The title of this post is taken from the words of “Time Conquer”, a track on the album “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” by Lee Scratch Perry and Dub Syndicate. When the album was first released in 1987 I was living in the United States doing post graduate research at Dartmouth Collage in Hanover New Hampshire. Before leaving England in 1985 my primary musical influence had been the legendary John Peel whose show on BBC Radio 1 I listened to religiously. Peel did play some reggae and I didn’t dislike it but I was more into bands like The Cocteau Twins and The Fall.
Arriving in Hanover I found the locals to be generally very welcoming but in some ways I had more in common with other international students and in 1988 I moved into a shared house at 19 Maple Street with people from counties like Guyana, India and Pakistan. Remember this was during the Apartheid era and Dartmouth Collage had significant investments in South Africa, something which the Dartmouth Community for Divestment (DCD) were trying to change. There were a few South African students who regularly visited 19 Maple and their personal experience of Apartheid made them key figures in the campaign. They often turned up in the evening and “held court” in our living room. I don’t remember contributing a great deal to the discussions but I listened attentively and I guess that is the time I really started developing a serious political consciousness, aided in large part I think by two things – cannabis and reggae.
I had somehow managed to reach my twenties without ever coming across cannabis. One day while visiting a friend in nearby Thetford he told me he had grown some in his back yard and asked if I wanted to try it. I had never even smoked a cigarette before so I was a bit hesitant but after watching him load a pipe with pure weed and take a toke I just followed suit and waited for something to happen. The effect came on quickly and was like nothing I had ever experienced – consciousness expanding is probably the best way to describe it. The world was never really quite the same again.
Something that people who have tried cannabis generally agree on is that it enhances the experience of listening to music. The herb is used as a sacrament in the Rastafari movement so it was perhaps inevitable that reggae featured heavily in the soundtrack to life at 19 Maple Street. It was great to listen to while stoned but it was also both spiritual and political. There was Bob Marley of course. I particularly remember the album “Rastaman Vibration” with tracks like “Crazy Baldhead”, “Rat Race”, and “War” (featuring lyrics derived from the words of a speech by Haile Selassie to the United Nations). After returning to England I started learning to play reggae by jamming with friends and I found that what drives it is the rhythm section, consisting of drum kit and electric bass guitar. In the case of Bob Marley’s band it was Carlton Barrett on drums and his brother Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass who were essential to the music that made Bob an international superstar. The Barrett Brothers also played with Lee “Scratch” Perry but on the album “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” it was Lincoln “Style” Scott on drums and Errol “Flabba” Holt (gotta love those names) on bass. Time Boom was a particular favourite at 19 Maple and I still love it – Perry inhabits that intersection of madness and pure genius. The album opens with a track called “S.D.I.”, referring to the U.S. Strategic Defence Initiative (aka Star Wars). Other tracks include “Allergic to Lies” and the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “Time Conquer”, which includes the lyrics “Cursed are all liars and blessed are the people who speak the truth”. Perry made a lot of music before Time Boom, and has made a lot more since – I recently discovered his 2004 album Panic in Babylon with great tracks like “Voodoo” and “I Am a Psychiatrist”.
Learning about what was happening in South Africa was just the start – the Apartheid government did not have a monopoly on oppression! I remember meeting the Deputy Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour when he came to Dartmouth at the invitation of the International Students Association and gave an enlightening talk about the history of Palestine. Then there was the situation in Central America (the Iran-Contra affair had come to light in November 1986) as well as domestic issues relating to the treatment of African and Native Americans. On the Dartmouth campus itself there were problems with racism, sexism and homophobia, particularly within some of the Fraternities. I was undergoing a process of radicalisation during which I had to question many of my own views. In one case I remember a long discussion with a friend about abortion. I hadn’t really thought about it much before but if anything I guess I had previously been “pro-life” (that is certainly the position I was arguing). After several hours I understood the errors in my previous thinking and I have been staunchly “pro-choice” ever since (and the friend who convinced me was male and from Pakistan).
So some reggae was politically contentious, like the track “Abortion” from the 1983 album “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Black Uhuru. To the extent that Rastafari is an Abrahamic religion grounded in the Old Testament it shares certain sexist and homophobic tendencies with the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), tendencies that are undoubtedly revealed in some reggae music. These problems were of course discussed (and to a limited extent excused on the basis of cultural differences) but they couldn’t negate the positive messages in what we listened to.
Another 19 Maple favourite was Forces of Victory by Linton Kwesi Johnson from 1979, and again it was music that had a lasting influence on me. Later I discovered his other early albums, “Dread Beat an’ Blood from 1978 and “Bass Culture” from 1980. I returned to England in 1990 and a year later he released “Tings An’ Times” which features some fantastic guest solos on flute, violin, accordion etc. The amazing thing is that Linton is probably more famous as a poet than as a musician, having become only the second living poet (after Alan Ginsburg) to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
Hanover is situated on the Connecticut River and crossing the bridge takes you into Norwich Vermont. Of course things looked pretty similar on the other side but it felt very different. The state of New Hampshire (Live Free or Die) seemed more business oriented whereas Vermont (Green Mountain State) was possibly unique at the time in having a Socialist mayor (Bernie Sanders, Mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989). We even referred to it as The People’s Republic of Vermont. Burlington also hosted the Vermont Reggae Festival, a free annual event that began in 1986. I don’t think I was at the first one but I did go at least twice and possibly three times. Unlike just about every outdoor festival I have been to since then it only had one stage so there were no clashing sound systems. It also had the massive speaker stacks required for a proper outdoor reggae amplification – even when I went for a swim out in Lake Champlain I could still feel the bass.
Eventually it became clear that I was not going to finish my PhD in plasma physics so I said goodbye to New Hampshire and returned to England. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next so I got in touch with one of the Dartmouth radicals who had graduated and moved to London maybe a year earlier. He was working for an organisation called the Newham Monitoring Project which I got involved with on an occasional basis, but he also put me on to a group called the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign. The TSDC had only recently formed with the purpose of supporting all those arrested at the Poll Tax Riot and helping to coordinate their legal defence. It was run by and for defendants but there was a huge amount of work to do and any help was greatly appreciated – I remember sending out newsletters to supporters, logging video footage, attending court appearances etc. That was my introduction to the London anarchist scene and I still see some of the people I met back then at the annual London Anarchist Bookfair.
I have rambled on long enough but I just want to complete the circle. A few years ago I was flicking through a zine and came across a top ten list of albums chosen by anarchists. It probably featured Crass and Chumbawamba but I was pleased to see that it also included “Time Boom X De Devil Dead” – as Perry said, love no have no government.