When The Cops Come They Don’T Just Come In Ones Or Twos – Dennis Bovell Talks
Dennis Bovell is one of the few musicians capable of taking the title 'super-producer'. Starting from a reggae background, Bovell has spent the last four decades bringing his restless studio innovation to artist's across genres; I-Roy, The Thompson Twins, Bananarama, The Pop Group, Fela Kuti, The Slits, Madness… the list of bands who have benefitted from Dennis touch is beyond extensive. Possibly most famous for pioneering the Lovers Rock sound – the song-heavy UK rendition of reggae – Bovell's contributions to the rhythm and space of post punk also laid down some of the foundations for UK dance music. A righteous anger at the establishment has played as much of a role in Dennis's work as carving a good time skank – were he not such a political firebrand, it'd be far to say he would have long ago been called up for a knighthood.
Still very much a going concern, last year saw a new album of dubs from Bovell (Dub 4 Daze), and this February sees his return to the live scene, with a performance at the BBC 6 Music festival where Bovell intends to draw on a back catalogue that covers everything from Linton Kwesi Johnson's political bombs to as yet unreleased ska tracks he's made with Rihanna – we met him to talk about the route from one ot the other.
You came to London in the mid-60s, whereabouts did you move too first?
I moved to Clapham Junction and at the time there were not so many non-English people living in the area. So there were probably about five or ten other families from the Caribbean that were around at that time, in 1965. Then obviously it grew to a lot more later on.
How did the people of Clapham Junction take to you moving in? Were there tensions or was it all cool?
Well there were tensions sometimes between the youths and the police. The black youths used to congregate on Wandsworth Common and play cricket or football, talk to girls etc. This was when the black community was starting to grow. During my generation, there would be a general meeting place in the summer on Wandsworth Common, which was quite near the overground station. This was at the beginning of what we would call the panda car. They would drive onto the park and just harass people basically. And it would usually be because they didn’t like the smell of someone’s cigarette.
You got nicked when you were younger with the Jah Sufferer Soundsystem didn’t you? What’s the story there?
Well, some police came into a club where I was playing and there was a fracas between the people in the club and the police. They blamed it all on me and said that I turned the people against the police, which was totally untrue. Then the police came into court and said that they saw me getting people to turn on the police, which is a big fat lie! I never thought that people would deliberately lie like that in court. They even put their hand on The Bible…
So they were saying that you were riling the crowd up or something like that?
Yeah. They said that they had seen me rise the crowd up. It was not at all true. What actually happened was that the police were arresting someone and the friends of the person being arrested decided to seize them from the police under the cover of the noise of the sound system.
That must have been quite a serious moment, to have the police lying about you in court..
It was a nightmare. I wasn’t arrested as such, but they said that they wanted to interview me. So I went to the police station to find out what it was about, and then they charged me with having incited against the police, which was totally untrue.
Wow. How old were you?
I was in my twenties. I think I was about 21. They said that I got on stage with a microphone and incited the people against the police. It never happened!
So have you ever come across any of the same officers later on in your career, as you became quite a visible and famous person? It must have been a bit satisfying in some ways.
Well you know, I tried to turn it around. I was the guy that was wrongly put in jail and then had to be let out because I won my appeal. I appealed against the three-year sentence and won. Had I not won, I would have had to serve three years in jail for something that I didn’t do.
So how long were you in for?
I was in for six months, appending the appeal. I was on trial for six months at one time and three months another time, so essentially a whole year altogether! It was very much a moving of the goalposts situation. I’ve always thought that in this country, a person is innocent until proven guilty. They hadn’t proved my guilt, but at the same time the jury were unable to decide about my innocence. Therefore, there was what’s known as a hung jury. If you’re innocent until you’ve been proven guilty, and the prosecution hasn’t proved it, and even the jury can’t make a decision, then surely the person is not guilty?!
Yeah, that would make sense.
