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A tribute to Junior Byles, a roots reggae pioneer

Earlier this century I bought a copy of MOJO magazine. It had a free reggae compilation with it. One of the tracks on the CD was ‘A Place Called Africa’ by Junior Byles. The song is a heartfelt cry on the Rastafarian theme of repatriation. Listening to it reminded me how good Junior Byles is. This made me check out some of the man’s other work. We will return to his music shortly. First, I will tell you a bit about Junior Byles.

His full name is Kerrie Byles Jr. He was born in 1948 at Kingston’s Jubilee Hospital, and grew up in the city’s Jonestown ghetto. His father worked as a mechanic and his mother was a school teacher. His family were devoutly religious, and his early musical education was singing in church. In 1967 he co-founded a vocal trio called the The Versatiles. At this time he was also working as a fire fighter. 

At the time Lee “Scratch” Perry was working as chief engineer for producer Joe Gibbs. He was scouting for talent for Gibbs’s new Amalgamated label and on hearing the group signed them. Two years later they went on to work with Lee Perry, who by this time was establishing himself as a producer. Then they moved on to work with Duke Reid for his Treasure Isle label and other producers such as Laurel Aitkin.

In 1970 the Versatiles split up. Junior Byles, while still working as a fire fighter, returned to working with Lee Perry. Other members of the group would sometimes provide harmonies on his recordings. Then in 1972 The Wailers left Perry to sign with Island. Perry needed someone to fill the void and Junior Byles fitted the bill. He gave up his job as a fire fighter, and over the next five years their partnership would produce some of Perry’s most highly regarded work. Every bit as good as the work he did with The Wailers.  

In 1972 Junior Byles was one of several reggae artists who offered support for Michael Manley’s general election campaign. One of his songs ‘Joshua Desire’ was addressed to Michael Manley while another song ‘Pharaoh Hiding’ was addressed to Hugh Shearer leader of the ruling Jamaican Labour Party. 

Manley was elected, but changes for Jamaica’s poor were a long time coming. Junior Byles addressed this with the scathing ‘When Will Better Come’. These songs were released on his first album titled Beat Down Babylon. With musical backing from the Upsetters, this album showcases his song writing talents, and his haunting tenor voice. 

The title track has an anthem like quality to it, in another track ‘Curly Locks’ he sings about how his girlfriend’s parents won’t let him see her because of his dreadlocks and his Rastafarian faith. There is the previously mentioned ‘A Place Called Africa,’ while ‘Poor Chubby’ hinted at his unstable mental health. 

The record also includes a version of the Little Willie John song ‘Fever’. A song made famous by Peggy Lee. While he was working with Lee Perry he was also self producing and set up his own Love Power Label. 

In the mid-1970s Junior Byles left Lee Perry to work with other producers. Among the recordings from this period was a song called ‘Fade Away’. Some people consider it to be his finest work. “He who seeks vanity and no love for humanity shall fade away”. A couple of years later the song was featured in the reggae film Rockers. In 1976 he released his second album Jordan.

However, by 1975 Byles’s health started to decline. He was suffering from depression and became deeply affected by the death of Haile Selassie. Unable to reconcile this with his belief in Selassie’s divinity, he attempted suicide. He survived and was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Kingston’s Bellevue Hospital. 

It has also been suggested that he had been overworking, and that this contributed to his breakdown. After the admission, his health continued to decorate. However, despite regular spells in hospital he continued to record. But by the end of 1976 he had vanished from the scene. 

He attempted a comeback in 1978 and recorded two singles for Joe Gibbs. However it was clear that he was still not well. He didn’t re-emerge until 1982. Work on a planned new album went slowly. Then he suffered much tragedy when his mother died and he lost his home in a fire. His wife and children also emigrated to the United States. 

Apart from a few singles, Byles would release nothing until his album Rasta No Pickpocket in 1986. The album sadly did not see a long lived upturn in his fortunes. The next year he found himself living on the streets, scavenging for food in dumpsters and begging from passers by. He did resurface in 1989 recording a couple of singles. 

