Laurel Aitken & Friends – Skinhead Train
Released 27 March 2020
New boxset featuring 138 recordings from the singles Laurel Aitken produced during the prime boss reggae time of 1969-70, with many tracks new to CD….LTW’s Ian Canty hears the efforts of the man driving the UK skinhead train….
When Lorenzo “Laurel” Aitken arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1960, he already had a length career in music behind him, one which reached right back to recording many r&b and mento hit singles in the 1950s. Born in Cuba in 1927, his father was from Jamaica and the family moved to his dad’s homeland just before the Second World War. Laurel began singing professionally almost on arrival in Kingston and by the early 1950s he was regularly appearing at the city’s talent contests, including the famed Vere Johns Junior’s Opportunity Knocks. He had also built a career as a nightclub entertainer, which in turn led to his first recording sessions.
After becoming popular in Jamaica, some of his early records were made available on the Blue Beat label in the UK and were picked up on by some of the first modernists as well as many Jamaicans that heeded the call to rebuild the country after WW2. Choosing to settle in London, Aitken styled his efforts towards the newly settled expats who found their musical tastes not catered for in Britain, but also made sure they would appeal to these smartly dressed white kids too. This was something that would hold Aitken in good stead as the 1960s developed.
Traditionally UK recorded material had been treated with derision by the Kingston scene – but by being “Johnny on the spot” Laurel could put the immigrant community’s daily pressures (and there were many) into his music. He also noted the concerns of the mods and later on and most pertinently to this boxset, the skinheads. He ran the gamut of lyrical subjects, from the rude and lewd to cutting social comment, all with a local perspective. For the two years documented here Laurel Aitken must have been almost a blur, writing, recording and producing a huge body of work mostly for the Pama label’s group (particularly Nu-Beat).
I have to admit that the first time I span disc one of this set I forgot to make any notes because I was having such a good time. There are a few dodgy notes here and there (the organ on Quando Quando, Quando is a bit, ahem, uncertain), but the whole disc is great fun and so danceable. Skinhead reggae heaven indeed. For the most part this is Aitken’s solo work, with some help from regular collaborators Rico Rodriguez and Girlie. The latter was a mysterious female vocalist who also recorded under the pseudonyms of The Rude Girl and Claudette and would be a big part of Laurel’s excellent album Scandal In A Brixton Market from the same timeframe. I’ve long believed that this record first set the wheels in motion for Two Tone to follow ten years later.
The disc (subtitled a bit “on the nose” as Skinhead ’69) starts with the classic slackness of Fire In Mi Wire, contrasting with the social consciousness of Deliverance Will Come and If You’re Not Black. On Haile Haile Laurel declares himself the God Of Hellfire (Arthur Brown must have been a bit miffed). This is a great dance track which recalls Long Shot by the Pioneers somewhat and later on Reggae ’69 captures the zeitgeist so well, a solid skin anthem. Run Powell Run is one of Aitken’s very best, a fine riposte to the “rivers of blood” speech and a call for acceptance which is relevant even today. As Mark Wyeth sagely noted on the 2009 reissue of Scandal In A Brixton Market, this could have alienated a large part of his audience, “But without hesitation, he stood his moral ground and in doing so won through, carrying his audience with him”. I can’t put it any better than that.
A Message To You, which has Rico blowing that effortlessly cool trombone, isn’t the Dandy song, so no clear link to the Specials. But even so it’s great to hear two legends for the price of one. The odd track out here, in that Laurel didn’t write or perform on, is the Classics’ Worried Over Me, a Denzil Dennis-penned vocal group number that uses a very deep main voice against high backing vocals well. These are just some of the crackers featured here and although the quality slips a little on the four familiar covers that end the disc, even those are pretty infectious and the whole thing is really one to treasure.
Disc two is subtitled Jesse James Rides The Skinhead Train and finds Laurel at his best, pretty much carving out a reputation as the uncrowned king of UK reggae. Another hugely enjoyable selection of great dance music. Winston Groovy, a singer who had moved to Birmingham in the early 1960s, became an Aitken regular and is featured a great deal across the last four discs of this set. On the fast boogie of (My Girl) Josephine he really shows what he can do, a truly soulful voice that thrived on the better material here. One of Laurel’s own best Everybody’s Sufferin’ is geared up for the dance and Skinhead Train, Apollo 12 (Skinhead Invasion) and Skinhead Wreck The Town are full-on moonstomp heaven. The latter has shaven heads cause chaos to the Desmond Dekker 007 rhythm.