Right! So instead of saying that I wasn’t guilty because it hasn’t been concluded, they just tried me again for the same charge. In the first trial there were twelve people charged of this affray and nine of those people were acquitted, leaving three of us with a hung jury. So instead of leaving the other three and letting us go and saying that the police had done a lot of wrong, they just tried two others and me again. So the trial started all over again, but they modified the case and the three of us were then charged with the same crimes that the original twelve had committed!
Wow. You were involved in a lot of political work in the 70s and 80s, this happening to you must have informed all of that later on?
Yes, most definitely.
I wonder if at later points in your career, because you were working with say Linton Kwesi Johnson, I don’t know how paranoid I sound here… But in the 80s there were lots of security services interested in a lot of artists, and do you think that you might have been flagged up as one to watch out for?
Well yeah, because we were seeing all the wrong things that the police were doing and making not of it and making other people aware. When Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote, ‘..and it started to bleed.’ That actually happened to him whilst he was on a demonstration that turned nasty. He was on a demonstration and suddenly the cops charged at them, people were being arrested and dragged off. Lets face it, when the cops come they don’t just come in ones or twos, there’s going to be ten or twenty of them and they will give you a kicking if they want to. Nowadays though, they just shoot you instead.
This is true. With this political edge that you had, do you think that paved the way for you to be able to work with the Punk groups that you did?
Yes, because the same thing was happening to them. They were experiencing the same kind of police brutality and blatant disregard for their human rights. It was happening to the working class kids as well and they were also trying to speak out against it, which resulted in the whole Punk movement. Because they looked different they were picked upon as they were walking the streets. If you were the kind of person that likes to stay up late and go out partying, which was what a lot of punk kids did. I mean now, London thrives on a hefty nightlife, right? Try to go down to Shoreditch any night of the week and there will be a traffic jam. Back in those days, Shoreditch was a ghost town. There were only one or two places that black people could go too around then, one was called the Four Aces, and off licenses closed at 11 remember, so if people get seen out and about at the time of the morning whilst everyone else was tucked up in bed, they would want to challenge them. The whole culture of being out late at night, raving away to music, drinking alcohol or whatever, was restricted to Saturday night, if that. Then suddenly there were people doing it on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and people thought that they must have been layabouts and would target them because they thought they were on the dole. You go down to Kingsland Road any night of week now…
I DJ down there so you don’t need to tell me. It’s like an apocalypse down there.
You know what I mean then man!
Yeah, it’s like the end of the world mate. It might have gone too far in the other direction in all honesty. I’m interested in how the first links were made then, was it with either The Pop Group or The Slits? That seems to be quite a major step that not everyone would have taken, that you decided to take to work with these bands.
I saw it as a forward progression. I saw it as an opportunity to extend my abilities and production skills and what I knew and loved about music. I grabbed at the opportunity to work with different genres with open hands.
Do you have any tracks from outside of the Dub and Reggae stuff that you feel that you particularly smashed it on? Are they any that are real favourites of yours?
Oh yeah, well Silly Games is the ultimate favourite.
Yeah, that’s another thing! I’m talking more about the stuff that was in the more in the avant-garde and Punky world.
Well from then The Slits’ Cut album is a favourite of mine. Also that Pop Group piece, Beyond Good And Evil. The was the very first Pop Group single, but they didn’t have a B-side. So I then recorded all the information of the A-side backwards and put the drums on the right way round, so everything else is flying backwards and the rhythm is actually going forwards.
So what were peoples reactions when they heard this? What you were doing was really out there.
They thought I was mad, they were probably right. We still haven’t found out.
There’s an album that I only discovered recently, which was a Saada Bonaire album that you worked on. That’s a serious record and it still sounds amazing now. Do you remember much about those sessions?