Three years later he played a few shows with Jamaican guitarist Earl China Smith. In 2004 he returned to live performing in Jamaica. These performances received positive reviews. This lead to a short tour of the United Kingdom. I don’t know if Junior Byles career is still active, but I wish him well. His recordings from the 1970s show him as being one of the pioneering voices in roots reggae, and are well worth listening to

Posted by Joe Turnbull, 11 February 2016

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 26 April 2016

The Astronauts: Urban Planning rails against gentrification

The Astronauts’ latest album traces the history of the band from 1979 to 2013. Urban Planning is a beautiful yet gritty retrospective that showcases the skilled songwriting of Mark Wilkins.

The Astronauts are based in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Thanks to the dedication of singer-songwriter Mark Wilkins, (better known as Mark Astronaut), the band are still active, and will no doubt continue to be so.

I first saw The Astronauts play at a Mad Pride gig in the mid-1990s. While it was a late introduction to the band, I am glad that I discovered them. Mark Astronaut has shown consistent support to such causes as Mad Pride.

Over the years the group have had a number of different line-ups. This is reflected in the different musical styles displayed here. Some tracks like ‘Sod Us’ and ‘Seagull Mania’ are folk songs. Both songs feature a lively fiddle accompaniment.

When I have seen Mark Astronaut perform ‘Seagull Mania’ (a song about urban squalor and and disillusion caused by the failing of radical ideas), he has always sung it a cappella. It is interesting to hear him do it here as a folk song.

In recent years Mark has teamed up with a group of teenage musicians. One recent song ‘Hersey’ is about the loss of community - something that is all-too-common in these days of gentrification. The song shows the band in fine form tackling 70s dub reggae, whilst another song ‘Have It’ shows them taking on rap and techno sounds. The lyrics of this song talk about modern-day DJ culture.

Sometimes the Astronauts have put harsh lyrics to gentle tunes - an example of this being ‘Baby Sings Folk Songs’. At one point in the song Mark sings about the Fulham nightlife being controlled by the knife. We are reminded that there was a time when parts of Fulham were quite rough. However the music gets tougher as the song progresses.  

Another song ‘Don’t Think about It’ features some nice saxophone playing from Loll Coxhill.  The recent song ‘Melisa’s Party’ is about the down side of hedonism. Musically and lyrically it has a brooding sense of menace running through it. A similar sense of menace runs through the epic ‘Protest Song’.

Since the Astronauts started in the late 1970s Mark Astronaut has shown himself to be a fine singer and a gifted songwriter. As the new songs here show Mark’s song writing and singing continue to shine brightly. Mark Astronaut is a national treasure.

To buy this record visit All the Madmen website at www.allthemadmen.co.uk Also available at All the Madmen is the 45 single ‘A Typical English Day’, one of my favourite Astronaut songs.

There are a number of Astronaut songs on YouTube including some live performances, but there is also an American surf rock band from the 1960s called The Astronauts. To get the right band type in ‘Mark Astronaut’.

You can also follow Mark Astronaut on FaceBook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 August 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 May 2016

Kevin Coyne's Case History album includes several songs about the mental health system

Kevin Coyne’s first solo album, Case History, was recorded in 1972, shortly after Nobody Dies In Dreamland. Last year, it was re-released by Turpentine Records.  

Shortly after its release its label, John Peel’s Dandelion, folded and Case History became very hard to find. I only heard the record in the early 1980s, when it was issued as a box set with the two Siren albums. The label that issued the records in the early 1980s was called Butt records whose logo was an ashtray overflowing with dog ends. When I listened to Case History the songs stirred up something in me. They are as direct as any punk recording of that time.

Kevin has been quoted as saying that the songs for Case History were recorded in just three or four hours, and that Case History is not just an album but a whole period of his life. This becomes very clear as the album unfolds. Dave Clauge and Nick Cudworth from Siren accompany Kevin on the first two tracks. The opening track ‘God Bless The Bride’ is an upbeat number where Kevin asks God to bless everything from the bride and groom and their families, to the hotel by the sea, and the little room with its pot dogs. Track two ‘White Horse’ is a gentle song. I have never understood what the song is about, but the imagery is quite fascinating. Track three (‘Uggy’s Song’ ) is where Case History really starts to  let rip. We find Kevin on his own with his frantic acoustic guitar playing. As I mentioned in my review of Nobody Dies In Dreamland, ‘Uggy’s Song’ is the story of a black tramp murdered by the police in 1971. The police called him ‘Uggy’ because they considered him to be ugly. The next song ‘Need Somebody’ is about growing old and lonely. However Kevin also expresses the difficulty of reaching out to a friend. Then comes ‘Evil Island Home’, a disturbing picture of England as Kevin saw it at the time. The chorus to Evil Island Home comes across with a sense of disorientation.

