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Dub in Babylon (book review)

Christopher Partridge –
Dub In Babylon (Equinox)
reviewed by John Eden

The subtitle is “Understanding the evolution and significance of dub reggae in Jamaica and Britain from King Tubby to Post-Punk”. Which is right up my street. This is an academic book, but it manages to avoid the worst excesses of post-modern jargon and so should be readable to most. The first couple of chapters deal briefly with the history of Rastafari and dub and are OK, not exactly exciting if you have ever read a book on the subject before. Partridge writes well and quotes from a gratifyingly diverse set of sources which suggests he’s put the work in.
The pace then picks up as we move onto an examination of “Sound-system Culture and Jamaican Dub in the UK”. This includes a good stretch on the social conditions of Jamaican immigrants and why soundsystem was so important (with a few nods to the NME’s classic “Soundsystem Splashdown” issue which is online at uncarved.org/dub/splash). Partridge also gets props from me for mentioning eighties UK systems like Saxon and their MCs like Papa Levi as well as the usual array of references to the golden era of the 70s (and the seemingly compulsory mentions of LKJ and dub poetry).
He also gets to grips with Jah Shaka’s statesmanlike role in UK Dub (even revealing his real name!). This then leads on to a lengthy, but interesting, passage about the first dub LPs in the UK and the impossible question of which soundsystem played dub first here (obviously they all say they did).
The 2nd half of the book looks at dub’s influence on punk, post-punk and wider society. In fact that’s probably an unfair summary of the text – the well worn story of Don Letts introducing the punks to spliffs and dub at the Roxy has some truth in it, but Partridge also looks at white people who managed to get into reggae all by themselves (or with the help of schoolmates, John Peel, Rough Trade, whatever), some of whom weren’t even punks. For example he rightly points out that a lot of the people attracted to dub in the seventies were into all sorts of experimental music and could just as easily be characterised as hippies as anything else. This introduces a section on racism, punk and Rock Against Racism. Then onto yer punky-dready-dubbers: PIL, The Slits, Dennis Bovell. But also The Pop Group, The Ruts and Killing Joke. The closing chapter deals mainly with Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound, admittedly by way of Mad Professor, Jamie Reid, industrial music, John Cage and Philip Glass. It feels a bit like Partridge is having some fun here, breathing out and letting himself go a bit after the necessarily serious business of the rest of the book.
The author has read a lot of the same books and articles as me (and listed loads more in the bibliography which I can now track down) and has done an excellent job of synthesising them into a coherent, readable and at times provocative story. He also references me and my website uncarved.org which I was quite chuffed with.
Having said that, there are some things to disagree with (oh to be an academic and have time to get into all this stuff properly) and a couple of clangers that I have to mention. Firstly it is fair enough to say that “Bag-A-Wire” was “a keen follower of Marcus Garvey” on page 35. He was, initially, but is mainly remembered as someone who betrayed him (see for example “Them Never Love Poor Marcus” by the Mighty Diamonds). It is therefore quite wrong to suggest that King Tubby’s “Bag-A-Wire Dub” is a “celebration” of the man. Similarly it is incorrectly stated that Blair Peach (killed by the police during an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, 1979) was black when he was actually a white man from New Zealand. Partridge is a Professor of religious studies, so there are occasional deviations into the spiritual that a heathen like me isn’t really bothered about (although obviously I acknowledge its influence on the terrain we’re exploring). But these are all trainspotterish niggles which I am including here to make myself look clever.
My main criticism of the book is that I wanted there to be more of it. Don’t get me wrong, “Dub In Babylon” is highly recommended as a documentation of the era it covers, and if you’ve read this far you should get the book. I just think enough history has elapsed between now and punk for there to be some similarly in depth studies about dub’s influence on the 21st Century. There are dozens of pages about the marginal yet hugely well-documented discipline of dub poetry here, but nothing about dubstep, grime or the changing aspects of working class culture, ethnicity and bass music in the UK over the last twenty years. It is unfair of me to expect all that from this book, which is a much more crucial than the slew of post-punk biographies I have ploughed through in recent years. But I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative from the Windrush to the Roxy, from RAR to post-punk is quite reassuringly safe these days, and might not help us to answer the questions being asked in 2012.