I mentioned Cal Gibson`s essay on Prince Jazzbo here. Cal`s now very kindly expanded that article out into a very personal appreciation of Steve Barker`s legendary Radio Lancashire show – On The Wire.
Words care of Cal Gibson, aka The Secret Soul Society.
‘Greetings music lover…all hail to music power…hear I forward on the hour, music like shower…’ – Intro from On The Wire.
‘Hop forward, hop back, hop hop hop’ – Double Dee & Steinski
No doubt many banbantonton readers will recognise the somewhat sickly sweet lure of nostalgia that the COVID pandemic has wreaked upon us. Being cooped up inside for almost a year has lent itself to taking stock, minds casting repeatedly back into the past and foraging around in the memories upturned, the paths taken and the paths spurned. In doing so there’s no greater sweetspot, of course, than those crucial, crucible years when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and you’re searching for something to believe in, something to forge your self in. Something that sustains you. Even now, from the misty vantage point of ever more battered middle age, it`s just about possible to summon up once again the visceral thrill of hearing The Velvets for the first time, of watching the Ramones tear up the Milton Keynes Bowl on a sunny summer afternoon, of latching on to the divine madness of Scratch Perry, of being floored by PE’s You`re Gonna Get Yours, of trying to catch every tune jammed into Double Dee & Steinski’s Lesson Three.
And so it was that in the late 1980s in the dimly-lit, Thatcher-decimated northwest of England where this writer grew up, questing musical youths were hardly spoilt for choice. Pre-internet, pre-pretty much everything, those of us searching for the (im)perfect beat had woefully limited resources to turn to. There was Peel, of course, shoehorning The Fall, Bhundu Boys and Einsturzende Neubauten into curious ears…and then there was Radio Lancashire’s ultra eclectic On The Wire, with Steve Barker playing King Tubby next to Killdozer, Niney the Observer juking it out with Mark Stewart, Adrian Sherwood, Kevin Saunderson, Steve Reich, Gary Clail, Keith Hudson, Joe Gibbs, Ornette Coleman, Negativland, A Guy Called Gerald, Moondog and Dinosaur Jr. Manna from heaven for a young beat junkie, in other words…
Every Sunday afternoon for those few foundational teenage years I listened in religiously, fingers poised quivering above the record button as Steve and his loyal sidekick Fenny surfed the vast shores of the global underground. The Dub Syndicate-penned theme tune meant the next three hours were going to be a whirligig of bass-driven badness, an escape from reality in to an altered dimension of no holds-barred wonderment.
On The Wire introduced me to Clement ‘Coxone’ Dodd – a whole three hours given over to sprawling, exclusive specials of Studio One badness spliced with speeches from Bob Marley, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga that I can recite today over thirty years later. To Lee Perry, Derrick May, Eno, Aksak Maboul, Keith Le Blanc, Burning Spear, Pay It All Back Volume One, Prince Far-I, Biz Markie, Age of Chance, Sons of Arqa, Singers and Players, Tackhead, Phillip Glass, Steinski, Bim Sherman and Dylan’s Shelter From the Storm.
ON THE WIRE HIP HOP CHART 1986
Masterdon Committee “Get Off My Tip” / Profile
Duke Bootee production / Craig Bevan/Bootee mix / Latin Rascals edits
Steinski & Mass Media “The Motorcade Sped On” / Tommy Boy
Engineer Craig Bevan
Skinny Boys “Rip The Cut” / Warlock
Tackhead featuring DJ Cheese “Is There A Way Out?” / On-U/World
K.Rob “I’m A Homeboy (clean version)” / Profile /
Duke Bootee production ft DJ Cheese / Craig Bevin / Latin Rascals edits
Schooly D “Gangster Boogie” / Place To Be
Duke Bootee “Broadway” / Beauty And The Beat
Duke Bootee production / Craig Bevin mix / George Tashiro edits
Biz Markie “Make The Music With Your Mouth” / Prism
Marley Marl production
Original Concept “Pump That Bass” / Def Jam
Frick & Frack “Shouldn’t Have Done It” / Romil Records
Marley Marl production
One Christmas- 1987 or 88 – I recall the show asking for listeners to send in their favourite Christmas songs. On a postcard I mailed off my dumpy, grumpy teen choice – Dylan’s Desolation Row – and was amazed to find that got me an invite to the hallowed Radio Lancashire Studios to sit in on the show. For some reason that escapes me now I couldn’t make the date chosen: an early lesson in heartbreak…
Other shows would see shout outs to me and my friends as I’d write to Steve from university – asking for favourites harvested from the show. The tapes with these on were rare treasures to be played and played and played…now also sadly lost to the ravages of time – either that or they’re in one of the thousands of bags reproducing themselves inside of our garage. Some of the tunes on those tapes have stayed with me though, bedrocks of a musical slalom through the years, tunes that I’ve played in clubs, in bars, to friends, to lovers, to strangers, tunes that are impossible to tire of. Tunes like Prince Jazzbo‘s Bag A Wolf: the roughest, toughest roots radical imaginable – lo-fi thunder from the streets of Kingston, reverberating its way to a provincial English town, hypnotising a young mind with the power of revelation. No turning back from here – forwards ever, backwards never – a lifetime of listening and learning, cast adrift on a wide Sargasso sea of sound, paddles abandoned, joy unconfined.