Of course! I’d been called to work in Germany with a guy called Ralph “Von” Richtoven. He had this idea that we should marry the sounds of Disco with this Turkish ensemble that I think was the Turkish National Orchestra. There were lots of Turkish people in Bremen, North Germany at that point. It was a very interesting sprout of a German/Turkish relationship. There were people of both origins springing up there and it was a real mix of cultures. He wanted to capture this on record and I thought it was a great idea. I wanted to help him, but I had to bring with me my own drummer, to understand the beats that I wanted. I was working with a drummer called Richie Stevens. Richie Stevens has since been the drummer on Linton Kwesi Johnson and mine’s album Making History and since that he’s been working with Boy George and I think he might be producing for him now as we speak. So I took him with me to play drums, and it was amazing because he could play basically exactly like a drum machine. At the time, drummers who could play steady were not that common. We made sure that the rhythm for the track was solid.
So those drums were played live, intentionally to sound like a drum machine?
Okay. That’s really interesting. That’s almost like these young rappers over in America trying to sound like auto-tune without actually using it. It makes for quite an interesting listen.
Yep. That was Richie Stevens playing the drums. His dad was even a famous drummer, John Stevens, in English Jazz culture.
So there’s heritage there.
He worked with Ringo Star and all that. So Richie wanted to play drums and his dad gave him a tape of some Reggae drums and in one of the tapes that he was listening too, I was the drummer! At the age of 16 I took him into my band and at the time I was doing a TV series called The Boy Who Won The Pools which was ITV’s first straight half hour. The band was in the show and everything, but it was really great to have this young boy playing the drums for us.
Was the Matumbi, or was that something different?
That was the Jazz band, in 1983 that was.
When you made the Saada Bonaire tracks, did you think they were going to be a hit? That whole project sort of just disappeared didn’t it?
What happened was that it was a hit in Greece, oddly enough. We laughed about it as it was Turkish musicians and because of the whole conflict that was going on. Then the girls moved on into a modelling career and they just wanted to perform and they were Grace Jones fans. I wanted to show that a performance didn’t have to be an in tune, vocal thing and that you could actually get people just speaking it, after having worked with Linton. If a person, as an artist, can deliver their emotions, their feelings, through what they’re saying, then bravo.
Like I said, that record stands up incredibly well.
Yeah, it’s about the performers.
So I just mentioned Matumbi and just recently I managed to find a copy of a Matumbi 12”. It’s got Matumbi, Alive And Kicking on one side and GLP Band, Last Funk on the other side. I want to know who the GLP Band are and if it’s you as well?
No, it wasn’t me. Some of the members of the band had found this group who they were trying to do promotion with. It was a young group, some kids from High Wycombe and London. At the time we were putting together an alternative British sound.
That Last Funk track is heavy.
Yeah, that project was great and the singer, I think her name was Silvia…
I’ve only got an instrumental here, so I know nothing about this outfit at all.
Oh yes! Last Funk! I think it was Peter Hammond that was involved with that. He was the engineer for Stock Aitken Waterman.
Yeah. We were also doing some stuff together with him and a friend of ours called Nick Staker, who was the original keyboard player from Matumbi. So yeah, that’s what that was about. At the time I think I’d just done a recording with Viola Wills called Gonna Get Along Without You Now, the Disco version. At that point I was using friends from school and they were all in the group called New Music. They had a song in the charts at the time called Living By Numbers.
Yeah, I remember that.
We were all lads from the same school, we played Reggae and they played songs and sometimes we’d bring them into the Reggae session. We did lots of stuff together as we had a whole recording studio at our facility. Because we had that at our disposal we just recorded lots and lots of different ideas; hybrids and crossovers and all that. We experimented quite a lot.
On Matumbi Records I saw that there were a few releases on there that are Disco, that are Reggae. How involved were you with the label? Was it yours?
That was the bands label, so whatever came out on it we were all involved in.
Okay. I was reading a story about you playing with The Wailers in 1973 and the press saying that you’d just blown them away. That must have been a really surreal situation for you lot?
Haha, yeah that was crazy. They had no idea who The Wailers were or who they were going to be, but we did.
But that just goes to show, if you did one bad gig and it got a write up, everyone would think that you were rubbish. At that time, if you didn’t do what the person watching you expected, that was what you got.
I’m assuming you had actually had a good gig though?
Oh yeah, we had a great gig. We were afraid of playing in front of The Wailers. We got there early and everything to make sure everything was perfect and get sound check done as it was a festival. We had a rare thing at that time, which was a sound engineer.
