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Interview: Capital Letters

Interview: Capital Letters

Interview: Capital Letters

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"We had friends who were taking LSD and going mad"

Sampler

In the third in our series of interviews with reformed foundation UK bands, United Reggae caught up with Wolverhampton’s Capital Letters. (Check previous chats with Reggae Regulars and Black Roots)

Assembled in 1972 by young Jamaican emigrants to the Black Country city, the group comprised Roderick “the Dude” Harvey (drums), Junior “JB” Brown (bass), George “Bulk” Scarlet (guitar), Earl “Wizard” Lynch (keyboard, vocals), Danny “Teacher” McKen (guitar/vocals), and Wenty “Country” Stewart (percussion/vocals). They would later be joined by backing vocalists Pauline Spence and Paulette Hatden, along with sometime guitarist/singer Springy.

The smashing drums, gritty guitar and frank lyrics of breakout song Smoking My Ganja were too hot for many reggae labels of the time, yet caught the attention of newly-founded Greensleeves and the BBC’s John Peel. The collective cut two albums, 1979’s Headline News and 1982’s restricted German release Vinyard, before breaking up in 1985.

Like their contemporaries, Reggae Regulars and Black Roots, Capital Letters have now returned. Similarly to the Regulars, a schism in the 80s - between bassist JB Brown and the remainder - means that two versions of Capital Letters are doing the rounds. The majority of the members are still affiliated with Greensleeves (who reissued Vinyard in June 2015). Meanwhile Brown has his own ensemble signed to Bristol’s Sugar Shack Records (putting out the enhanced 80s compilation Reality and new studio album Wolverhampton).

Angus Taylor reasoned with Country, percussionist of the Greensleeves unit. He spoke frankly, in true West Midlands style, about the history of the band, the split, their support for Idi Amin, and why the original cut of Smoking My Ganja was far rootsier than the one Greensleeves chose…

Capital Letters

What was your first experience of music in Jamaica?

It was good. My first music experience was listening to Marley, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker. All the old time school. King Tubby, the full works.

How did you listen in those days?

We used a thing called Delco for our light switches. Now they call it Delco but in those days it was “generator”. You’d turn it on and it would run all night with engine oil and then the sound would plug into it and we’d have a street dance. Because we didn’t have any lights as such, apart from the generator. That’s what we used to do.

Which sounds did you listen to in Jamaica?

King Tubby, Jack Ruby. I used to listen to all of them. Those were the main sounds in Jamaica who were going round the country to the villages to play. It was good then.

When did you come over from Jamaica? Your parents came over for a better life?

I came over in September 1967. They came over to work and live for a better life. I was a youngster then and my dad come over here to work, then he sent for my mum and then he sent for all of us as kids. And we’ve been here since.

What was Wolverhampton like at the time?

It was skinhead time. Skinheads was what was going on then. And a lot of paki bashing.

So you encountered racism quite quickly?

Very quickly and very deeply. My first experience of racism was when I left school. I couldn’t get a job. I was going for mechanic or welding. The minute you got to the gate they closed the gate and said “No job”. You didn’t even see the manager. You only saw the gate man. It was rough. I did get a welding and a mechanic job but it never lasted.

What was the sound system scene like in Wolverhampton in the sixties?

There was a sound called Duke Neville, one called Quaker City, one called Studio Fire and one called Jahman Sound. At the time there were quite a few little sounds coming up. The biggest sound was Sir Christopher and then Quaker City. They were playing in nightclubs and halls. We used to have a Cultural Centre in Wolverhampton and they used to play there on the weekend – Friday and Saturday.

My first pay packet was £11.50 and I paid £11 for a drum. I brought home 50 pence

How did you start making music?

A friend of mine used to live across the road and his dad was a pastor. We called him Pastor Dean. All of us used to go to church and one day his son approached me and said he was trying form a band and I should go and get myself a drum. But my neighbour across the road which was the drummer, Dude, he said he will get the drum and I could get the percussion which was the bongos. My first pay packet was £11.50 and I paid £11 for the drum. I brought home 50 pence. I have to bring my wages home every night since (laughs). That was how the band started.

And it was called Alphabets?

It was called A B C then. Then we changed it to the Alphabets because there was a band in Sheffield named A B C. We changed to the Alphabets and there was a band in Manchester called the Alphabets! (laughs) So we had to change again.

What kind of songs were you playing in ABC and the Alphabets? Did you ever mix it up and play soul music like the dance bands in Jamaica?

