Friday, January 18, 2008


How Clean Is Your Ghetto?

Josh Kane: I was wondering how the punk scene of today is compared to the punk scene of the (first) punk era.


Dear Josh - There are so many differences between now and then, and we are communicating via one of them -- the internet. Although it's done a good job of shattering the music industry, there's no doubt the internet functions like one big punk fanzine, in terms of enabling people to communicate and share music more freely than ever before. Back then was also a far less controlled time -- London where so much wild stuff started now has perhaps the highest concentration of surveillance cameras in the world. Also, in punk's Round One, there was the innocence you get from inventing something that feels and is quite new. Now the punk mantra of harder - faster - louder coupled with insignia like tattoos or lurid Mohicans with shaved sides is almost nostalgia. Where will rebel rage go from here in music and style? You tell me, Fierce Readers.





How Clean Is Your Ghetto? I asked myself while in Kingston, Jamaica's Trench Town neighborhood, made famous by Bob Marley and the Wailers. From the crude barricades dividing off neighboring blocks that weren't on speaking terms because of long-time political grudges, to the heaps of garbage round the corner being thoughtfully chewed by some healthy looking goats, the scene seemed to cry out for Our Ladies of the Mop, the ones who put the saint into sanitation -- Kim Woodburn and Aggie McKenzie.

I must confess to an addiction. I love watching the BBC America shows like How Clean Is Your House and You Are What You Eat. In these times of non-stop bombardment by images of “perfect" celebs in immaculate Cribs, it's quite refreshing to see the transformation of everyday schlubbs who are even messier and unhealthier than me. In regular American self-help shows, even the “Befores” seem pretty well put together. But get the likes of Aggie and Kim down in Kingston's tenement yards, and you’d see those rubber gloves scrub a challenge worth the feathers (and if you don't get that gag, watch the show.) Would lemon and salt work on that oily debris in the gully? The Trench Town residents would love to know.


Of course, there wouldn't be much point in transplanting You Are What You Eat to Trench Town -- people here don't have enough food. Not much fun in that, unless Gillian McKeith, the show's stern but fair holistic nutritionist, was planning to fatten kids up.


I was in Jamaica on assignment for Culture and Travel magazine, writing a story about the Revival of Downtown Kingston, which includes the Trenchtown Reading Centre, an amazing indie library in the middle of the slums that gives the local youth access to books in a clean well-lit space.


Lo and behold, there, following in the footsteps of so many UK punks before him (John Lydon, the Clash and the list goes on,) was Sheffield, England's very own Punk Poet, (OK, he's a bit more electro than punk, but he's punky in spirit,) Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers. He was being shot -- and in a good way, as opposed to with a gun -- by Rick Elgood, a dreadlocked British director who was pioneering punk cinéast Don Letts' frequent partner before moving to Jamaica and becoming one of the island's top film-makers. Thanks to Rick and his doc for the accompanying pictures. McClure's career was kick-started by his friendship with one of the biggest British bands, fellow Sheffield-ers the Arctic Monkeys. "I was the poet who was around the music, shooting my mouth off -- but not about nothing," he told me. Gradually the poems became lyrics, the musician pals became collaborators, and now Reverend and the Makers are a UK rave.


His mates called him The Reverend because he was a sensible and forceful talker; and McClure's honest, critical but compassionate and funny take on human nature on the album, "The State of Things" with songs like "Heavyweight Champion of the World" is being hailed as something of a relief, as, unlike most pop stars, Mr. McC's lyrics are worth your attention.




Jon McClure and Vivien
Trench Town Rocks! Photo courtesy of Rick Elgood



What drew the good Reverend to Trench Town? "I grew up in a Jamaican area of Sheffield and I was exposed to all that great music. What I love about Jamaican music is it keeps on evolving," said McClure. "Not like British indie guitar music, which has definitely stagnated and not really evolved for twenty years, to be honest. It's stalled but over here the music continually re-invents itself."



The Reverend Jon McClure
The Reverend blesses Kingston. Photo courtesy of Rick Elgood



McClure got down with Jamaica by learning the latest dancehall step, the Popitoff. He loved the Reading Centre and plans to send down books -- and hopes to translate his passion for those island sounds by working with some islanders. Watch this space.



More UK poetry came my way

When I was in Jamaica the other day

Linton Kwesi Johnson the Brixton bard

Showed the University he's still "well hard"

(and that's a Jamaican compliment for good.)




Reverend and the Makers video



In other words, the prototypical "dub poet" Johnson, aka LKJ, joined fellow dubby versifiers Mutabaruka and Jean "Binta" Breeze at a University of the West Indies tribute to the late Miss Lou, the gutsy, folksy champion of Jamaican patois poetry and legend. I've been a huge fan of LKJ since his first record, "Dread Beat and Blood," back in the protozoal Punky Reggae era. Now he's one of Britain's most revered artists, with no compromise. Hearing beloved poems like "Reggae Fi Dada," his elegy for his father, in the place his family came from, was pretty moving. One of LKJ's classics is 'Sonny's Lettah' which details how police harassment led to a young man killing a cop to protect his kid brother. I liked how the packed audience chuckled softly when LKJ was explaining the background to the poem, a law called "Suss" that in the first punk wave was a great excuse for arresting mostly young black males on "suspicion" of intending to commit a crime. The crowd's oddly cheery response seemed to be a mix of amazement that such a dodgy law could be -- and recognition that though the law's name may change, the young and the broke are still a target, everywhere.



Jean Breeze
Poet Jean "Binta" Breeze channels Jamaican legend, Miss Lou.





And so to the Slits, who synchronistically for this column, share a producer with LKJ, Dennis Bovell. They're the top girl punk band who paved the way for everyone from Madonna to Avril Lavigne and M.I.A. The Slits had/have not only The Look and The Attitude, but the songs, too. Anyway, as we've reported before, their quality keeps on getting them generations of new fans (Check out the photo gallery for pics of Chloe Sevigny with Arri Up and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth)



Viv Tessa and The Slits
Our Spy Zoe and the reunited Slits Tessa (l.) and Viv (r.)
Image courtesy of Dylan Howe



Our London Spy, author and DJ Zoë Street Howe, aka punky reggae DJ Zoë Paranoë, who's writing a book on the Slits, is here to tell us about a momentous encounter that happened Since We Last Met.... Now over to Zoë in London: Mick Jones’ current band Carbon / Silicon launched their club night Carbon Casino in Ladbroke Grove, West London last week – and it proved to be more momentous than anyone expected …



Carbon Silicon video for The News
The incomparable Mick Jones and crew



Big moment no.1: The legendary Topper Headon turned up to play drums with Mick for the first time in 25 years! (Don Letts was on hand to film the action). They played some vintage Clash – including ‘Train In Vain’: an appropriate choice seeing as the subject of that song – Ms. Viv Albertine – had turned up that night to watch, and to meet fellow Slit Tessa Pollitt…


Big moment no.2: … this was especially amazing because Viv lost contact with the rest of the Slits since the band split in the 1980s, and she made her way as a director.



Don Letts and The Slits
Don the Dread Director
shot them back when and here they all are again.



But I managed to bring the pair together for the first time in 20 years on this potently punky occasion. As you can see from the pictures, they were like a bunch of excited schoolgirls. Nothing changes …



And don't you change, except like your socks and stuff, until we meet again....