That music dealing with the issues felt by disillusioned and disenfranchised youth had such a presence in the early 1980s, says as much about today’s environment as it does about that of three decades ago. The issues are still there, but it feels today almost as if the music business has tried to fence off the disaffected as some kind of ‘worthless market’, unable to provide a sufficient return on a record company’s investment.
Aswad took the best of Jamaican reggae music – its rhythms, instrument sounds, chord structures and harmonies – and gave it a British relevance. Other British reggae acts took a similar course in the late ’70s and early ’80s – Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson being memorable examples – but Aswad seemed to break more cultural boundaries, gaining the attention of a wider public. Significant numbers of whites as well as blacks. Perhaps this was because Aswad were perceived as broader in their message and not exclusively a band for the downtrodden, or the victims of racial injustice. But I suspect it was just as much about the compatibility of the music. Aswad had a sweet and soulful reggae sound, which used minor keys, a brass section and multi-part vocal harmonies to seduce the most demanding ear. It was a hard sound to resist – whether or not you were a reggae fan.
Aswad’s Live & Direct album (conservatively described as a mini LP, but featuring 12 songs) was a live recording, made at the 1983 Notting Hill Carnival, and epitomising the band in their heyday. This recording narrowly predates the widespread integration of electronic instrumentation into reggae, and the revisions to the music’s structural parameters which progressively stripped out the guitar offbeat pattern. On this album, guitar offbeats sitting around a ‘half time’ drum groove are still pretty much obligatory. This is traditional, ‘old style’ reggae. There are also some great dub-style sections – it must have taken some doing to reproduce the dub feel (originally created in recording studios with effects, a mixing desk, and plenty of trial and error) live on stage. Some of the studio echos would be faked on stage through musicianship and technique rather than with electronics, and to do it convincingly required skill and masses of experience.
Although there’s nothing denoted on the light, powder blue label, the album is on Island Records, and the tape is a BASF chrome, with 120 microsecond EQ, as opposed to the 70 microsecond setting used for blank chrome cassettes. This principle of a ‘chrome-formulated Type 1’ was standard for pre-recorded cassettes.