We were playing ska like Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan and Pat Kelly style of music. One drop chk chk chk. The only soul we used to play was Wilson Picket, the American soul singer. Probably about two soul we’d drop in the show each time. Apart from that we were strictly a reggae band.

Once you changed your name to Capital Letters you did well in a talent contest.

Yeah, we did a talent contest in Handsworth in Birmingham at a club called Rialto. It was a very well-known popular club in Birmingham. We played with Steel Pulse, Reggae Regulars, Black Slate, quite a few bands. It went on for about seven weeks, seven Thursdays and then Steel Pulse won it and we came second that night. But we were the people’s choice so if we were playing our home ground and had an independent judge…

So you felt the judges chose Steel Pulse because they were local?

Yes, if it was the people’s choice we would have been the winner. But when they said it was between we and Steel Pulse we played for about two weeks straight and nothing could split us. So because of that Steel Pulse won.

The second prize in the talent contest was a studio recording session.

That was it. The first single. Errol Dunkley did a music called Please Stop Your Lying Girl so we did that one. But it didn’t take off. We recorded it in Tooting Broadway. It was a studio in Tooting. Trojan put it out. The company was in Brixton. I think his name was George. A little, short black man. A little rip off I called him! (laughs) That was about ’75.

So this was when Trojan were having all sorts of financial problems?

That’s right. You’ve got it. All weird things and going down the drain. But we just wanted to make a name. We did it as a joke – put it this way. And we didn’t do anything since. All we did was just practise. We said we wouldn’t go back until we completed ourselves properly so we practised for two and a half years, for seven nights until we got it right. That’s when Greensleeves came.

We practised for two and a half years, for seven nights until we got it right. That's when Greensleeves came

So during this two and a half years of practise – how did Smoking My Ganja get written?

We were in the practice room and most of the songs we didn’t really write them as such – it was just inspiration. You’d start to play a music and then Teacher started to sing. While he was singing the keyboard player, Wizard started to write and that was it. We played it and we taped it the first time then back the second time we tried it again and it sounded good. So we decided we were going to release it. We went to Chalk Farm first and did with an engineer called Syd Bucknor. He had worked with Marley and Dennis Brown at the time so we booked 16 hours in there to get it done and it was rootsy. We took it to a whole heap of record companies. The first one we took it to was Trojan. Trojan said “Nah nah nah – we cyan do that because of the lyrics”. Quite a few companies said if we changed the lyrics they’d take it.

Who did you take it to?

Student. Yeah all of them. None of them would have it. So we spent a whole day in London, nine o’ clock until six, but on our way back we were coming through White City heading towards Shepherds Bush when we got lost and saw this record shop marked Greensleeves. I says “I’ve heard of Greensleeves” so we stopped, went in, had a chat with them, they played the tape and said “Yes, we love it”. They didn’t care because at the time there was a campaign called Legalise Cannabis. That was the in thing at the time so Greensleeves said “We’ll take it but don’t change it. Don’t change anything”. But we had to do it for the English market and make it more commercial. Because I’ve still got the original here. We had to do it over again at Tooting Broadway a little bit commercial-wise.

What was the difference between the original and the Greensleeves cut?

The original version was an actual underground Jamaican roots music. Like when you’d listen to Marley and that type of sound. Sharp and crisp and one drop. But we had to do it the English way – water down reggae a bit.

Like a bit more funky?

Yeah a bit more funky. (laughs)

Were the lyrics inspired by real experiences that the band went through?

No, it was no experience. Because at the time – everybody says Ganja originated from Jamaica so we said “OK, we’ll do that one then”. Because we played it on stage everybody took to it, so they liked it.

It’s also one of the only reggae songs that mentions LSD. Did you interact with people who were doing that kind of stuff?

Yeah because we had friends around us who were taking LSD and they were going mad. That’s why we said “Don’t trouble I because of LSD”. It was that time when people were going mad so we were telling them “Don’t use it”.

Even on the released cut of Smoking My Ganja the guitar sound is very crisp.

Yes, very crisp. It’s a sharp one. The reason why that guitar came over is it is supposed to be a natural reggae roots sound but because of the watered down reggae commercial we had to do it a little bit fuzzy and put a sustain on the guitar. That was played by Bulk.

But it’s still quite distinctive. For instance, when you did the Peel Session recording of the song (included on the VP reissue of Vinyard) you can hear the quality of the BBC equipment but it doesn’t have the sharpness.

