Look at you all, good for nothing, noisy, stinking filth, lazy, you’re everywhere, jungle bunnies. This was a lovely area before you came here, lovely… f*ck off back to your own country, jungle bunnies
This is my f*cking country lady and it’s never been f*cking lovely, it’s always been a tip for as long as I can remember, so don’t f*cking tell me, right, ’cause I never done it, it wasn’t me right…
So lies the sentiment of many kids born in the UK. Babylon directed by Franco Rosso in 1980 is required viewing for anyone whose parents immigrated into the UK. The above line is from a main character of the film, ‘Beefy’. The line has become more pertinent in the face of Brexit and the rise of UKIP, has anything changed in the 39 years that have passed since the film’s release? The main tension within Babylon is whether these kids should stay put in Britain, their home, or whether they should renounce the western world and its materialism “Babylon” and return to Africa. This is expressed in the film’s finale, the soundclash between Beefy’s crew ‘Ital Lion’ Soundystem and Jah Shaka (Edward George 2019).
Banned in America since release, for fears of inflaming racial tensions, Babylon has this year finally seen release in the United States. Tonight’s event at Camden’s Jazz Café is a performance of the film’s soundtrack featuring the Dub Pioneer, ‘Blackbeard’ Dennis Bovell and the actor who played the main character ‘Blue’, Brinsley Ford who is also the lead singer of Aswad. The only way this night could get any better would be for Jah Shaka to arrive and for there to be a soundclash. One can dream.
A few months ago, Bovell released the Babylon instrumental score via Bandcamp in celebration of the films US release and it’s 39 year anniversary. Bovell is arguably the first artist to fuse Dub basslines with Punk Rock, Listen to Typical Girls by The Slits for a great example of this.
I arrive and the DJ, Adam Prescott of Reggae Roast Soundsystem is playing “Jah Black” by Barrington Levy followed by “What a great day” by Locksley Castel, these are really heavy cuts and I am unashamedly IDing every track on Shazzam throughout his set. References to returning to Africa and the concept of “Babylon” pepper all the songs and invokes the films name, especially in Ranking Dread’s ‘Shut your mouth’. This adds a sense of ratification to evening, celebrating the greatest film on British identity ever made. Prescott adds a dub siren and effects to all the tracks, increasing their intensity and the place is getting fuller as we welcome the support act Kiko Bun to the stage. Prescott is his DJ and backed the set with music and effects. The standout tracks included the upbeat bass heavy “I don’t give a monkey’s”, “Oh Maisy” which was classic reggae by numbers which had the crowd singing along and “Shy man”. He also played a Shy FX produced tune which is a summer anthem.
I have never seen the Jazz Café so full. In the crowd, an old man in a suit pulled out a Rastafarian flag and began waving it, to which a hipster lamenting the amount of “fake” people in the venue lamented “…He gets it!”. As Kiko Bun left to great applause, Bovell and Forde’s band took the stage, whilst Prescott remained playing some heavier cuts. The band were tuning up at this point which added to the depth of the music. A snatch of the Babylon Soundtrack played “Beefy’s Tune” and was a sign of what was to come.
The lack of screen surprises me, Babylon’s soundtrack and imagery are synonymous with each other and it makes no sense to hear the tunes without seeing ‘Blue’ walking down the streets of running away from undercover police. Some iconic stills from the film would have been appreciated. The band started playing and a dub siren signalled the entrance of the main artists, Bowell and Forde. It was odd to see ‘Blue’ as an old man as Babylon forever immortalised him as the everyman of Second generation British immigrant youth.
For a score and soundtrack that are 39 years old, the dub effects give the whole performance a sense of freshness. Another actor from the film, Victor Evans who played ‘Lover’ appears he will be on MC duties for tonight and it’s a joy to hear ‘Lover’ and ‘Blue’ re-enact scenes from the film, they may look older but their voices have not changed.
