The New Cue #136 March 14: Dennis Bovell
14 March, 2022
Good morning everyone,
We’re very excited to deliver today’s edition, an interview with one of the key lynchpins of British reggae and post-punk, the musician, DJ and celebrated producer Mr Dennis Bovell MBE. For this important mission, we called up our old friend and colleague Simon McEwen, asking him to pull on his pants, get on a train and head over to North London for the interview. A reggae fiend and expert, we knew Simon was the best man for the job, and so it proves, as you can read below the jump.
We’ll see you all for more Killer Content on Wednesday. In the meantime, don’t forget about our new fortnightly London event at The Social, which kicks off on Friday, 22 April with Stories Behind The Song - Miki Berenyi. A handful of tickets remain and can be purchased here.
Alright, time for Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell. Tuck in.
Ted, Niall and Chris
Start The Week With… Dennis Bovell
Barbados-born producer and musician Dennis Bovell MBE is a legendary figure in the UK reggae scene. His influence on British music over the past four decades - from 1970s soundsystem culture to dub and post-punk, to lovers rock, soul-pop and beyond - has not only revolutionised the sound of homegrown roots music but also crossed over into mainstream culture.
Whether it’s abstract experimentation (The Pop Group, Ryuichi Sakamato), slick pop (Bananarama, Joss Stone) or conscious reggae (Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, I-Roy), the 68-year-old North London-based producer has never compromised on his bass-heavy sound. From framing dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s vivid social commentary to minting the distinctly British hybrid lovers rock with Janet Kay’s immortal Silly Games (which Dennis wrote and produced), he’s always applied his singular production aesthetic to his work.
Dennis's backstory is in essence the story of UK reggae itself: from arriving in London from Barbados when he was 12 years old, to starting up his own Sufferer Hi-Fi soundsystem and transforming dub music in Britain, receiving a six-month jail sentence for "causing an affray" at a soundclash followed by international fame with his band Matumbi. His music has provided a roots credibility to British dub and solidified his worldwide standing as a musician, songwriter, producer, arranger and engineer without parallel. It’s not for nothing that Oscar-winning film-maker/visual artist Steve McQueen calls Dennis “a pioneer and a genius”.
More than just a musical innovator though, Dennis is also a crucial connector who has worked with a vast range of artists including - big breath - The Slits, Orange Juice, Fela Kuti, Malcolm McLaren, Madness, Boy George, Alpha Blondy, George Clinton, Steve Mason (Beta Band), Arcade Fire, Jarvis Cocker and, most recently, Thom Yorke/Jonny Greenwood side-project The Smile.
But today, sitting in a sports pub in Tottenham near where he lives, UK reggae's most innovative (and talkative) son has taken a day out from his busy schedule to deal with a domestic crisis…
Hello, Dennis, how are you?
Hi, Simon, good thanks. Sorry I’m late. I’ve got the builders at home renovating our bathroom. But there is an issue with the bidet. My wife says it’s got to go and I’m like, “No way!” The bidet is an absolutely essential bathroom unit, do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. So how long have you lived round here?
Twenty-five years. Am I a Spurs fan? No. I try not to get involved in football rhetoric because it’s caused so many arguments and I’ve watched too many friends fall out. Though my son is an Arsenal supporter and whenever he says, “We did this” I say, “Since when were you a member of the team? Mate, calm down from that.” I used to live in Finsbury Park so he started supporting Arsenal then. But when we moved here, up by the stadium, he used to walk around the park in his full Arsenal strip when Spurs were playing a game and I’m like, “Don’t do that!” But if I was interested in football, Spurs would be my team because they had one of the first black players [Walter Tull] and his family was from Barbados, which is where I’m from.
You’ve got an anthology, The DuBMASTER, coming out on Trojan later this month. Why’s it taken so long?