Yes we did the session with John Peel. John Peel was a bloke who came on at 10.30 and he finished at 1 at the BBC every Thursday and Friday. He would always play all newcomers’ bands. Then he just said “I like this one” and our record was Record Of The Month, Record Of The Year. It was there for a long time with John Peel. We did 14 hours with John Peel in the studio at Capital Radio London. It was alright. No it doesn’t have the sharpness. Because we did it live in Capital’s studio – which is a brilliant studio, I must say. Excellent.

Tell me about recording the album Headline News – you cut that at TMC in Tooting again?

Yeah, Tooting Broadway. It was good. We had been practising for about three years so we didn’t take long to do it. Took us about three and half weeks. We had the songs and we already had the music because it was something we practised every night. So we wouldn’t go in the studio and waste any time. It took us three weeks just to lay the tracks down. That’s not including the singing and the mixing. That was mixed over a period of time.

Tell me about how Springy joined the band briefly, sang on a couple of key songs and then left.

Springy is back now. Springy used to play with us. He is from Birmingham and he’s a little weirdo. He’s weird! He used to walk around with his guitar, always singing to people. So we spotted him one day and said “Come and practise with us” and because we were a well-known band he said “Yeah yeah yeah”. He practised with us for a few times, came on a few shows and he sang the songs and we said “Alright, we’ll keep him”. But then all of a sudden he just disappeared off the planet! (laughs) About seven months ago we found him and he’s back now. He’s singing Vinyard and Natty Walk In The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death I Fear No Evil.

Tell me about the song UK Skanking. What was the meaning of the lyrics?

UK Skanking was about the Queen’s Dance [Jubilee]. Remember “Rockers”? Rockers was a movie from Jamaica. And it has all the artists in like Dr Alimantado, who I know pretty well. Because every year Jamaica had a new dance come out and it would last for about five years, like you had ska, you had rhumba, you had chukka, those were the dances out at the time. Most of our songs were political songs but we did it because it was what was happening around us in Britain. Everybody was waiting for Jamaica to come over with their dance and “This is the new dance from Jamaica”. If you went to Jamaica in the 70s and 80s everyone would come back to “What’s the new dance? What’s the new dance?” So we decided we would do one here called UK Skanking. Because Jamaica have their own skank we wanted to do one called UK Skanking. That was a big joke but it went down well because everybody liked it.

We were 30 years ahead of our time. Maggie Thatcher days are still happening

Was it difficult in those times for the UK reggae to get the same respect as Jamaican?

Yeah, because we were out at the same time as the Specials, from Coventry. Specials were doing the ska beat and we were doing actually our own thing. We were doing a few of other peoples’ music but the Specials were doing a lot of cover versions of Prince Buster. And because it was a mixture. It was a white and black thing. We were just a black band, so they got more recognised. Like UB40 is a good band, but because they are all white people in the band and two black playing reggae music, the public recognised them more than an actual black band going out. Because when they saw an Englishman playing reggae music it was strange.

It had a novelty appeal.

Like if a black sound was playing a clash you wouldn’t get much. But if they were playing against Rodigan they’d get it. Because he is a white man talking patois. Like a Chinaman singing reggae.

And you still have this today. If a Japanese sound wins a clash or an Italian man sings reggae then, in addition to their talent, the world takes more notice.

The world takes notice. When the black man’s been singing reggae from day one. It’s only just over 25 years now since Smoking Ganja and Headline News were released. People took notice of it but not like they’re taking notice of it now. The baby says we were 30 years ahead of our time. Because we were making Bread and Water and Cheap School Meals in Maggie Thatcher days which are still happening. You used to have Black Echoes and the Voice and Sounds. But now Black Echoes has been taken over and they have the internet now. If the internet was out when we were out it would be a different thing.

You’ve talked a bit about politics. Tell me about the writing of the song President Amin? To the younger generation Idi Amin was a bad man.

(big laugh) Remember when President Amin had his problem with the Indians?

We were supposed to meet President Amin in Spain but he had to cancel the tour

He kicked them out of Uganda.

Yes because they had a lot of shops like they’ve got plenty of shops here now. But they were sending their money back to India to put in the bank and the country was going down. It’s like how we come from Jamaica and we make our roots here, we have our kids and we don’t send back our kids to Jamaica. We put the money in England so England keeps building. If we sent our money back to Jamaica then Jamaica would be like England. If you haven’t got money in the bank from the people there is no country. The country will become a poor country of the Third World. That’s what was happening in Uganda and that’s why President Amin decided to run them out. We were supposed to meet President Amin in Spain I don’t know what happened but he had to cancel the tour.

