Trains have an emblematic relationship with reggae and its predecessor ska.
The chugging offbeat imitating a steam engine has been a running theme throughout its history. From choo-choo vocals of the Ethiopian’s classic “Train to Skaville,” to Keith & Tex’s rock steady anthem, “Stop that Train,” and The Wailer’s song of the same title, reggae is awash with train themes; it’s only apt there’s such thing as “Great Western Reggae,” and a substantial scene in the historic railway town of Swindon.
Pop-a-Top Records is Swindon’s label dedicated to its reggae homebrew. It’s headed by the ex-Skanxter, Erin Bardwell and his Collective who’ve just released “Great Western Reggae Soundclash,”a double-album which serves as a prodigious sampler for Pop-a-Top’s Great Western Reggae style.
In those ravey daze, the Skanxters were a local archaic blessing, harking to an era when life was less Altern 8 and more, well, Specials. I fondly recall heady nights following the Skanxters, at the Queen’s Tap, The Vic, and the Lamb in Marlborough, and remember the disheartening revelation a gig at Level III in 98 would be their last. I reminisce how, during their comical, “I’ll never know (who nicked my bike),” lead singer Andy Paton would ask the dodgiest looking audience member, “Oi, was it you?” and how once I was selected for the honour!
Imagine my delight at catching up with Erin, who played keyboards in the band and hasn’t stopped since. “Not all the artists (on Pop-a-Top) are from Swindon,” Erin explained, “but most are, or have links to it.” With countless projects under his belt, such as dub production duo Subject A’s “Sleepwalkers” release with ex-Skanxter bass player Dean Sartain, and nostalgic two-tone reunion gigs for the Skanxters, Erin is exceptionally prolific.
Though meticulous effort has been refined into “Great Western Reggae Soundclash,” and while not astoundingly lyrical, despite the opening track “Rock Steady Rub,” with vocals parallel to Johnny Cash popping into Studio One, GWR concentrates more-so on keyboards akin to Jackie Mitto.
The Collective glide steadily through a plethora of traditional rock steady, which while wouldn’t sound out of place on a Trojan “Tighten Up” compilation, also has a sprinkle of reflections on Swindon. Again, in the aforementioned running train theme, the tongue-in-cheek “Night Bus to Highworth,” and a nod to Edith New, the Swindonian suffragette first to campaign in an aggressive manner.
Fans of Jamaican music in Britain tend to separate into two trends, echoing dub and skinhead ska; the transitional stage is often overlooked. When really, developed through hard times in 1960s Kingston, where curfews set by the government to curb “rude boy” culture, it consequently mellowed the mood for the following era, and was Jamaica’s most creative period musically.
To hark back to this rock steady/boss reggae period is tried and tested in this album, a rarity left to groups like New York’s Frightnrs, who in turn add a little New Yorker panache to their sound. The Eric Bardwell Collective do similar, plus, while fundamentally inspired by rock steady they’re not afraid to explore techniques usually saved for ska or reggae, from chugging choo-choo vocals to nyabinghi drums and one drops, the tune “Why Why,” being a grand example of this, and along with both male and female vocals, the latter supplied by Dominican-born Sandra Bell, it makes the sound wholly unique and excitingly refreshing.
With rich history including backing reggae star Dennis Bovell, and a trip to Jamaica in 2003, to record at Byron Lee’s legendary Dynamic Sounds with Studio One engineer Sylvan Morris, Erin Bardwell has the contacts to add a plethora of talent to feature within the Collective. On this release you’ll find Selecter Guitarist Neol Davies, drummer Matty Bane of the Neville Staple Band, Pat Powell of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra alongside Swindon’s finest line-up, such as, among others, horns from the SN Dubstation.
There’s much here to impress and delight the reggae enthusiasts, my personal favourite being “Change,” where the Byron Lee influences shine, reminding of the frequently sampled piano riff of “My Conversation,” by the Uniques. Although there’s equally as much inspiration external to reggae, at times the soundscape took me to contemplate early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett days, and a sprinkling of Sgt Pepper towards the album’s close. So, I figure there’s as much here to enjoy for the occasional reggae listener.
There’s an album launch at the Thomas Hughes Memorial Hall in Uffington on December 1st, the Erin Bardwell Collective are also live at The Castle in Swindon on Friday 8th and Zed Alley in Bristol 15th December. If that’s too close to the big C, I’d highly recommend you keep warm and treat yourself to an early yule pressie; grab yourself a CD or download of this outstanding local riddim redeemer here at Bandcamp.
For more info on Erin Bardwell Collective and the Top-a-Pop label, click here.