Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Dennis Morris of Punk/Reggae Icons Basement 5

The birth of 2-Tone ska was based on a failed attempt to marry punk and reggae. If you listen to early recordings of The Coventry Automatics or The Beat, their songs were either distinctly punk or distinctly reggae/rock, but not a combination of the two. In fact, it wasn't until Jerry Dammers had the idea to use 60's ska as the foundation for the band's songs as a solution to the punk/reggae dilemma that the band's look and sound finally gelled. While The Specials and 2-Tone bands embraced ska, other bands and musicians continued exploring ways to combine the energy and look of punk with bass heavy reggae. However, it wasn't until the Basement 5 that this true marriage of punk and reggae was finally realized.

Basement 5 were arguably the first black punk reggae band and are described by many artists who followed them as "hugely influential" and "groundbreaking". Mixing punk rock elements with reggae and dub, they broke down barriers and paved the way for other black bands to play rock music (see Fishbone, Asian Dub Foundation, Living Color). Starting out in London in 1978, Basement 5 created a politically charged, futurist, punk-fuelled dub. Picking up where The Sex Pistols and P.I.L. left off, the band's lyrics were an attempt to reflect the situation of young black and white people in Britain in the era of Thatcherism, high unemployment, strikes, racism, and working class poverty.

Originally assembled by former Roxy DJ and punk legend Don Letts with money from Island Records' chief Chris Blackwell, the band's lineup which also included future Big Audio Dynamite bassist Leo Williams, solidified when Sex Pistols/Bob Marley photographer Dennis Morris joined as the vocalist.

According to his bio: Dennis Morris started his career at an early age. He was 11years old when one of his photographs was printed on the front page of the Daily Mirror. A camera fanatic since the age of eight, Dennis was known around his East End neighbourhood as "Mad Dennis," due to his preference for photography over football. After inadvertently stumbling across a particularly feisty demonstration by the PLO one Sunday, the sharp young Dennis took his film to a photo agency on Fleet Street, who promptly sold it to the Daily Mirror for £16. Accustomed to raising money for films and camera parts by taking photos of christenings and birthday parties, Dennis was suddenly on to something; his hobby and all-consuming passion could be done for a living.

It was whilst bunking off school to wait for Bob Marley to arrive for soundcheck at the Speak Easy Club on Margaret Street, that Dennis's music photography career really began. Marley, quite taken with the young teenager who was waiting for him, invited Dennis to come along and take pictures on the remainder of the tour. Running home to Dalston, Dennis packed his bag and jumped on the bus. His photographs of Marley and The Wailers became famous the world over, appearing on the cover of Time Out and Melody Maker before Dennis had even turned 17.

It was Dennis's photos of Marley that caught the eye of the young Johnny Rotten. Rotten, a massive reggae fan, had long admired Dennis's work and requested that he take the first official shots of the Sex Pistols upon signing to Virgin Records. Still in his teens, Dennis was the same age as the Pistols and they soon learned to trust him completely, allowing him unrestricted access to their strange and chaotic existence. For a year, Dennis trailed the band, taking hundreds of undisputed classic shots of the band. The only photographer to put the Sex Pistols fully at ease in front of the lens, Dennis's work with the band established, not only their public image, but also Dennis's position as one of the most exciting and striking music photographers in the country.

When the Pistols split it was Dennis who accompanied John Lydon and Richard Branson on holiday to Jamaica. Now a close friend of Lydon's, the pair set about finding young reggae artists for Branson's record label. Enthused by the A&R bug, Dennis took a job as Art Director at Island Records and signed The Slits and L.K.J to the label. Still working with John Lydon, Dennis was instrumental in creating the seminal P.i.L sleeves, logo, and metal box. His passion for music led him to form his own pioneering black punk band, Basement Five.

In their short life, the band supported John Lydon's Public Image Limited (PIL) debut at London's Rainbow Theatre, performed a number of shows in Portugal and signed to Island Records. The result was the album "1965-1980" co-produced by the legendary Martin Hannet (Joy Division. Magazine). It became the first and only Basement 5 LP. Long out of print, it was eventually reissued as a partial album along with selected tracks from its original dub mini-LP partner 'Basement 5 In Dub'.

Morris was kind enough to take out of his busy schedule to conduct an interview with me:

What was it like growing up in London in the 70's?
Growing up in the seventies looking back was a very inspirational time due to the lack of money and opportunities we had to create our own identity (ie: clothes, find ways to make money..,), we had to be inventive; opportunities were never given, we had to take them! There were very few jobs.

Are there any similarities between taking photographs and writing/performing music?
For me photography / music are all the same. When I write songs/music, I write visually (ie: I picture the song in my head); I am a visual person. When I read, I read visually, the words become images; that’s why I am a very slow reader.

As an A&R rep for Virgin Records you signed The Slits and LKJ who are among the most iconic bands to come out of the UK in the 1980's. On the surface they are quite different. What did they have in common in your eyes?
I was in fact working with Island Records and my official position was head of Art with A&R capacity. This position came about through Chris Blackwell owner and founder of Island Records who approached me about joining the label. I was reluctant because Island had no one on the label I found interesting. After many meetings, I said I would only join if he let me sign and art directed LKJ and the Slits. He agreed. LKJ for me was the voice of the Youths of Black Britain. His poetry fused with Dennis Bowell’s Reggae beats captures the feelings of Black Britain of the time. The Slits were off the wall. I felt they would inspire other female artists to take up arms (ie instruments).