Really?

Because he realised that we did a music with an LP cover with him on the front in his uniform. He wanted to meet us and it’s a pity he didn’t. He wanted to know why we did this music. Same as you asked the question. It was just a political thing. Like politics. We were singing about politics and what was happening around. Because there is no slackness in our music. It’s just educational music if you sit down and listen to it.

After the Smoking My Ganja single and Headline News album came out you did some touring on the college circuit in the UK…

Yeah, we did. I think we did almost every town in Britain. We did Keele, Stoke, Canterbury – even Oxford University. We did all the colleges and universities.

There is no slackness in our music. It's just educational music

The students really gravitated to your music.

Oh yes they did. Put it this way. We did have more white followers than black. Because we were playing during the week. Black people don’t really go to dances during the week. Black people work Monday to Friday and the white people, although they worked Monday to Friday, their dance started at 7 and it finished at 12, but we [black people] go until two, three o’ clock in the morning. So we were playing five, six nights a week just at polytechs and universities and then at weekends we’d normally play at the black clubs. When we went on stage at a black club it was like one o’clock in the morning or two. At the white venue we would be on at ten o’clock. At a black club they say it will close at two but at two o’ clock when you want to get your instruments out you can’t because they are still there. You can play a white venue and come at 12 o’ clock in the day, sound-check two o’ clock, the club opens at seven and we’re on stage at nine. With the white venue they finish at 12 – everybody out, boof and gone. We’re back home by two. That was the difference.

Capital Letters

While you were playing the college circuit in the UK Smoking My Ganja started to become a success in Holland.

Yeah, it was a big hit in Holland, Spain and Germany. It was number one in the Black Echoes chart for nearly two months and it was in the chart for about six or seven months.

So you decided to go on two tours in Europe in 1980 and 1983. What happened there?

Europe was alright. The only place I didn’t like was Finland.

Why was that?

Because it was the middle of summer we went but it was dark. Dark but hot. There was no light. It was so hot that when you combed your hair your hair was falling out. I was there for three days. I thought I was there for a year. Kids the age of ten were drinking wine. We played in the park at about midday and it was full of kids and they all had wine in their hands and they were all drunk. I couldn’t wait to come out man.

But you had a good experience elsewhere?

Oh yeah. We did Germany and we had a good experience in Germany. We did Berlin down by the Wall. We did Bremen, Essen, Cologne, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, you name it. We went through Germany in about six months. We went to Holland to a place called Den Haag, we went to a place called Milky Way [Melk Weg] in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. We did three nights in Milky Way. Every time we went we did three nights straight. Then we went on to France where Jah Woosh and Prince Far I was on the bill. There were quite a few on the bill. Then we did a festival in Germany with Errol Brown from Hot Chocolate and Dennis Brown in the football stadium in Dusseldorf.

Did you get to meet Dennis Brown? What was he like?

Yeah I’ve got a photograph here with him. He was a very good man, trust me. He was down to earth. It was like you had known him for a hundred years. You couldn’t tell he was a musician. (laughs) And we played with Joseph Hill of Culture. We and Culture were on a tour for about a month. We stopped at a place called Christiania in Denmark. It’s about the size of Hyde Park. But all the people there are millionaire kids that don’t want to stay at their family house so they decided to go there and live. The whole place was just Marley, red green and gold and Jamaican flag. So they said to us “Why don’t you come here and stop?” They had a posh five star hotel on the side but a couple of weeks before we got there the police raided it. When the police raided it they couldn’t come out because they surrounded the place. About 300 people. So they asked us if we wanted the hotel that the tour manager booked us or if we wanted to stop at Christiania and we said we would stop at Christiania with everybody and it was alright.

Dennis Brown was down to earth. It was like you had known him for a hundred years

So tell me about the 1982 Vinyard album – some of it was recorded in Europe…

Vinyard was recorded at Tooting. No. Hold on. Sorry, my mistake. Some of Vinyard we did record in Frankfurt. Greensleeves signed us to a company in Frankfurt called Bellaphon. We went over there to tour and met with Bellaphon and they took us into the studio and worked out something between them and Greensleeves. That’s when we did Vinyard.