Elsewhere Aitken unveils his King Horror DJ pseudonym on Frankenstein, the first of many scary-themed toasting efforts. An organ and horn back and forth by Rico entitled Trombone Man is nice and fresh, but it is Laurel’s link up with Girlie on Stupid Married Man, Madam Streggae and LP title track Scandal In Brixton Market which really score highly. Having both male and female perspective was unusual in reggae for the time and helps to strike a masterful balance. They are of course eminently addictive and danceable too. This section of the set ends with another entry in the wide category of reggae Christmas songs, Winston Groovy’s Merry Xmas.
As we move onto the third part of this set we reach the point in time when the classic skinhead year of 1969 ended. 1970 and beyond would present some tough challenges to reggae music, particularly to the UK produced material, but for this disc things carry on mostly as before. This section, entitled Funky Funky Monster Sounds, is stuffed with good things and the title is not misleading. Winston Groovy throws a few James Brown grunts in Funky Chicken Part 1 and Laurel debuts his Dice The Boss alias on the shout out fun of Funky Monkey Parts 1 and 2. King Horror goes a bit blue on his lewd toast The Hole, but follows it up with perhaps the best tune under this name, the mad and insanely catchy Loch Ness Monster.
Trevor Lloyd, another Aitken prodigy, makes his first appearance with the sweet croon of Hold Me, which is nicely versioned with proto-dub techniques as Chinese Brush. The Cimarons impress with two wildly different instrument takes of Winston Groovy tunes, with Funny Version 2 being just the pick, but Pama Dice’s two part The Worm is possibly my favourite here, perfect funky reggae.
It is inevitable that with such a large output the quality would sag a little somewhere and a drop off does occur towards the end of disc four. During 1970 the fall of sales of “boss reggae” meant that producers adding strings to soften raw reggae rhythms in an attempt for chart success. This seldom ended well, with pop fans on the whole steering clear and reggae buffs giving them the cold shoulder also. Even Laurel couldn’t make them work and though it was a natural move for a singer like Winston Groovy, the arrangements on Yellow Bird and Here In My Heart sap the soul he injected into his performances. Aitken himself flounders on I’ll Never Love Any Girl and the dodgy steel drums on The Gruvy Beats’ Birds And The Bees (aka Young, Gifted And Black) just make the whole thing sound cheap.
Thankfully there is better to be had on this disc, with another very good version of Pama Dice’s The Worm and the simple but effective DJ storm Souls Of Africa by Tiger (Laurel under another name again). Also after this strings-led nadir disc four rallies with some cool vocal groups efforts including the superb Pick My Pocket by the Versatiles and the Freedom Singers’ Election. Laurel’s own The Outlaw, a neat western themed organ instrumental with DJ shouts, ends things here on an up note.
Final disc Africa Arise is also a bit woolly, but does have some good material too. There’s a lot here that has r&b as its base, in effect taking Aitken full circle back to the blues he started with. Think It Over is very much in that mode and Winston Groovy’s version of the Young Rascals’ Groovin’ has a heavy dose of it too. There’s is a great dance track instrumental Night In Cairo (were Madness listening?) by the Inner Mind and Laurel in his Tiger guise proffers a good toast on Musical Scorcher, but this disc and the set rather peters out with a raft of nicely sung but unmemorable pop reggae numbers. A shame, as on the whole this is an excellent set and one that is very much needed.
In 1970 Aitken relocated to Leicester and wound down his recording career, going back to the nightclubs as his main source of work. After a few years downtime he made a comeback at the time of Two Tone. Signing to Secret Affair’s I-Spy label and getting the Ruts to back him, he achieved his sole UK hit in 1980 with the Rudi Got Married single. This got him back into music and he was very involved in Leicester’s ska and reggae scenes, performing live to much acclaim.
After Laurel Aitken died in 2005, there was a successful campaign to have his home in Leicester marked with a blue plaque. Something that was very much deserved as he was a one man reggae machine who wrote songs that touched a nerve with both the young skinheads and the ex-pat Jamaicans and in turn brought together two disparate sets of people. That’s something not many get to achieve. Skinhead Train is a vital release of the incredible work of a man who played a huge part in black music’s development in the UK. Laurel Aitken achieved so much and got so little back in his lifetime, but it’s not too late. If he is a new or relatively new name to you, start here to hear the man on the very top of his form, a powerhouse of reggae music inspiration.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here