During the late 70's punk and reggae came together in a way that was unprecedented. There was an openness about exploring and creating new sounds and mixing cultures. How much of that informed the Basement 5 look and sound?
Basement 5 came through boredom. Bob Marley had died, the Pistols had split, P.I.L was losing direction and for me there was nothing around musically that interested me. So I did what was for me a natural progression, having worked in both music genre and creating images& identities for other musicians. In the case of Basement 5, the look (logo, image…) came before the music. The music was a collage of many influences not just reggae or punk. Not coming from a music background helped to create a unique sound.

Here is a video of the Basement 5 song 'No Ball Games':

As the first black punk rock band you helped break down barriers and influenced later black rock bands like Fishbone and Living Color. As a trailblazer what kind of reception did Basement 5 get from audiences?
The receptions we received were varied…white rock audiences loved us, but black audiences thought we were weird. I remember once playing a gig in Hamburg in a club. The owner booked us having heard about us and assumed that because we were black we must be a reggae band. On the night of the gig, all the local black reggae fans turned up, as soon as we hit the stage and started playing, the place emptied. The owner refused to pay us saying that he booked a reggae band!

Can you share any unusual stories about any Basement 5 shows that were particularly memorable?
Germany was always a great place to play. One particular gig, a riot broke out. Basically I walked on stage with the band, walked up to the mike and this guy spat in my face. I grabbed the mike smashed him across the head, he started bleeding. His friends tried to get on stage, I kicked them off, a huge fight started in the crowd. The gig was canceled and we had to get the police to escort us from the venue.

The Basement 5 LP '1965-1980' was produced by Martin Hannett (noted Joy Division producer) who had a very unorthodox reputation for recording songs in the studio. What was it like to work with him? Any unusual stories you can share about recording the album?
Working with Martin Hannett was a joy, he was truly a genius, rock’s equivalent of Lee Perry. Completely off the wall. We used everything available to get the sounds we wanted. I even did the vocals for Heavy Traffic outside the studio in the street. Anything was possible, he had an open mind, we truly connected. Incidentally the title 1965-1980 was a diary of my life growing up in Britain from 1965-1980.

Is it true that Charlie Charles from The Blockheads played drums in the recording studio and laid down his tracks in one day!
Charlie Charles from the Blockheads did play drums on all the tracks on the album. We had just finished touring with the Blockheads and had become great friends with Charles and Ian Durry. What basically happened was on the first day of recording, our drummer at the time (we had a lots of problems with drummers) completely flipped out. He had a nervous breakdown and walked out of the studio and to this day was never seen again. We were all in shock. Martin came up with the idea about Charlie Charles, I agreed, we made a call and within hours he was in the studio. He not only saved the day but also played some memorable beats. Sadly Charlie Charles is not with us any longer, like Ian Durry truly a great man.

After Basement 5 split up, you went onto form Urban Shakedown. Tell me about that band? Paul Weller signed you to his Respect Records label right?
Paul Weller did sign us to his Respect Label, in fact it was the first release on the label. After Basement 5 split, I worked to create a new sound. I was never truly happy with the bass sound on the album. So I decided to play bass myself with a young drummer named Michael Smith, stage name T. To get my sound, I basically split the sound on stage (ie: two rigs, one giving out bass end, the other top treble).

Your single 'The Big Bad Wolf' in 1984 with Urban Shakedown may have been the very first drum and bass song ever! What was the decision to just record bass and drums with horns playing a melody over the track to complement your vocals?
Big Bad Wolf was possibly the first Drum & Bass song, as I said earlier it was my desire to create something new. It was in my head I could hear it and see it.

Do you think the U2 borrowed elements of the Basement 5 look and sound?
U2 took everything from us. We played a few gigs together and we always blew them away. Our guitarist JR always wore a cowboy hat and played a flying V guitar; think of the Edge. Also he had a unique style of playing (rhythm and lead combine); think of the Edge. Bono’s stage antics were a complete copy of me, climbing on the PA, flag waving….There is a saying in Rock: “Beware of the support band!”.

The Basement 5 album captures the dismal years of Thatcher's reign in the UK and yet the songs have a timeless quality. What's you take on the current state of affairs around the world?
Bob Marley said “time will tell”. Look at the Basement 5 song “Last White Christmas” change is coming…”. Listen to "No Ball Games” Youth frustration, “Too soon” man’s fascination with space while the earth is dying, “Immigration”. I feel I got it right and it gives me great pleasure to know that there are people like yourself worldwide who feel the same. Thank you for your support. I will continue to create new images and sounds.

Here is a recent interview with Morris about his days in Basement 5 and his new musical project Stanley Kubrik Goes Shopping:

Below is the track listing and download from a Peel Session that the band recorded for the BBC in 1980:

Last White Christmas
No Ball Games
Silicon Chip

Basement 5 - BBC Sessions

Here is a download of the Urban Shakedown single 'The Big Bad Wolf'

Urban Shakedown - The Big Bad Wolf

Morris continues to work as a photographer and to write and record music. His latest project with Youth (formerly of Killing Joke) is a band called Stanely Kubrik Goes Shopping. You can read more about them and hear their songs at the Stanley Kubrik Goes Shopping MySpace site


The Urban Shop said...

saw basement 5 support PIL 1978 they were good but as I remember they were more reggae than that youtube clip maybe I'm wrong other acts include LKJ

Captain Skalett said...

Nice article Marc. Had'nt heard any of their stuff before. So found some. Thanks to Ad Nauseam for the link;

EdA said...

The "Big Bad Wolf" is up on YouTube now. Still a favorite of mine.