That was a rarity was it?
Yeah, it was! Having a sound engineer as an up and coming band was seen as weird. Now though, if you don’t have a sound engineer people give you a funny look.
Do you remember who else was playing on that day?
Yeah, I think it was Freddie Notes and The Rudies and maybe Edwin Starr.
Ah ha. I’m sort of jumping back in time a little bit here, but did it feel like there was a strong Reggae scene in the UK at the point, outside of just London.
Of course there was. By then Bob had had a hit, Greyhound had had a hit with Black And White, The Pioneers, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry had all had their Reggae hits. Dandy Livingstone as well. You had Liquidator as well by Harry J and The Allstars that was, and still is, used by Chelsea Football Club as their theme song.
I’m wondering if all of that is most Ska though..?
Well the thing is right, they were not Ska, they were at the beginning of Reggae. Liquidator was not a Ska track, really. It was more like a Reggae tune. The way the guitar goes, that was the beginning of Reggae. You’ve got things like Toots and The Maytals with Monkey Man, How Long by Pat Kelly; they were all coming through with the Reggae sound. Even between Ska and Reggae you has Rock Steady where people like Johnny Nash came in. Do you know that?
Yeah, they’re classics.
Johnny was like a Texan Cowboy singing Reggae. He was very popular. Bob Marley came to provenance through working with him and writing songs that he sang.
Okay. Lovers Rock is often seen as your thing and I’m just wondering you consciously you looked at the Reggae and thought about how you needed to push it in a UK way?
It was very conscious. I was trying to carve an identity for UK Reggae. I was trying to differentiate it from all the other different types of Reggae and show people the UK style, and it worked. If you look at Silly Games in particular, I would say that that was a success.
Yeah, I think so. So what did you identify as the UK things?
Well first of all, songs like we hear in the UK charts all have a chorus and a verse and maybe an intro. It wasn’t just two chords being peddled around and around and around. But Reggae actually comes from two chords being peddled around and people were looking at it and saying you only needed to do this and that chord and you’ve got a whole tune. So I set about writing a tune that was like the Pop tracks, that had a good story to tell and had the vocal bit for the verse, then an explosive vocal part for the chorus. You needed a chorus that people could sing out too and to create it like any other ‘ordinary’ Pop or Soul song, with different interesting parts in it. Then when I created the drum beat to go with it, I knew I’d kicked something, because I had this idea that if the drum was played to what they do on Silly Games, we would change the face of Reggae and show them how we do it in England. The drums are the thing that determine and dictate any style and what it’s going to be called. So I thought I had to invent a style of drumming that would be instantly recognisable, so I came up with the idea of leading with the high hat, the same way that they do in Afro Beat and the same way that they do in Soca, which is playing the majority of the hits on the high hat and a few hits on the snare. The positioning of the snare had to be similar to Afro Beat and it had this kind of elastic flow to it. Then, I had to find a drummer who could play that for three minutes. I showed him what my idea was. He just went, ‘Right, I can do that.’ The rest is our story.
Wow, okay. So obviously Silly Games has become such a dominating tune, is there anything else that you worked on during that period that you feel isn’t given the same reverence that should be?
Yes, a song by Marie Pierre called Walk Away. I think that’s a song that has definitely been unsung. People know it, but I feel that it should have been as popular as Silly Games.
Any reason why you think it might not have been?
Because we were not yet on the machinery that helped us to popularise Silly Games. We were not part of a major distribution service. Silly Games benefited from having Warner Bros distribute it.
Right, of course.
Until then, we didn’t have this distribution service. But yeah, that song is definitely one you should have a listen too.
I’m going to put it on when I get off the phone! As far as I can see, you didn’t really work with any of the two-tone artists. Was that because you felt like it would have been a regression for you, in sound?
No, because by that time I was very busy with Linton Kwesi Johnson. We’d suddenly gone from just making records to putting together a whole band and going on a world tour.
So quite a lot of my productions in the studio came to a halt at this time.