Yeah, up until now nobody suggested it. So it’s 40 songs out of my 50 years, but I didn’t select the tunes because I’d want to put all of them on there! And I’d have to choose which ones weren’t going in, and it’d be like, “Right, you’re gonna have to get rid of some of your kids, which ones?!” So Laurence Cane-Honeysett at Trojan put it together and I stood back from it because some of my songs I’ve done two or three versions of and it’s too hard for me to choose.
What’s the art of making a good dub record?
To have good materials to begin with. Dub is the engineers’ time, to drop things in or out of the mix: reverberate, delay, re-spin, re-sample, re-sequence… whatever. When you’ve done that to your heart’s content, then you have your dub. What’s my favourite dub ever? Chapter 3 on African Dub - Almighty Chapter 3 by Joe Gibbs & The Professionals. It’s produced and mixed by Errol Thompson who was an unsung genius.
You’ve just remixed Radiohead side-project The Smile’s Smoke single. How did that come about?
Jonny Greenwood surprised me by sending me an email going, “I’m a fan. I’ve just recorded this track which I think you should do a mix of and here’s the files.” And I listened to it and thought, “Yeah, I can get my teeth into that.” On the first mix I did I put a train noise, “woo-woo”, on it because I thought it was like a pro-smoke dub mix thing but Jonny goes, “Oh no, it’s not what we were thinking of. Sorry for wasting your time.” So I go, “Jonny, don’t worry, never say never…” and I did it again in another style and after the eighth mix they were like, “Yeah, it’s glorious!” Thom Yorke, who edited it, said, “Yeah, he’s fucking gone the whole hog!” And I thought, if Thom Yorke thinks that about my mix, who am I?
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing a remix of a song called Passer-By by Animal Collective which is sounding good. Plus I’m doing some mixes for the band Spoon from Texas. Always busy!
So many different sorts of artists come to you for your sound. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because I can live with any style of music. I’m not just a reggae person. I mean I love reggae and I play reggae, but in my collection at home there’s Duke Ellington, The Who, Small Faces and then Ken Boothe and John Holt. I’m a pretty weird kind of person, I think. For example, when I was 15 I met this girl and I invited her to my house to listen to my new Hendrix album and she’d only just come from Jamaica and she’s like, “Jimi who!? It’s a bloody noise!” She thought I was gonna play her my new Toots & The Maytals or Yabby You record or something. 3rd Stone From The Sun from Hendrix’s Are You Experienced album is full of dubby echo and reverb and that was from 1967. King Tubby wasn’t making no dub then! But that music gave other people the idea that they could do the same but in a different kind of way.
Who else around now would you really like to work with?
Well, there’s the two masters, Ebony and Ivory. Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. I wouldn’t mind getting into something with either one of those two or both of them. They’re two men who I’ve idolised since my youth and it would be like a feather in my cap to do something with them, whether that’s something new or a remix.
What was it like having a cameo in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock film for his Small Axe BBC series?
Really good. When I originally read the script there was a part for a Bajun bus conductor whose only line was, “Tickets!” So I said to Steve, “Let me do that - there’s no danger of me forgetting my lines.” Actually my dad came to London in the ’50s to be a bus conductor so I thought it’d tickle me pink to play that because my sisters would be falling on the floor with laughter if they saw it. But Steve said no and gave me the part of the upstairs neighbour instead. But the bit where the cast sing Silly Games a cappella I had to make sure they got the lyrics right, because a lot of people have misconstrued the opening line. They think it’s, “I’ve been watching you…” I mean, how pervy is that? I’d never have written that! It’s, “I’ve been wanting you.”
Congratulations on receiving your MBE last year. Did you get to meet the Queen?No, I’m seeing her in May. I got a letter from the cabinet office saying, “We’d like to put your name forward to her majesty for this award, what say you?” I thought, “This is a hoax!” because a few months earlier Neil Fraser, the Mad Professor, sent me a note saying I was going to get an MBE and I’m like, “Who told you that?” and he said, “the Queen!” So when this letter turned up I thought it was Mad Prof up to his old tricks again so I accepted it. Then they printed it in the Royal Gazette and it was true. I couldn’t believe it! Then, because of Covid, they said you can come to Buckingham Palace but you can only bring one person, or we bring it to you and you can wear it at the garden party in May this year and you can bring three people. So I’m bringing my mum, my wife and my daughter.