As Case History moves on we come to ‘My Message to the People’, a statement of intent from Kevin. He sings “don’t tie me to your steeple, don’t put me in the stocks in your market square“.  While Kevin’s guitar playing was very basic, it could also be very powerful. The next track ‘Mad Boy’ is a picture of someone who has been diagnosed as mentally ill. Someone who others feel needs to be controlled. Kevin sings “fetch the doctor, the doctor’s done his job. No more disagreeing with his mother”. The song’s chorus of “mad boy, mad boy” is quite otherworldly.  Kevin’s mates from Siren return for Case History’s last track. Titled “Sand All Yellow” Kevin sings in two voices. One is the voice of the patient, the other one is the voice of the doctor. When Kevin speaks as the doctor there is a sinister tone to his voice.  

After Case History the CD contains some bonus tracks, starting with ‘Cheat Me’, a single that Siren issued shortly before their split. Then we get ‘Flowering Cherry’. As Kevin anticipates the coming of summer, he also hopes that his love will grow. Then we get alternative versions of ‘Evil Island Home’, ‘My Message to the People’ and ‘Mad Boy’. We get a previously unreleased Siren song called ‘Doctor Love’, a rough and ready rocker. Then there is another version of ‘Cheat Me’ from a radio session. There is a version of ‘Flowering Cherry’ with a delightful trombone solo. The record finishes the way it started with another version of God Bless The Bride.

Thank you to Robert, Eugene and Helmi Coyne at Turpentine records for making this CD available. I look forward to whatever they bring us next. While this record was released a long time ago I feel the things Kevin is singing about still have relevance in these times.

Most of the old Victorian psychiatric hospitals have gone now, to be replaced by modern psychiatric units. But our life struggles can still lead us to nervous breakdowns. Case History is the beginning of a long and prolific career by of one of Britain’s most gifted songwriters.

To buy a copy of Case History visit Turpentine records at www.kevincoyne.co.uk

For the official Kevin Coyne website visit www.kevincoyne.de

For  more about Kevin Coyne’s long and prolific career visit PASCAL’s fans website at www.kevincoynepage.free.fr

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 18 October 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 October 2013

Frank Bangay writes a tribute to Blind Willie Johnson: The Soul Of A Man

My first introduction to the music of Blind Willie Johnson came in 2002. The guitar teacher at CORE Arts in Hackney, had  encouraged me to have a go at learning to play the slide guitar. As a result I got a slide guitar  compilation out of the library. There was some great stuff on the record. About half way through following straight after a track by the mighty Son House, was You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond, by Blind Willie Johnson.

His gruff voice, accompanied by a gentler woman’s voice, really grabbed my attention, as did his slide guitar playing. Soon after this experience I bought a copy of the compilation Dark Was The Night. When I played it I realised that I had heard some of these songs before by other artists but hadn’t realised where they had come from.

Blind Willie Johnson was born near a town called Brenham in Texas on 22 January 1897.  While growing up he attended the Church Of God In Christ. This is one of the Afro American churches that was set up after the abolition of slavery. It was a church that encouraged enthusiastic music making. Two other fine gospel singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Georgia Peach also attended the church. When Willie was five, he told his father that he wanted to be a preacher. He made himself a cigar box guitar. However around this time his mother died and soon after her death his father remarried. So the story goes, Willie lost his sight when he was seven. His father gave his step-mother a beating after catching her going out with another man. In revenge the step-mother threw lye water (detergent) into the young lads face, in doing so blinding him.

