15, 16 and 17: Balham Dance Studio; Fred Locks: Liberty Cinema, London

15, 16 AND 17 appeared at the Balham Dance Studio, a large, pretty empty room. (It was virtually an unadvertised gig). 15, 16 and 17 are a female vocal trio aged — here it comes, inevitability fans — 15, 16 and 17. All their singles have been hits in the roots reggae market, and they’re the kind of sob-sweet soul that could so easily be played on the radio and be crossover hits that it’s a living embarrassment to British radio structure that they’re not.

Anyway, the gig was pretty much a slipshod affair, but what was interesting was that even with a just-better-than-second-rate band backing ’em, and even though the gals hadn’t wanted to do the gig at all due to some financial friction, they can whip it out on request (vocally speaking) with flair. They sang their biggest hits — ‘Black Skin Boy’, ‘Emotion’, ‘Imagination’ — and 16’s vibrato-ridden, crutch-quivering lead vocals are as teenage angst-full as any Shangri-Las shudderama.

15, 16 and 17 make me ‘if… if… if’. If they start writing their own thoughtful material, and if they hook up with a strong band (both of which events, I’m assured by their manager/producer Castro Brown, are currently being set up), and if they get airplay/exposure, they’ll be unstoppable. The voices and the spirit are already there.

Present at the gig was none other than Fred Locks, surprisingly still smiling after having been detained at immigration that day. First time out of Jamaica, i.e. first time in the cold, and the lad’s still smiling… a convoy hurtled eastwards to check Fred’s set at the Liberty Cinema, Mile End.

Bearing in mind all the aggro that Fred had lived through in the previous 24 hours, not to mention the fact that he’d never rehearsed with the band, he did well. Is this the way to treat a legend? Fred’s 4.00am or so appearance was a tantalising glimpse of how great he might have been. He sang ‘Wolf’, ‘Black Star Liner’, Love And Harmony’, ‘True Rastaman’ and my favourite off his classic Black Star Liner album, ‘Walls’. Dressed in militant khaki, Fred skanked gently, rhythmically; when he flashed his locks — definitely a jokey cliché by now — he did it unobtrusively, just tugged off his cap to let the longest locks of any reggae musician I can think of flood his jacket, without going all Vegas about it. His voice is just like his singing voice on record, penetrating, distinctively husky, and that’s the highest compliment he could receive.

So. Great though it was to finally get to see Fred Locks, the inexcusable lack of forethought that shoved him onstage in front of a packed house with zero preparation could almost be enough to make him revert to his recent declaration of leaving music.

Seems to me as if there’s a spotlight currently on reggae music, and the majority of the people involved in organising reggae gigs don’t realise the growing audience deserves better than either of the shows taking place this night. Come to that, so do the artists. I’m going to see Fred again as soon as possible, and so should you.

© Vivien GoldmanSounds, 13 May 1978

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