Proletarian Poetry

Version by Tim Wells

In 1980 I organised a short-lived reggae night on a Monday in a pub back home. We had the usual agreement with the gaffer; it was free to get in, free to have the space, and he would make money at the bar on what is typically a dead night. It was a success in terms of the number of punters (an assortment of rastas and retired punks). But everyone was skint, and those that weren’t just bought Lucozade. We lasted three Mondays. That was my single attempt to marry my new musical love, reggae, with the punk which by now had dissipated. It was a year before the riots and the scar of Thatcher’s claw.

Punk was linked to reggae at an early stage, for the two movements had much in common. After I had seen the line of punk bands that played in our town; Clash, Pistols, Buzzcocks, Banshees, etc., reggae artists started to appear. But it was still very divided. There were few white people at the gigs for the likes of Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Culture, or Prince Far I’; this was what I call the high tide of reggae, which I got into via the likes of Don Letts, Adrian Sherwood and a Mike Dread. And of course there were a number of good UK reggae bands such as Misty in Roots, Matumbi and Steel Pulse.

Someone who has much deeper roots in this history and whose site, Stand Up and Spit, chronicles many great moments of these times of punk and reggae, is Tim Wells. In his poem ‘Version’, he describes the time he first heard the great ‘dub poet’ Michael Smith, “That hard yard voice rumbled from the deck;/so unlike ours, but it spoke to us all the same.” The conditions of unemployment, poverty, and discrimination were described in a common situation experienced in the cities of the UK & US during the late 70s and 80s. “We were shook awake: no jobs, no money, no future./Hackney, Detroit, Johannesburg or Kingston JA.” He inspired anger amongst punks and an affinity to a global cause before it was called anything like Occupy, or fought in ‘battles’ much later, such as in Seattle in 1999. “As the punks sang/’tell you the truth I can’t afford to run away, from the UK’/Mikey’s words were fingers balling to a fist/ an incendiary device.”

Last year I was lucky enough to take my son to what I consider the best poetry gig I have been to. Besides Tim, who arranged the whole thing, there was Joolz Denby, Emily Harrison, Phill Jupitus and a storming stand-up session from John Cooper Clarke (and others). But for me, it was the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, who did a version of Michael Smith’s ‘Me Cyaan Believe it’ that was the most poignant moment of the night. Sadly, Michael was killed in 1983, when he was hit in the head with a stone thrown by activists from the Jamaican Labour Party the day after he had criticised their Minister of Education at a rally. Here he is with what must be his most well-known poem.


Tim Wells
is made of reggae, lager top, pie and mash, and Leyton Orient FC. ‘Version’ is taken from his latest collection, Everything Crash published by Penned in the Margins

Version

My girl Jessie is from a family of dockers.
If you’re wondering if she swears like one,
she does. It was from her foghorn mouth
that I first heard Michael Smith,
and you know how it is with teenage lads:
if a girl is passionate you want to know all about it.
She played me ‘Trainer’ from the tail end of an NME cassette.

‘for it was the firs time in me life
a really feel fi she something
an a couldn bring out nuttin

so a jus walk’

That hard yard voice rumbled from the deck;
so unlike ours, but it spoke to us all the same.
it’s no accident reggae boomed from our teenage bedrooms;
Jamaica was only as far as next door.
When people wake up, they find their own speech.
We were shook awake: no jobs, no money, no future.
Hackney, Detroit, Johannesburg or Kingston JA.
Both the dub slates and police batons have a beat all their own.

As the punks sang
tell you the truth I can’t afford to run away, from the UK
Mikey’s words were fingers balling to a fist,
an incendiary device, the static on the filth’s radio,
braziers on the picket line, piss stains on brutalist concrete,
the look passed from eye to eye at the dole queue.
Not no Shelley Sew seed but let no tyrants reap
but he and we knew – forward ever, backward never.