And then you did the rest of it in Tooting? So really it was a Greensleeves album?

Yeah. It was a Greensleeves album. Because without Greensleeves we wouldn’t have met Bellaphon. Bellaphon was the company that Greensleeves released music to so Bellaphon wanted the band in Germany to promote the music. That’s where we went and did a lot of touring over there.

So why did Greensleeves not release the album? Why did it only come out as a limited release in Europe?

When we released Headline News we were sticking to the commercial side, so Bellaphon asked Greensleeves “What else Capital Letters got?” so we told them what Capital Letters had got. Bellaphon liked most of the music. Because in Europe – in Germany and those places – whatever you do they will just release it as it is and not change it. But in Britain they would try to water it down for all different markets. In Germany, Holland, Denmark – how you sing it, how you drop it, that’s the way they like it. They don’t want no commercial business.

Last year Sugar Shack Records put out an album called Reality – (The previously unreleased recordings). Did you play on any of that?

No. Reality has got nothing to do with us. Let’s get that straight. There are six members of the band. The drummer died so we replaced the drummer now with somebody else. The bass guitarist – JB – I don’t want to go in to details but he left the band. He decided to do the LP Reality. Reality is our music but he ran off with that and called himself Capital Letters. All the members that are in his band – they are false. If you look at the poster and see anywhere we perform you will see the original members. The two girls are still there. Country is still there - which is me, Teacher which is the lead singer, Bulk which is the guitarist, Springy which is the other guitarist who did Vinyard and Natty Walk and Earl who is Wizard.

Whenever JB plays he is the only one who used to be in Capital Letters. But he is using our photograph and our fame to promote himself. We already told him that he shouldn’t be doing that but he is taking no notice. So Reality is nothing to do with Capital Letters. If you listen to that LP and listen to the original Capital Letters on Vinyard – it’s a different sound.

So what happened to the band after ’85? Did the band split?

The band split. The reason why the band split is because of JB. We all decided we would stay together but Capital Letters is six members and without a sixth member it can’t be Capital Letters. One died so God took that one. So JB decided to split. He said he can sing so let him sing. Let him do what he wants to do. All the guys in his group – they are not Capital Letters.

All the guys in JB's group – they are not Capital Letters

JB’s version of the band also released an album Wolverhampton in 2015.

We don’t know anything about that one. He came out with that one to prove what he is saying - that he is the founder of the band when he is not. He came in about two months after me. The founder of the band – his name is Ashby. He was the one who started the band – not JB. You can put that down and tell him that I said it.

Ashby – he left?

He left. Because the keyboard player had a job at Telecom and Ashby had a job being an electrician at the time. Me and Teacher were the youngest ones in the band at the time. They were like five or six years older than us and they were feeling the pinch. Ashby had a whole heap of kids and things.

Why did your Capital Letters decide to come back together and how did Greensleeves decide to reissue this Vinyard album?

Capital Letters - VinyardGreensleeves phoned me and Teacher up and said “They are screaming out for the music overseas in America. They are asking ‘What happened to Capital lLetters?’” We got back together about three years ago but on and off. Then about a year ago Greensleeves said “Listen guys – I know you didn’t come to me and I didn’t come unnu but it’s people who are calling for the music – Vinyard and all the rest and asking what happened to the band?” The BBC wanted to do an interview so we went to London. The BBC wanted our music to put on an advert to do go on a drama play that what they show on the TV. So Greensleeves said “Come on guys. Come back and do it. Look at it as fun. Fun can be enjoyment and enjoyment can be money”. So we decided to do that and since then the fweeeqdback’s been good.

So what are you going to do now? Are you going to do a tour or put out a new studio album?

We’ve done 12 new songs – ready for an album. We’re going to put them out because they’ve been here for years. We’ve got some from the early 80s. We’ve got about 60 probably, on tape, so we are going to sort them out and flood the market from there.

We've done 12 new songs – ready for an album

And will you do some more concerts?

Yeah, if the money is good.

Finally, how do you feel about ganja being decriminalised in Jamaica?

Yes, it’s only decriminalised. You are allowed to walk with one ounce. If you’ve got one ounce the police can’t touch you but if you’ve got over an ounce they can have you for it. And it’s legalised in two states in America. It doesn’t really bother me as such. It’s not what I want. It’s what the people want. That’s got its own market. Everything has got its own market. If I know something is out there and the people want it I will do it. Remember, I can’t just make a song by myself and make money. It’s the people that make it.

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