So it was nothing more than that?
Yeah, I was just busy doing other things. I’d also started working with Fela Kuti, and that was quite demanding.
What was working with Fela like? He’s obviously a legendary figure.
He’s quite a character. I’ve got many fond memories of working with him. When I did Live In Amsterdam, I had requested for the record company to record Fela live in The Paradiso. I get there and we started to record it and then there’s a fault with the lighting as it’s a very old building and the circuitry wasn’t all that. Because of the lighting needing the current that it did, it interfered with the PA system and some of the lights caused a buzzing on the PA system. Instead of not using those lights, the lighting crew insisted that they had to use all of the lights. But these lights were causing a horrible buzzing over the PA and we said to them that we were trying to record. The guy was unsympathetic and just carried on. When we got back to London, I managed to filter out most of the buzzing from the tracks, except for the bass track, and it was terrible on the bass track. Fela wanted to try and get the guy number so he could go back over there and do him! So I said I’d just re-play the bass, and Fela was like, ‘What?!’. Anyway, I managed to persuade him and we put the tape on and I played the live bass track and so the bass on that track is actually me, and not the bass player from the band!
Is that known?
Yeah it’s known, it’s documented on the record. When the record came out it said ‘Live Engineer, Dennis Bovell’ and then further down it says ‘Bass by Dennis Bovell’. I had people asking me how the hell I did it, and I had to explain that I actually over-dubbed the bass when we got back to the studio in London. It was quite nice of them to acknowledge the fact that I’d done that. I didn’t do it for praise; I did it to save the day. So I’ve actually played bass on one Fela tune!
That’s quite a good thing to be able to say. I imagine he’s quite an intense guy.
Yeah, but he was always cool with me. I had a lot of fun with him and he trusted me. It was the first time he worked with a black owned studio. He liked having black people around him, in the technical sense, as he hadn’t experienced that. He hadn’t worked in a studio where the person controlling the desk was a black person. He was fascinated by that, and the fact that it was my recording studio. When he found that out he said that he wanted to book in three months! I’d normally only get one booking a day or a couple a week, but then he came along and booked it out for three months and I was working for him for those whole three months.
So what other Fela stuff did you record in your studio then?
We recorded Army Arrangement, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. Loads of stuff was recorded, more than ten titles. We recorded an album with one of Fela’s trusted artist. He played all the baritone parts, so we did an album with him as well.
That sounds like something else I want to check out. When you were doing that stuff did you get a chance to bring in any of your more esoteric techniques that you’d been known for?
Yeah, but you had to be careful when you were introducing new techniques to Fela as he was stuck in his way. For instance, I took a long time trying to convince him to play a Fender Rhodes. But h was like, ‘No I want an organ! Do you know Dele Sousimi?
Well he was there at the time and he was playing keyboards in the band. I met him when he was a kid and playing in Fela’s band and when Fela brought him to London and he was in my recording studio for two or three months, working with the band. It was him and Femi.
Femi was there as well?
Yeah, Femi was there as well.
So are you producing for anyone now? You’ve been working with so many people over the years. I now you’ve just brought out a dub album, although I believe that was dubs that you’d recorded a while back?
No, I just brought out an album called Dub 4 Daze on Glitterbeat Records.
Was that all new stuff then? I thought some of that was from the archive.
Some of it was from the archive, but there were a couple of tunes on there that hadn’t previously been released; Tuned Dub and a couple of others. But yeah, that album has been going very well and I’m actually going to be playing at the BBC Six Music Festival in Bristol on the 12th February.
What stuff are you going to play? The new stuff from this album?
Yeah and I’m going to be playing some stuff that I’ve been working on with Arcade Fire, Rihanna and Shakira
You’re working with Rihanna?
Yeah. I just did a Ska remix of Rihanna and Shakira’s Can Remember To Forget You. Ah – wait, that's Bejamin Zephaniah on the phone, give me a moment
I thnk we've kept you long enough, Dennis, thank you!
BBC Radio 6 Music Festical tickets and info HERE