From Blues Parties to Soundsystem Dances

Soft Wax

Steve ‘Soft Wax’ McCarthy has been a Zelig-like figure in the sphere of roots rock rebel music for several decades. As the fulcrum of the Soft Wax project, he has been at the helm of London’s best Dub and Reggae nightclubs and live music nights, as well as performance art and installation events. Much of the diverse output of Soft Wax is music orientated and concerned with cultures of resistance (David Katz).
Deptford Dub Club is the name of the monthly fix of Reggae, Ska & Rocksteady, featuring a mixture of performance styles, that Soft Wax is running at The Duke. 

This is a summary of his presentation at the first Sound System Outernational Symposium, that took place at Goldsmiths, University of London, on January 16th.

Soft Wax

The genesis of Blues Parties in England is lost in history, partly as they were small scale, domestic occurrences. Their Jamaican big sisters were more public, as they were largely held at public spaces known as Lawns, in the open air. In Britain such spaces were not available. It was often too cold and damp to party outdoors. Also the prejudice that was endemic in 1950s England and the overt discrimination that sometimes grew out of it meant that ( with a very few exceptions ) people of colour could not hire public spaces for social events.

Thus Blues Parties, in Britain, in the mid to late 50s, usually happened in peoples homes. These were often rented flats, in large houses, in Working Class inner city suburbs. Characteristically the higher the density of Caribbean immigration to an area the more Blues Parties there would be there. This account focuses on such areas in South East London, that had such relatively high densities, at the time. Brixton, on the western fringe of our geographical focus, was unusually multi cultural and its social world reflected that. There were Shabeens in the basements of commercial and domestic properties around Railton Road, in what became known as The Front Line.

Also in Brixton and in similar centres like New Cross, there were pubs where Caribbean culture predominated. These sometimes featured a prominent Soundsystem and hosted functions for locals. I was told about a pub in Brixton that was presided over by a flamboyant matron who DJed from a mezzanine. She played 78s exclusively and never carried her own boxes. However, even at such institutions and particularly at the more domestic Blues Parties, the Soundsystems would have been modest by modern standards.

Not that they appeared that way at the time in austere post-War England. Before he passed in 2015 we captured Mr. Winston Marsh reminiscing about Blues Parties, in South East London, in the 50s and beyond:

He recounts how the Soundsystems of his youthful Blues Parties appeared “huge” to him then. The early practioners with their often hand built, valve amps and elaborately decorated speaker boxes cut a dash in their local communities.

By the early 60s the Caribbean population was more established and a gradual change in social attitudes was in progress. These changes were reflected in the Race Relations legislation of the early to mid 1960s; whilst the details of their provisions proved to be a two edged sword. The increasing prominence of the community was also reflected in the emergence of institutions like the Notting Hill Carnival ( originally called Fayre ) from 1966 onwards.

In South East London the emergent Soundsystem scene forged some unlikely alliances. An enthusiastic mixed clubbing environment nurtured in West End clubs like the Flamingo and The Roaring 20s spread beyond Soho. There was The Ram Jam ( in Brixton ), the 7/11 ( in Kennington ), the Amersham Arms ( in New Cross ), where Neville The Enchanter held court and the Peridido ( in Lewisham ) that featured regular weekly sessions from a Duke Reid. Also in Lewisham, Freddie Cloudburst presided over a scene and went on to mentor Jah Shaka. This pattern was duplicated in other Working Class inner suburbs of London and other major cities.

This mixed clubbing environment was partly facilitated by the huge popularity of Ska with the influential Mod subculture, as well as the R&B music that had previously been the mainstay of Jamaican Soundsystems. The movement of figures like Neville and the Peridido’s Duke Reid out of domestic living rooms and into commercial clubs also facilitated the technical up-grading of Soundsystems. The venues were bigger and the audiences larger. The size and popularity of these venues also led to some interesting sharing of bills with nascent beat groups such as the Rolling Stones, Who and Kinks.

This scene then spread to the outer suburbs and beyond the edges of the capital to areas like Beckenham and Croydon and arguably led to its dilution. By the late 60s what have been identified by sociologists as Hard Mods were transitioning into a new working class subculture the Skinheads. There was a resurgence of club culture to cater for this new group. Despite the dubious politics that some Skinheads developed, their music of choice was late Rocksteady and early up-tempo Reggae. The style that is now identified by some as Boss Reggae.

As the 70s began, some of those coming out of the Reggae scene benefited, in various ways, from these connections. Links that took reggae far beyond its core audience. Indeed the success of artists such as Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Bob and Marcia and Dave and Ansell Collins with a cross-over audience, in this period, is well documented. However by then the Caribbean community was well enough established in S. E. London for a largely separate, underground community of Jamaican music aficionados and Soundsystem operators to have developed. The scene was set for what many still hold to have been the golden age of British Soundsystems in the next decade. South East London was at its heart.

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