Aswad: Stepping Across the Front Line

Lloyd Bradley finds out why Britain’s foremost reggae rockers still aren’t satisfied.

IN HOLLYWOOD’S golden years, before movie brats and technology overkill, a director’s biggest headache could well have been having to work with the Marx Brothers.

The reason? It was practically impossible to get all four of them into the same place at the same time. One would show up, see that the others hadn’t, and go off to look for them… while he was away, the rest would arrive, separately, and wander off with the same intention. Sometimes this could go on all day!

All Saints Road, London W11 is in all ways distant from Hollywood past, but I figure Peter Anderson and I come pretty close to feeling just like those film makers as we await Aswad.

The number of band members present is never more than three out of four, always at least one, with whoever is there never “quite sure exactly” where the others are… but certain they’ll “soon come”.

You see, down here on The Frontline where Jah people can gather just outside the clutches of Babylon, Aswad are at home; they’re local celebrities and so nearly every passer-by provides some sort of distraction.

We spend an hour in the afternoon sun, watching, listening and waiting before Drummie Zeb appears from a cluster of identikit dreads and with a slightly crooked smile asks: “Feeling the vibe of The Frontline yet?… Seen, let’s go and do it!”

Suddenly, everyone’s there. Levi was never far away, Tony Gad materialises with the supplies (strictly fruit juice), and Brinsley Forde roars up in a BMW. There are still a couple of trips “round the corner” to be made and a photo session in the local park where the lads swap hats, from a supply in Tony’s flat, and clown in poses of exaggerated dread before the tape recorder finally rolls.

ASWAD HAVE survived as a unit for seven years now — seven years of standing on the verge of huge success in a curious no-man’s-land bordered by critical acclaim and public rejection. Their move to CBS last year, after a long silence, looked set to change that, but their first release for the label New Chapter — despite being the most innovative and advanced reggae album ever — stayed in that void.

Now, after such a disappointment and learning to take a small step sideways to make their latest set Not Satisfied, less demanding on ears and brain, Aswad are looking more relaxed than I have ever seen them. They are talking easily, and willing to discuss the shortcomings of their career so far.

Brinsley begins: “New Chapter was exactly that, a new chapter. Apart from Showcase (A compilation of their singles with updated mixes) it was the first thing we’d put out since Hulet (a gap of several years). We were with a new record company and we wanted to put out something special. It was the first album we’ve ever made that was consciously looking for direction.

“What happened was that we perhaps put too much effort into it and it turned out too intricate, missing the mainstream reggae market. That’s the market we’ve got to break first if we want to go on anywhere else, so we put out the New Chapter Of Dub, which was some of the tracks that we’d already given to the sound systems, and now this album which is much more immediate.”

Tony: “A lot of the tracks on this set were recorded before we did New Chapter, so it’s not like it’s a step backwards. We felt that we needed something that we can get to the people straight away, and then take them back to where we were with New Chapter.”

Failure to break into the hardcore reggae market is a major reason for the band’s lack of success. It is a notoriously conservative area, with a built-in defence system against changes on the scale Aswad are attempting, but obviously they have spent a long time thinking around the problem.

Brinsley: “If you listen to what really happens on the sounds or in the shops, it’s really just one rhythm track that goes round and round, lasting for about six months ’til something else takes over. Now, we’re not really dealing with that — we could go and make music just for sound systems, we do dub mixes for that purpose, but we want to do the music that people will take home as well.

“That’s why we had to find the balance like we did with Not Satisfied, so that it will appeal to the mainstream after one hearing and still have enough to listen to when you take it home.”

Drummie: “As well, our sound is not a studio sound which is what the main reggae market is used to.

“When we first came out, we did break that market. Then we did a lot of touring, often with rock or ‘new wave’ bands, and we started playing music a little differently. That’s when the people (reggae buyers) started to change, and talking about ‘Nah, English reggae business’.

“Then came our absence, when the band went through some changes, and that was the time when we had some material that wouid’ve suited the market and still’ve been different, but we had no one to release it with. By the time we’d got to Grove Music and tried to take it from there, we’d got out of touch with the studio, because all our work had been live. It was at that time that we got some of the stuff on this new album together.”

AS WELL as balancing the music to reach one audience, Aswad have also been working on their lyrics. The talk of confrontation has been replaced with words of love and harmony, and the mystic/spiritual lines have been phased out so as to make it all more accessible. Brinsley: “It’s something we’ve learned over the years, you know what the market’s like, anything too spiritual is like a curt thing. People who aren’t into it look on it as a sort of code, like another language, and pay it no mind. But to do it like this, the same message will get across but in a way that anybody can put their own interpretation on it and so accept it. After all, it’s the same problems that face everybody, and we’re all struggling for the same things out of life — whatever name we put on it.”

Tony: “There’s a time when it’s right to come straight out and say things, and a time when you should be more subtle. When we were younger, we’d say anything to anybody. (Aswad had a reputation at Island Records for taking the straight-talking bit too far at times, and pissing off a lot of people.)

“But now we know the right way to get things done. I suppose it’s a matter of growing up.”

That is it, right on the spot. Aswad have grown up. The acceptance that their music must be aimed at more than one type of audience and their philosophical approach to lyrics, in fact their relaxed manner in general, is a sign that the band has come of age.

They are big enough to see that what they have should not be trapped in All Saints Road, as it can benefit the whole society. Also, they are not ignoring that area by cutting reggae that would be accepted only on a Radio One playlist. Simply, they want to take The Frontline with them on their travels, tearing down a few walls while they do it. Balanced music to lead to a balanced world. It’s quite a mature theory.

I think I’m getting close to what Aswad are really about, past the army fatigues and those belligerent stares in publicity shots, so finally I ask why they’ve stuck it out so long, and where they see it all leading.

Drummie: “Well obviously we’re in it to sell records, because the more records we sell we know that more people are hearing the message (of love and unity).”

Brinsley: “If we were looking for that number one single, and to go and rave on Top Of The Pops, we’d have stopped years ago!

“You get up there for two or three weeks, and then you’re forgotten. We’re about something more serious than that, and while we have to make sure that our music sells we don’t want to let what we feel as musicians suffer. We want to make every album better than the one before… we can improve on Not Satisfied, but it won’t be obvious until you hear the next one.”

Tony: “We’ll go on until we can’t improve no more, because what’s the point of stopping when you’ve still got something more to offer, or going on when you haven’t?”

© Lloyd BradleyNew Musical Express, 21 August 1982

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