Is it pride of place on your mantelpiece at home?
Nah, it’s in a cupboard by the side of my bed. I accepted it because it’s recognition for my work in the music business and I’m thinking, “If they’re of the mind that I exist, that’s OK.” I’m not into any political bollocks about we’re not taking anything connected with the empire. I mean, there is an empire, but not everyone’s invited to join it. Don’t tell me that Britain hasn’t still got its fingers in nearly every pie in nearly every corner of the world.
Last time we spoke you said your son was writing your biography. How’s he getting on with it and has it brought back any nice memories?
He’s up to chapter five but in the meantime he’s got married and had two children. He lives in Copenhagen. There’s a nice moment in the book where I took the aeroplane from Bridgetown in Barbados to London. I was quite tall for a 12-year-old so when they gave me this ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ badge I chucked it away. When the plane landed in Newfoundland to refuel I got off the plane, while all the other kids with badges had to sit there, and I wandered around the airport. I remember it was quite built-up and flashy, and also very cold! It was my first experience outside Barbados. When I got to the airport in London I saw this woman looking over the heads of all the kids and it was my mum. I went over and said, “Hello mum” and she was like, “Oh my God!” because she hadn’t seen me since I was seven. I’d grown a lot and was even taller than her.
In 1976 you were sentenced to six months in prison for “causing an affray” at a soundclash in Cricklewood after a corrupt police officer gave false evidence. How did that affect you personally and the music you subsequently made?
It affected me personally because I was taken away from my family and was accused of something I hadn’t done and it seemed to stick. But I appealed and was found not guilty, but then I was tried again at the Old Bailey for the same thing because they didn’t get the result they wanted. It was a farce. Two policemen said: “We went into a room and the lights were out and we saw Dennis Bovell on a stage with a microphone in his hand shouting, ‘Get the boys in blue!’” Nothing of that sort happened. I was never on the stage. Also, black people don’t even know who the ‘boys in blue’ are. That’s a Cockney term. We don’t refer to you as that. You’re either John Crow, vultures, pigs or dirty bastards! Anyway, I said to them, “If you heard someone on the microphone it was probably I-Roy or U-Roy or any of the talkers.” The judge actually went [posh English accent] “Do you expect me to believe people talk on records?” I told him they were lying and the judge goes, “Do you expect me to believe that the police would come here and lie under oath?” I said, “Mate, it wouldn’t be the first time and it probably won’t be the last.”
When I was in prison they wouldn’t let me have a guitar because they said I might hang myself with the strings, so I wrote music in my head. At that time [1976 Matumbi single] After Tonight was a huge hit so in the prison when they used to play Rodigan on Capital radio and whenever one of my tunes came on the whole block would be chanting, “Bovell! Bovell!” and I’d be like the celebrity in the jail. So I had a pretty good time in that respect because everyone knew who I was and knew my case too.
What do you do outside of music to relax?
Sleep! I’ve played a few rounds of golf too. But most of all I like to sit in a room in silence and just have my own thoughts. I’m not fond of loud music unless I’m playing it. The only telly I like watching is Death In Paradise because of Don Warrington. He’s an amazing actor and I’ve always liked him. In fact, we’ve shouted at each other in the street a few times: “Don!” “Dennis!” I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s a comedian outside of his serious roles. He’s got that impish smirk when he plays the commissioner which he can’t get rid of ever since Rising Damp [impersonates] “Ooh, I say…”
Lovely to speak to you Dennis. What are you up to now?
And you, mate. I better get back to the builders and make sure they haven’t thrown my bidet away!
Interview: Simon McEwen
* Dennis Bovell - The DuBMASTER: The Essential Anthology is out 25 March on Trojan.
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