It was 40 years ago today that The Clash, Sex Pistols and other like-minded fellow travelers fueled the punk revolution in the U.K. and the Ramones, Patti Smith and others did the same here.
Less celebrated, perhaps, is the fact that Jamaican roots reggae was in its heyday at the same time, a fact that did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by punks on both sides of the Atlantic.
You won’t have to spend much time searching Google to find photos of Smith chilling with Tappa Zukie and Burning Spear’s Winston Rodney, or Johnny Rotten hamming it up with Big Youth for Dennis Morris’ camera.
The Clash celebrated all the big names of Jamaican music in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" and covered Junior Murvin’s "Police & Thieves." Rotten traveled to Jamaica to scout talent for Virgin’s Front Line reggae subsidiary.
One of the most important records of the era – and the one perhaps most treasured by punks – was Culture’s "Two Sevens Clash," a reference to July 7, 1977, a date predicted by Marcus Garvey to unleash chaos. Many Jamaicans stayed inside that day and Culture’s hit song captured the zeitgeist not only of that experience but of the upheaval in the international music scene, thanks to the punks’ rip it up and start again attitude.
The album, produced by Joe Gibbs, featured the inimitable voice of lead singer Joseph Hill – who died in 2006 – with harmonies by Albert Walker and Kenneth Dayes. Songs like the title track, "I’m Not Ashamed," "See Them A Come" and "Natty Dread Taking Over" were urgent and catchy.
Gibbs tapped Kingston’s top studio talent – drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Lloyd Parks, saxman Tommy McCook, among others – to provide the backing.
"Their message," wrote Gibbs in the liner notes on the original sleeve. "The unforgotten suffering of their ancestors as they toiled in blood, sweat and tears, only to perish."
Some – most notably "Black Starliner Must Come" – were tributes to Garvey.
The record charted in England, which was not a terribly regular occurrence for this kind of militant music.
"I wasn’t surprised," says Walker. "I know good things will come from good things. It’s a really good record for the punks and more conscious people, they love to hear our sound. Our song made it big first in the UK, that was where we used to be, before we came to America, so they really support us."
The record has now been reissued as a double-disc set (and on three vinyl LPs) from VP Records, with the original album on one CD and related material – including some great DJ cuts and dubs – on the second disc. And it sounds as fresh and as urgent as ever.
"I feel like it a very good album," says Walker. "It really surprised me to know that 40 years later, it has been re-released again. It’s a pleasure. I really love it! I give my gratitude to all the people that got it out and brought it back in the street, it’s a pleasure for us.
"I am really honored. It really helped us reach all international music levels. Recently I was in Malawi Africa and it’s because of the re-release. We have been getting more shows and it takes me back to old times."
I ask Walker if he has a favorite song from the record.
"My favorite song is ‘Two Sevens Clash’," he says. "We took a lot of time and care to write that song. We learned a lot of history about Christopher Columbus, Marcus Garvey and others and decided to put together a song that the youth of today can listen to and learn something from."
My own favorite is now, as it was then, "See Them A Come."
Filmmaker Don Letts – a fixture on the London punk scene and later a member of Big Audio Dynamite with The Clash’s Mick Jones – has made a documentary about the musical interaction between London punks and Kingston reggae performers. The title? "Two Sevens Clash."
Letts was also tapped to pen the liner notes for the 40th anniversary reissue of the Culture album.
"The punks loved it (reggae)," Letts writes. "They liked the fact that reggae was anti-establishment and that the lyrics had a musical reportage quality about them dealing with themes and subjects they could identify with. ... When (as a club DJ) I dropped Culture’s ‘Two Sevens Clash’ – game over. Every punk had the Sex Pistols ‘Never Mind the Bollocks,’ The Clash’s debut album and right alongside ‘em Culture’s ‘Two Sevens Clash’."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.