The band is made up of a trombone player called Henry ‘Buttons’ Tenyue who is a long term associate of Bovell’s and has played with Linton Kwesi Johnson, guitarist Stanley Andrews of Aswad and drummer , Perry ‘Lion’ Melius also of Aswad. Forde announced “Jazz Café we are going to smash it!” to rapturous applause. The band then went into their first song from the Babylon soundtrack “Chief Inspector”. This was followed by the song “Dub Master” which was written and performed by Dennis Bovell in 1986. With the Babylon Score in the zeitgeist, I was expecting some electronic wizardry from Bovell the producer, instead he is here tonight as a performer.
There is a sense of fun here, Bovell and Forde are cracking jokes with the crowd and it seems a bit out of place given the seriousness of the film, or am I treating Babylon like too much of a sacred cow? There is a lot of humour in the film that gets forgotten in its face of social commentary.
The next track “Living in Babylon” played, with Bovell offering the first of many anecdotes on Babylon throughout the evening. In 1980, a doctor told him that the reason Babylon wasn’t released in the US, its release would be the time the “Underdog will stand!” .
A famous scene in Babylon is the engagement scene where during the party, ‘Lover’s’ potential father in law announces the date of the wedding which ‘Lover’ knew nothing about to laughs from his mates. The next track was from this scene, titled “Running away”, Bovell told us that this track was inspired by his idol Jimi Hendrix and based on the Hendrix song “Wait until tomorrow’.
There was then a recitation of a poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Sonny’s Lettah”, the audience joined in the recitation knowing every word. Bovell then asked if things have moved on since Babylon, there were some yesses but a resounding NO from the audience. I agreed with their sentiment. Bovell continued “Blue is a suspected person…suspected of being a black man walking down the street!” to rapturous applause from the audience, before the band then played the song from when the police come to arrest Blue, a very iconic moment from the film.
There was a nice vibe in the audience as the soulfully melodic song from Babylon’s christening scene played. “Fall Babylon” was played next, with Bovell revealing that it was written straight after Babylon’s release as a sequel. Forde’s vocals were on point, again the crowd sang along it’s typical refrain of fall Babylon and the dichotomy of terrible Babylon and heavenly Africa played out.
The high point of the night and what drew the biggest crowd reaction came from the opening trombone notes of “Beefy’s tune”. Bovell had to stop the song and ask for a rewind!The spiritual high point of the night came from the song “Holy Mount Zion”, it was a sombre affair with the crowd again singing along. Mount Zion stands in Rastafarian theology as the counterpoint to Babylon, a heavenly land. Rastafarians incidentally class Israel as North Africa .
Forde’s vocals shone on the next track, “Just before the soldiers came, I don’t even know my name.”, with Bovell asking if the crowd remembered the days of slavery, this time it was a resounding yes. The evening took a mellow turn and this was not the dub heavy production set I was expecting. Bovell at this point kept mentioning that they are running out of time. I was growing quite impatient, would they really end the night without playing “Warrior Charge”?, arguably the main song from Babylon.
The next song was announced like the set closer, an instrumental song that Bovell mentioned was written for the scene where ‘Blue’ goes uptown. This was a heavy dub track that had the crowd stomping.
Bovell said he had many more tunes of play from Babylon and that we could be here for four hours before announcing the last song, “Power” which was originally recorded by I.Roy. the crowd danced and sang along as Bovell exclaimed “Babylon big all over the world now and all because we supported it!”
Just when we thought the band were finished, Forde unleashed the final song of the night, from one of Babylon’s most iconic scenes “Warrior Charge” by Aswad. The whole crowd went into a frenzy chanting along and dancing as in the film scene, the whole Ital Lion crew, manager and ‘Ronnie’, their white friend vibing in their lockup to the Warrior Charge dubplate they have just obtained. A whoosh of dub effect ended the set as the band left the stage and the lights came on.
39 years since the release of Babylon and even though there has been progress, things have recently reverted. Maybe its Hegelian cycles. The UK is braced for its own Donald Trump clown as prime minister and will no doubt follow the US in its hyper capitalism and increased racial conflicts, but in the words of Horsemouth from the 1978 film Rockers and as sampled in Splash’s 1995 Jungle track, will we “Witness the day that Babylon shall fall!” ?