Blind Willie Johnson had a powerful singing voice. Because of this his father would often send him out on the street to sing for tips. He learned piano and taught himself to play guitar in regular tuning, while using open D for slide. Many of his lyrics and songs were gathered from old hymnals. He played at church functions where he developed incomparable timing and tone, using a pocket knife as a slider.

The 1920s  saw him performing on the streets of a place called Herne in Texas. He had a cup wired to his guitar for people to put tips in. In 1926 Willie married his first wife - Willie B Harris. His recording career started the following year.  His first session took place in Dallas Texas in 1927.  His first 78 release was I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole backed by Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. At the time of its release, it was proclaimed: ‘This new and exclusive  Columbia artist sings sacred songs in a way  you have never heard  before. Be sure to hear his first record, and listen closely to that original guitar accompaniment.’ The hype was true, and the records popularity quickly made Johnson one of Columbia’s best selling artists. Despite this popularity Blind Willie Johnson only received one small payment for the recording, He received no royalties. As such he continued to make a living as a street singer. The second release ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and ‘Dark Was The Night,’ was reviewed in a national magazine, Bookman. The review spoke of Johnson’s ‘violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans,  and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song.’ Chant, moans, and ghostly slide. 'Dark Was The Night' was based on an old hymn about the crucifixion.

The term race music was used to describe Afro American music of the day, blues, gospel, jazz etc. Music made by poor white people was called hillbilly music. This was early country music. Despite the racial climate of those times, and the segregation and inequalities that existed, there was interaction between the blues and country music. One example being a blues group called the Mississippi Sheiks. They had a fiddle in their line up, and for me they had a country feel to their sound. The Mississippi Sheiks were around during the 1930s. They are known for songs such as ‘I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You' and 'World Gone Wrong'. Bob Dylan recorded 'World Gone Wrong' in the early 1990s on the second of two albums of old folk songs that he made at the time. Another example of the blues influence on country music can be heard in the Carter Family.

One of the first tracks that I got into on Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation was ‘Motherless Children Have A Hard Time’ - written from first hand experience. First there is the slide guitar and the cries of well, well, well, then he starts singing in a powerful gruff voice. This song really made me sit up and listen. Its sentiments are universal, and fully relevant today. Then comes 'Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground' - a haunting atmospheric wordless hymn in which Blind Willie Johnson plays some beautiful slide guitar and sings in a wordless moan. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard.

Blind Willie Johnson often sang in a voice that was used to making himself heard over the noise of the street. However he sometimes sang in a softer more tender voice – and one example of this is his singing on ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning’. It’s a deeply spiritual song on which he is accompanied by the voice of his wife Willie B Harris. Sometimes they sing in harmony, sometimes Willie B Harris finishes off lines in the song. Halfway through the song there is a beautiful slide solo.

I began listening closer to the songs. ‘If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down’ tells the story of Samson and Delilah. Johnson’s powerful vocal makes Samson’s struggle seem like it was a contemporary event that took place around  the time when he recorded the song. ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ features some powerful vocals and slide playing. On ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’ he uses the slide guitar to finish the lines to powerful effect. Then there was ‘John The Revalator’ where he again duets with Willie B Harris. Some of the early recordings have an eerie quality to them.  Several other songs on the CD – eg ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’, and ‘Come And Go With Me To That Land’ – are a testament to the strength of his Faith.

I came across an interesting article about the life of their daughter Sam Fay Johnson Kelly recently. She still lives in Marlin Texas in the same house where she was born in 1931 - a four room shack with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat. Now in her 70s she is in a wheelchair and helped out by her grandchildren. In the interview she recalls her father playing his guitar and singing in the kitchen. She remembers him reciting from the bible. Her mother worked seven days a week as a nurse, while her father was busking on the streets.

By the time she was seven Blind Willie Johnson went travelling. He ventured all over Texas singing in churches on the street and at railway stations in company with Blind Willie McTell. A blues artist known for songs such as ‘Broken Down Engine’ and ‘Statesbrough Blues’, he started singing gospel songs towards the end of his life in the 1950s. Together they wrote some impressive songs sometimes sharing the same studio. Their travels took them as far as New Orleans. Legend has it that while singing 'If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down' outside a New Orleans courthouse, Blind Willie Johnson started a riot. However other reports suggest that the police arrested him because they misunderstood the lyrics, and took them to be incitement.