Over the years I’ve played Bag A Wolf hundreds of times. I’ve played it on different continents, to myself, to dancefloors and festival fields, and each time I’ve played it a part of me is forever whisked back to my seventeen years old self, transfixed by this wonderful sound of unfathomable deepness seeping from the airwaves.
‘Poor man be waiting and waiting and waiting to see reality come – and it still can’t come’ intones Jazzbo, and the years fall away, everything is possible, life’s sweet mystery remains.
Following such righteousness in a DJ set or just chilling with friends was always tricky so often I’d pair it up with the equally incomparable Kingston 12 Tuff by The Morwells – again a track I heard first On The Wire. I would play these two genius slices of working-class JA protest songs and smile: the trials and tribulation of life reduced and seduced from a roar to a whisper – the drum and the bass re-affirming their dominion – forwards ever, backwards never – jamming for survival.
As a slightly tearful footnote, last year, after 40 years of continuous airwaves action, the BBC axed On The Wire. There were a few rumbles of discontent, a piece in The Guardian, a petition to sign. Steve and Fenny and the crew vacated the airwaves and took to Mixcloud where you can find them today, playing music they love for people who love it just as much.
Much of the decades following my On The Wire baptism have – fortunately – revolved around music for this somewhat older but none the wiser beat junkie: making it, playing it, writing about it. For that I can only give thanks to Steve and Fenny and let them know that if they want me to come round and play Desolation Row for them some day, then I’m bang up for it, honest.
“DUBS ON THE WIRE” JUNE 12th, 1988
Introduction – Lee Scratch Perry – Cloak & Dagger
Dub Syndicate – Ravi Shankar/On the Wire – On U/Leghorn
Trinity/Mighty Two – Ranking Version – Errol T
Jah Stitch – Dragon, Snake & Spider Version – Record City
Earl Zero/Soul Syndicate – Shackles & Chains Version – Freedom Sounds
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals – Cooling Out – Heavy Duty
Prince Buster All-Stars – Mr. D.C. Version – Fab.
Chinna – Saturday Night Version – Attack
Revoluntionaries – Still Hurting – High Note
Rockers All Stars – Rose Lane Dub – Rockers International
Aggrovators – Easy Skanking Version – Weed Beat
Jah Stitch – Version Mighty Maffia – Militant
Keith Hudson – Wild Fire. Pt.2 – Mamba
Mighty Two – Natty Need a Curnal – Belmont
Tommy McCook – A Steaming Version – Third World
Observers – Different Version – Dee Jay
Hugh Roy – Wake the Town – Duke Reid
King Stitt – King of Kings – Clan Disc
General Echo – Foxy Mama – Love
Upsetters – Noah Dub – Black Art
Soul Vendors – Pressure & Sounds – Studio One
God Sons – Merry Up – Green Door
Mercenaries – Eight Against Rome – Mummy
Wailers and S.O. Band – Rudie Version – Studio One
Augustus Pablo – El Rockers Version – Rockers
Jacob Miller – Keep on Knocking Version – Rockers
Aggrovators – Roots of Dub – Grounation
Upsetters – Blackboard Jungle Dub – Clocktower
Prophets – Give Praises – Grove
Burning Spear – Associate – Burning Spear
Bunny Wailer – Battering Down – Solomonic
Winston Riley – Stalag – Techniques
Dub Syndicate – Pounding System – On U Sound
High Times Band – Stand in Your Glory – High Times
Jammy and the Aggravators – Channel One Run Away – Scorpion
Arabs – Long Life – Hit Run
The Enforcer – Pay Them – Well Charge
Willows – Send Another Moses Version – Coxsone
Jah Youth – Jay Be Not Envious – Untouchables
Jah Lloyd – I and I Search for Survival – Black Art
UpSetter – Sugar Pond – Black Art
James Booms – Proverbs of Dub – Black Art
Jah Lloyd – Vampire – P.M.
Gregory Isaacs – Black & Kill Black – Morpheus
Jimmy and Glen – Nine Finger Jerry Lewis – Upsetter
Peter Tosh – Legalise It Version – Inter Diplo
Aggrovators – Duke of Earl – Live and Love
Junior Byles – East African Herbs Vendor – The Thing
Keese and 5 Black – Travellin’ Debra Version – Black Art
Morwell Unlimited – Thunder and Lightning – Total Sound
Sydney Crooks – Bag O’Wire – Klix
The Key – Overcome – Key
King Tubbys – King at the Controls – Black and White
Jah Lloyd – Reggae Stick – Teem
Max Romeo – Dub a Virgin – Heavy Duty