Paul Huxtable, Al Fingers and Mandeep Samra: Sound System Culture – Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems (One Love Books, 2014) (Book Review)

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Paul Huxtable, Al Fingers and Mandeep Samra: Sound System Culture – Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems

(One Love Books, 2014)

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If Canada came off badly in the review above it’s purely because it seems slightly less exciting than the reggae scene in one town in the north of England. This is an impressive book: 10 inches square (same size as a dubplate), hardbound, thick paper. But most of all, lots and lots of amazing photos of Huddersfield soundsystems and the groups of people who ran them back in the day. The scene is set with some introductory text about the history of Jamaica and migration to London along with the usual photos of Windrush and sharply dressed first generation immigrants. It pains me to say it, but there is too much London in this book, worthwhile as it is. The first section does include a lovely shot of a 1976 dominos contest at the Derby West Indian Association though.

But all this is just preamble for the main event: Lush photos of blokes looking sharp. Blokes in garish 1970s living rooms, blokes fiddling with amazing gnarly pre-amps, groups of blokes styling for the camera at the beginning of a night out. All black, working class, dedicated to the hard work of humping speaker boxes around town, putting wires together, selecting tunes that will smash up a dance. The smiles and fashion of the portraits are in stark contrast to the drab shots of 70s and 80s Huddersfield town centre. If London was alienating for black kids at that time, the provinces (as I shall rudely call them) must have been doubly arduous. Michael Moore (aka Bones from Jah Lion sound) relates how he left Jamaica solo at 14 to come to Huddersfield to be reunited with his younger brother and mother, neither of whom he had seen for 4 years. And it was cold. Hard times.

The best parts of the book are the lavish photos, past and present, of people who ran sound and some brief quotes or text about their arrival, the parties, what music means to them. Alongside that, the main text does its best to keep up, but is a bit too general for my tastes (that said, it’s a good introduction to what sound system is, what blues parties were, how it all worked). We’re about halfway into the book before the specifics of Huddersfield sounds get covered in the main text. Post-war shortages of labour in the textile industry lead to an influx of immigrant labour, including Jamaicans. People wanted to let off steam at the weekend, so parties, and sound systems were developed to meet that need. There’s a great section on the role played by German escapee Han Alfred Mathias, who ran an electronics shop and had a sideline in amplifiers as well as an acetate cutting studio upstairs – essentially the same business model as King Tubby, but in Huddersfield!

As someone who has read quite a bit about UK soundsystem culture I was delighted by the surprises this book revealed. Most people will concede that London, Birmingham and Bristol have played a huge role in the music, but I was genuinely thrilled to read the wide and diverse list of reggae sounds and artists, both UK and JA that had passed through Huddersfield. The full page reproduction of a poster for a 1986 dance featuring Frankie Paul, Jah Screechy and Coxsone Outernational had me salivating a little bit. Also the photos are the best I have seen for ages. They will probably end up overused on a gazillion dance flyers and Tumblr blogs now, so get a copy of this soon if you want a visceral rush.

The real stars of the book are homegrown sounds like Shakatone, King Broadway, Earth Strong Turbo Charge, Jah Lion and Earth Rocker. I was hoping for more of the backstory here, the dances, the dancers, the dubplates, the MCs, the clashes. All of that is hinted at – but frustratingly underplayed – maybe because it was a long time ago, or perhaps because many soundmen let their tunes speak for them rather than hold forth at length in interviews.

The decline of soundsystem in the ’90s and noughties is ably chronicled. The main venue for dances in Venn Street was demolished and replaced with a car park, coupled with an upsurge in noise complaints to the council, the smoking ban, changes in musical taste, same story all over. Tellingly, the last few photos in the main part of the book are of non-Huddersfield heavyweights Jah Shaka, Iration Steppas and Abashanti-I playing recent sets in mainland Europe.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in UK soundsystem and I don’t give out praise like that lightly these days. It made me thirsty to hear some worn out tapes of Huddersfield soundsystems ripping down a session (preferably with MCs giving it a patois flex with the occasional bit of Yorkshire cussing thrown in). I hope that somewhere there is a kid sitting in his bedroom in Huddersfield with a shoplifted copy of this book who has a lightbulb flashing above his head and a massive bass-line pounding his chest.

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