During this period in America there were a large number of blind Afro American street musicians. The only opportunities left open to a blind person were to be a beggar or to be a musician. Obviously being a musician was the preferable of the two choices, and these guys helped to lay the foundations for Rock and Roll.

On April 20th 1930 Blind Willie Johnson made his final recordings. However he carried on working as a street singer. He married his second wife Angeline, who sang with him on the street. He settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he sang on Beaumont Street. Shopkeepers remembered him as a gentle dignified man who dressed neatly and wore close cropped hair. Blind Willie Johnson and Angeline regularly sang at the Mt Olive Baptist Church and occasionally journeyed to Huston for revivals. People also recalled hearing him over KTM, a radio station in Temple Texas as well as a Sunday morning church service broadcast over KPLC radio based in Lake Charles Texas. Huston based music historian Mack McCormick said how Johnson left memories at Corpus Christi during World War Two, when there was a fear of Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf Of Mexico. Submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on air with new verses to one of his songs ‘God Moves On The Water’, a song about the Titanic.  First offering grace to his audience, he then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U Boats with, ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God’. I don’t know if any of these recordings still exist?

Blind Willie Johnson remained poor until the end of his life. A Beaumont city directory showed that in 1944 a Rev W J Johnson operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street. This is thought to be Blind Willie Johnson as this is the same address as that listed on his death certificate. In 1945 his home burnt down in a fire. With nowhere else to go, he and his wife slept inside the burnt  ruins of their home on a bed of damp newspapers. They carried on singing on the streets during the day. Then a few days later he fell ill with pneumonia. Angeline took him to a local hospital. However he was refused admission on the grounds that he was black, (some accounts say that it was because he was blind). He died a  couple of days later. His death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever with syphilis as a contributing factor. But as it also lists blindness as a contributing factor, which makes the coroner’s thoroughness very suspect.

In 1953 music historian Samuel Charters interviewed Angeline who confirmed the facts of his death. What happened to Blind Willie Johnson at the end of his life, is an example of the discrimination and injustice that took place in America in those days. However his music lives on, and in many ways his spirit does too. Many musicians and bands from diverse musical backgrounds have recorded Blind Willie Johnson’s songs. The Reverend Garry Davis taught the songs to people on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s and from there the numbers of recordings just kept on growing. Blind Willie Johnson's influence on contemporary music is vast.

There are plans to give back royalties to his surviving family. Hopefully these plans will be successful. Nobody quite knows where his grave is, though. It is thought that he was buried in Beaumont’s Blanchet cemetery, a seemingly unattended piece of land overrun with weeds where members of the Afro American community were often buried. The people of Beaumont are dedicated to finding his grave and preserving it.

In relation to his slide playing, the common theory is that Blind Willie Johnson used a pocket knife as a slide. Blind Willie McTell said Johnson used a metal ring. I have a friend who is an accomplished guitarist, who has suggested that he used a bottle as a slider. In the only known picture of him he sits at a piano holding a guitar. No sliding instrument can be seen. What ever he did use one fact remains. Blind Willie Johnson is one of the all-time great slide players.

Unfortunately not much is known about his life. His real year of birth – often recorded as 1902 – has only recently been confirmed as 1897, since the discovery of a birth certificate. The Guinness Who’s Who Of The Blues suggest that Johnson also made blues recordings under a different name. Wikipedia suggests he was also known as ‘Blind’ Texas Marlin. Does this mean that there are still some unreleased recordings? Another question I’d like to ask is, did Blind Willie McTell get interviewed in the 1950s? Did he shed any light on his partnership with Blind Willie Johnson?

Blind Willie Johnson’s spirit is still very much alive. In 1977 when the Voyager spacecraft was sent into space to orbit the earth, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, was one of the tracks chosen to be included on the voyager Golden Record. (The other tracks included Beethoven and Chuck Berry.) On a street corner in heaven Blind Willie Johnson is surely singing to the angels.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 22 July 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 May 2016