In August 1973, I was appearing at The Traverse Theatre as a performance poet on The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There and at whatever other venues would give me impromptu space, I was doing lunchtime and evening gigs.
One afternoon, having gone for a walk around the city, I was stopped by a plump middle-aged balding guy with a beard who wanted me to come in to see a show. He was one of hundreds of festival event organisers trying to fill their venues. I told him what I’d been telling them all, that I was too busy. However, he was a big guy and he wouldn’t let me pass. It turned out that he was running a show featuring a package of Jamaican reggae artists. Back then reggae was new to the UK and, though I was a music fan, I’d no particular interest in that music. I was 22, into pub rock, beat poetry and the Liverpool poets. What this guy was promoting was a million miles away for my orbit.
What I didn’t know was that he was Alexander Minto Hughes, better known by his stage name, Judge Dread, a white guy totally immersed in reggae and ska who’d had a controversial 1972 hit single, Big Six, and a couple of thoroughly obscene follow-up records which had been banned by the BBC. A rude boy in every sense, he’d go on to release more banned songs than any other artist ever, to sell more reggae records in the UK during the seventies than any other artist except Bob Marley, and to be the first white artist to have a reggae hit in Jamaica.
He was a persuasive guy in a predicament. As we chatted, he explained that bringing in artists from Jamaica and putting on this large-scale show was costing him a small fortune, all of which he’d recoup if it got filmed. The people there to film it were a camera crew from The Old Grey Whistle Test, at that time the most influential and popular underground music show on UK TV. However, they were about to pack up and leave because there was no audience. Judge Dread promised to look after me if I came in.
Having eventually agreed to his insistent demands on my time, I found myself in a large theatre as part of an audience of less than a hundred people, few of whom looked like reggae fans. Like me, most of them had been passers-by who’d been collared by Dread.
To make it look like a bigger audience, he got us all to down to the stage-front. He wanted us enthusiastic and, as an inducement, handed out loads of spliffs and bottles of Coke. These spliffs were enormous and packed with top-quality dope. The Coke bottles were filled with neat scotch whisky.
That was a great afternoon in so many ways. I got utterly stoned. I got incredibly drunk. I was in the audience for the UK’s very first live reggae package show. I got to see a stellar cast of reggae legends. As well as Judge Dread, who compered and performed his own hits, I saw sets by Nicky Thomas, The Pioneers, Dennis Alcapone, The Cimarrons, The Marvels, The Pioneers and more. On top of all that, I got on TV. There was a special edition of The Old Grey Whistle devoted entirely to this show, at the end of which the cameras panned across the audience and there I was.
Remarkably, thanks to YouTube, I’m still there. You can watch the whole show and, at the end, see me in the middle of the audience, pre-bald – not only digging roots, but also still possessing them, my long hair hanging down below my shoulders. There I am, swaying away blankly, looking exactly like the stoned and blissed-out pissed-up reggae fan that I’d just become.