Dennis Bovell is a name that keeps coming up in my travels through the world of records. I think he first came on my radar as producer of the first Slits album, Cut. His name came up again when I was learning about one of my staff picks several months ago, the classic lover’s rock track “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, which he wrote and produced. I’ve also been dipping my toe into the deep waters of the Adrian Sherwood / On-U sound universe of music, and Bovell’s name comes up again and again in that reading. When I saw that Lora Logic, the subject of a few of my staff picks, played sax on a track on Bovell’s 1981 album, Brain Damage, I knew it was time to investigate further. It took a minute to locate a decently priced copy in the US, but one arrived last week and I’ve been digging in hard.
Bovell was born in 1953 in Barbados, but grew up in the same London of the late 60s and early 70s that shaped so much of the music I hold most dear. Fascinated by the first wave of dub reggae, Bovell jumped right into the music world and started his Jah Sufferer Sound System, whose operation briefly landed him in jail, though his conviction was overturned on appeal. He started the London reggae band Matumbi in 1971 and that group had some success, which launched him into the world of songwriting and record production, and he was off to the races. Bovell is one of those people for whom a thoroughly researched discography would be miles long. There are experts who could tell you way more about Bovell’s music and career, but I’m coming at his work from the odd angle of being a white American punk born in the late 70s, so forgive me if my understanding of his life and work isn’t as rich as it could be. I know the universe of music he made and influenced is massive, and I am eager to learn more. Maybe I’ll update you on that journey in future staff picks.
I think the first dub reggae I heard was a CD compilation called Dub Chill Out. I’m not sure why I bought it, though I remember I picked it up at the same shop where I bought the Minor Threat discography CD that changed my life. Dub Chill Out must have been budget-priced, and I probably picked it up because it was cheap and I had read about dub’s influence on punk. I doubt I had heard any reggae music outside Bob Marley before that, but that CD wrecked me. For my seventeenth birthday my dad, recognizing how much I loved music, installed a high-powered amp and nice speakers in my crummy little truck. Everything sounded amazing on it, but the dense bass on Dub Chill Out was the ultimate, with the heavy grooves shaking your bowels when you were inside. It would be years before I heard PiL’s Metal Box, but Dub Chill Out prepped me for it and instilled in me a lifelong love of crushingly heavy bass.
While the Jamaican dub compiled on Dub Chill Out clearly inspired Bovell, his music isn’t a straightforward homage. Bovell adopted the heavy grooves and experimentation with studio effects, but I’m guessing the technology he was working with was a little different (and possibly more advanced), since his music is less stark and minimal and employs a wider pallet of studio effects. Like the Adrian Sherwood productions that have piqued my interest, Bovell loves finding weird sounds, and Brain Damage is crammed with them. Along with this maximalist approach, the synthesizers and studio effects Bovell employed on Brain Damage help date this record to early 80s Britain, and it’s steeped in the same vibes as many of my favorite records from that time and place.
Brain Damage’s eclecticism also stands out to me. Part of that might be the way the album was assembled. The list of credits is a mile long, with nearly every track featuring different players. I imagine Brain Damage’s tracks must have been conceived individually and compiled as an album, since there are dramatic stylistic shifts from track to track. While there’s plenty of heavy dub, there’s also ska and other popular music styles like disco and funk. I even hear a bit of the British music hall tradition in the songwriting, a style I know from its influence on bands like the Kinks, the Specials, and Madness. As with the sound of the record, this peculiar stylistic mix stamps Brain Damage as a product of late 70s / early 80s Britain.
Another thing that draws me to this era and the style of music is how heavily integrated it was. Lora Logic brought me to Brain Damage’s Discogs page, and the track she plays on, “Bettah,” is a heavy reggae track with political lyrics that still feel relevant today. As humans, we still deserve better than society is delivering for us. While the sentiment and the core of the sound seems grounded in the experience of West Indian immigrants in London, when Lora Logic’s instantly identifiable sax comes in, it’s something else. Logic’s sound is always off-key, brittle, and marked by a shaky, uncertain vibrato. With just the sound of her horn, Logic signals that Bovell’s demands for a better world don’t just apply to his own community, but all the freaks, the weirdos, and the marginalized. At least within this community, the punks and the dreads recognized they were in the same boat, and they valued one another’s culture, style, and creativity. Together they created something that likely never could or would have existed otherwise.