‘That eerie chorus was the soundtrack of their deaths’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by journalist and novelist Catriona Troth @L1bCat
Soundtrack by The Specials, The Selecter, Barrington Levy, King Tubby, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Malkit Singh, Alaap with Heera Group UK
My novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry and Brixton in 1981. Around that time, young musicians from different communities were developing styles of music that melded sounds from their cultural roots with modern pop, and writing lyrics that expressed their anger and discontent. The music they produced played a vital part in taking me back to those times and in helping me identify with characters from three different communities.
Coventry in 1981 was the city of 2 Tone Records and Ska; it was also a city riven by conflict between skinheads and young Asians. The 2 Tone sound was essential to the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Ska has its origins in the West Indies, but by the time it stormed Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had a flavour all its own. The line-up of the bands on Coventry’s 2 Tone label – like The Specials and The Selecter – were a mix a black and white musicians, and the message of their songs was often explicitly anti-racist.
One of the characteristics of the 2 Tone sound was the use of a horn section, epitomised by Rico Rodriguez’s wailing trombone sole at the start of The Specials’ Ghost Town – surely one of the most haunting openings to a pop song ever written. Ghost Town inspired not only the title of my novel but underpins much of its mood.
That was the day that The Specials released Ghost Town. For days it keened from every radio, every jukebox, every stereo. Those stabbing horns and that eerie, wailing chorus became the soundtrack of their deaths.
Equally poignant is the voice of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter. Black’s voice slides from contralto (in Three Minute Hero) to soprano (in On My Radio) – dark and light all in one unforgettable package.
Tracks like these helped me to unlock memories and recapture the feel of those troubled times.
Down in Brixton, the defining sound for the young Black community was reggae. If 2 Tone drew me back into my own past, then reggae opened a doorway into a different world. Like most people, I knew a few Bob Marley tracks, but in writing the book, I explored others like Barrington Levy’s Shaolin Temple and King Tubby’s Flag Dub.
Most of the rioters had slipped away through the alleyways, back into the maze-like estates beyond. Behind the blank façade of the night, the sound of reggae spilt into the air. Brixton was celebrating.
At the same time, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson were performing live to a reggae backing beat. Highly political lyrics written in Jamaican dialect (such as LKJ’s New Crass Massahkah) capture the fury that led to the Brixton riots in a way that no amount of reportage could possibly convey.
Back in Coventry, the third element of my story lay among young British Asians, many of whom arrived in Coventry as children when their parents were expelled from East Africa.
Many young Asians identified with the 2 Tone sound, but they were also developing a sound of their own. It would be another two years before the first Bhangra records were pressed, but meanwhile, local bands were experimenting with blending the traditional sound of instruments like the dohl (drum) and the single-stringed tumbi with Western pop.
Most of us are familiar with Bhangra music now from films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, but back then it was new, exciting and a little bit dangerous. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings where the best bands were playing.
The stringed instrument opened by twanging out a melody and was answered by the seductive beat of the drum. The singer threw back his head and produced an ululating sound that formed a contrapuntal beat. The other instruments joined in one by one, weaving between the two rhythms … Feet tapped and bodies began to sway. A circle of dancers formed, energetic and sinuous –hands clapping, wrists twisting and shoulders shaking.
Those early bands were unrecorded, but you can catch something of their feel from listening to the earliest Bhangra stars, such as Malkit Singh, on Putt Sardaran Da or Alaap with Heera Group UK on Chamm Chamm Nachdi.
Listening to these three styles of music helped me get under the skin of the different characters, to absorb something of their rhythms and to switch from one ‘mode’ into another as I moved from scene to scene.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com.