and with a distinct London vibe. But on a deeper level it also served to explore the cultural differences of large groups living side-by-side in the great metropolis, a comment on social integration and migration.
It has been stated as well that it marks the beginning of the adoption of West Indian terminology and accent by large groups of white people, a trend which is seemingly at its peak today. Certainly a ride around the buses of London town will reveal a distinct number of young white kids talking as if they come straight out of Harlesden via Trenchtown, often to almost comical effect. But I digress, because in a way it also marks the continuation of an assimilation of West Indian culture into the British mainstream, particularly in music, which you can trace distinctly through punk, rare groove, acid house, drum and bass, UK garage, grime and beyond. A bit of a garbled account, but hopefully you get the message. And if not, then I can always try it again in Cockney slang, but we may be here a while.