“I don’t think you can have a conversation about sound-systems in the UK without mentioning us,” says Lloyd Coxsone. “We’ve been there and done it, and we’ve inspired a generation of sound-systems worldwide.”
Sir Coxsone sound-system celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. That’s a lifetime, and founder members Lloydie Coxsone and Festus have spent theirs promoting reggae music to the heights. They’ve won every accolade the reggae world can offer, and no other sound-system in England can claim such mythical status.
Their reputation among Britain’s Caribbean communities runs deep, but there’s now a younger generation of reggae and sound-system fans from around the world who are discovering them, and loving what they hear. In Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae, they recently gave a master-class in playing sound-system. Kingston’s Dub Club was packed that night, as Festus demonstrated how to rock a crowd.
Lloyd calls him “the best reggae selector of the 20th Century,” and he should know. The pair first met as youngsters in Morant Bay, in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas. Music was all around and the lure of the local dancehalls proved irresistible.
“There was a dancehall right opposite where I live,” says Festus, who started DJing when he was ten. “The last sound I hear before I come to England was Prince Buster’s Voice Of The People.”
Lloyd was here already, and Festus went to find him the day he arrived. That was in March 1965 and Festus says that, “by September 1965, the sound was up and running.”
Lloyd had made his debut at a West Indian social club in Balham before joining Barry Sky Rocket and then building his own sound called Lloyd The Matador. That sound got destroyed in a crowd fight and so Lloyd reluctantly went over to Duke Reid, which became a champion sound with him at the controls.
One night when Duke Reid was playing a dance, someone assaulted Lloyd as he stepped outside. He fought back, not realising the man was a plainclothes cop. Within minutes police with dogs surrounded the house and Lloyd was taken to Tooting Bec police station, where he was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon – a foot long knife that he’d never seen before. The owner of Duke Reid neglected to give evidence on his behalf and as a result, Lloyd was given a six-month jail sentence.
“I said to myself that I’m not going to come out of this struggle and play for this man again. I’m going to come out and build my own sound. They had two big sounds in Jamaica – Duke Reid and Coxsone – and so I say that I’m going to call my sound Sir Coxsone and rival him.”
The rest as they say, “is history.” Sir Coxsone was one of the first sound-systems to play reggae in the West End. They played at the Flamingo Club in Soho, but it was their residencies in Carnaby Street that put them on the map. Count Suckle had paved the way for them at the Roaring 20s, where they played soul and reggae to multi-racial audiences. Those same premises were later renamed Colombo’s, and Coxsone continued to play there throughout the seventies. Bob Marley would often stop by when he was in London, and wrote Kinky Reggae about a night out at Colombo’s after he’d narrowly missed getting caught in a police raid. “I think I might join the fun, but I had to hit and run. Seems like I just can’t settle down, in a kinky part of town...”
Lloyd and Festus were already making frequent trips to Jamaica to cut dub, and were influential in its development after urging King Tubby to be more creative at the mixing-board. They didn’t just play good music, but tracks you couldn’t hear anywhere else. That’s what drew the crowds and kept Sir Coxsone on top. The sound was renowned for playing dub-plates by artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and other legends, and it remains an unforgettable experience, hearing dub-plates like those played through huge speaker boxes at volumes that make your knees tremble.
They were still at Colombo’s when Lloyd started producing songs for general release. Sir Coxsone also played every Wednesday night at the Four Aces in Dalston, where they hosted a talent show. After the teenage Louisa Marks won three weeks running Lloyd took her in the studio and made Caught You In A Lie – a seminal lovers’ rock tune that inspired a generation of other UK girl singers such as Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson. After he’d recorded the song, Lloyd gave it to Reg McLean’s Safari label for distribution. EMI got involved and Safari soon had a massive hit on its hands. Unfortunately Lloyd didn’t get a penny – only another year’s jail sentence after he broke McLean’s jaw.
He formed the Tribesman label on his release and issued King Of The Dub Rock before recording the likes of Fred Locks (Love And Only Love), Willy Stepper (Stormy Night) and Jimmy Lindsay, whose cover of the Commodores’ Easy is a reggae classic. Some of these tracks later appeared on 12 The Hard Way but Lloyd’s heart was still in the sound business, and he shelved the label as the eighties got underway.
I Roy had already pronounced Sir Coxsone “the baddest sound in the world” by then, and the description would hold for decades. One of their most famous residencies was at Bennett’s in Battersea Village, where the decks sat on top of a tank full of piranhas. They had SE London in their thrall, and every time they travelled outside the city or in Europe, sound-systems would spring up in their wake like seedlings. They won so many cups and trophies during that era, and proved implacable opponents in a sound clash. Sometimes they’d cut dubs just for a particular clash, and then never play them again. Once was enough and that’s it, game over.
“Losing is not in our vocabulary, at no time at all,” says Lloyd. “We’re not going to entertain thoughts about losing. That’s not in our script. We’re more positive. We’re coming to win and that’s it.”
The sound was so highly regarded in reggae circles that every major artist coming to England from Jamaica would head straight for wherever they were playing and reach for the mic. Josey Wales, Michael Palmer, Frankie Paul, Pinchers and Super Cat are just a few of the stars who’ve gathered round the Coxsone control tower. These dances were then widely circulated on cassette as sound-tapes, and spread Coxsone’s reputation far and wide.
Blacker Dread took over in the mid-eighties, at a time when Levi Roots (Mr. “Reggae Reggae Sauce”), Jack Radics, Daddy Freddie and Tenor Fly were regulars on the sound. Ten years later Lloydie resumed control, and it’s remained that way ever since. He and Festus went their separate ways for a time, “but then after a while we have a reasoning and decide that together we are more powerful,” says Lloyd. “Before that, it came like the Spice Girls. Everybody get famous, but Festus and I always hold a close relationship.”
Watching them play today, fifty years after starting out is an education. It’s dancehall in its truest state, before cursing and jingles gained precedence over music. The songs and rhythms just flow together, casting a spell over the audience as the journey unfolds. He and Festus draw from a shared musical and cultural history stretching back to the sixties, and you can rest assured there are no other reggae selectors like them.