Reggae’s reckoning: how 1970s stars were deprived of their fair share
Sitting on a park bench in Dollis Hill, northwest London, Dave Barker watches his younger self on the screen of my smartphone. The Jamaican singer, 73, is viewing a clip of his appearance on BBC television chart show Top of the Pops in 1971. “I am the magnificent,” the figure on the screen cries in a supple tenor, outfitted in a splendid purple suit and spotted scarf. The gleefully boastful vocal is the intro to Dave & Ansell Collins’s “Double Barrel”, one of the earliest reggae songs to reach number one in the UK.
A hit throughout Europe and the US, “Double Barrel” was a major step in Jamaica’s David-and-Goliath emergence as a global musical force. It capped the arrival of reggae as a mainstream genre in the UK, a sign of the nation’s changing identity and the powerful influence of Caribbean, Asian and African postwar immigrants. Five decades later, the song still sounds flush with optimism. A bass line lightly jaunts up and down the scale amid an offbeat, accented rhythm. A keyboard melody rings out, its emphatic punctuation matched by Barker’s proud exclamations.
Barker — the “Dave” in Dave & Ansell Collins — had flown from Jamaica to do Top of the Pops with keyboardist Collins and their backing band. “When we reached the BBC and we were shown our dressing room, which was a big, lovely room, I had to pinch myself,” he remembers. “‘Is this real?’ I said to myself. ‘Am I dreaming?’ One minute I am back home and the next I am here, appearing on the BBC.”
“Double Barrel” was followed by a Dave & Ansell Collins album and another hit, “Monkey Spanner”. The duo were the UK’s sixth best-selling singles act in 1971. While Collins returned to Jamaica after touring the UK, Barker remained. “Double Barrel” was his ticket to a new life in London. But the singer — today dressed sombrely, in contrast to the imperial finery of his Top of the Pops garb — is unable to discuss the song’s 50th anniversary without a rising tone of anger.
“What is owed to me, what I should have gotten, has been taken away from me,” he says. “Which has caused a lot of hardship and suffering. Both me and my family, we have suffered. We have been through some rough times. And not only me. Right now, you have artists in Jamaica who have made wonderful music, which has been sold all over the globe, and they’re suffering.”
For its singer and co-author, “Double Barrel” has come to assume a bitter significance — a triumph whose rewards were snatched away from him in a song rights and royalties controversy that dogged reggae’s rise to international prominence and which is still being felt today.
“I cannot celebrate this 50th anniversary because I’m not pleased,” he says. “I am very unhappy. We have been treated very badly.”
Like Cuba, its larger neighbour to the north, Jamaica has had a cultural impact far out of proportion to its size. When Barker recorded his vocals for “Double Barrel” in the Jamaican capital Kingston in 1970, the island had a population of fewer than two million. Reggae took form in the late 1960s, emerging from a musical culture based around competing sound systems in which rival teams of DJs and engineers played records over sound rigs in dance halls and open-air venues. Deeply rooted in Jamaican life, this new style of music unexpectedly struck a chord overseas. It found a particularly welcoming home in the UK, Jamaica’s former colonial ruler.
Reggae’s radical effect on the course of British popular music rivals that of punk. Its singular syncopation and prominent bass can be heard in later genres such as grime and drum-and-bass. Indeed, the extent of its penetration into the textures of British life was clear early on. In 1970, Chelsea football club began using Harry J Allstars’ reggae instrumental “Liquidator” as an official club song. In 1969, Desmond Dekker & The Aces’ “Israelites” reached number one in the charts. “Double Barrel” was the next reggae hit to do so two years later. The music’s popularity was aided by rock’s increasing self-seriousness. In its early years, before socially conscious roots‑reggae emerged, reggae was music to dance to — an act of escapism.
Barker was 22 when he recorded “Double Barrel”. An established singer who had worked with leading figures in Kingston’s music scene, including Coxsone Dodd and Lee “Scratch” Perry, he was recruited by the song’s producer, Winston Riley. The music had already been recorded, arranged by Ansell Collins and featuring a teenage drummer called Sly Dunbar, soon to become one of reggae’s most celebrated musicians. What it needed was vocals.
Struggling at first to get a feel for the song, Barker extemporised the opening line, and then the rest of the lyrics, which consist of James Brown-style barked utterances (“Work it on, baby”) and references to James Bond’s 007 code number — a surrealist collage of phrases. As we sit together, he sings some of it to me in a still-vibrant voice. “It wasn’t something I had to write down on a piece of paper. It just came to me spontaneously,” he explains.
As creator of the song’s vocal melody and lyrics, Barker should have received a co-songwriting credit. But standard practice in the Jamaican music industry at that point was for producers to hire singers and musicians, and keep the song rights for themselves. Barker says that he received about “30 to 40 Jamaican dollars” for “Double Barrel” — a standard rate at the time, equivalent to £15 to £20 in 1970 (perhaps £250 today). He received a similar amount for “Monkey Spanner”.
A hit in Jamaica, “Double Barrel” was licensed for distribution in the UK to the London-based label Trojan Records. Set up a few years earlier to cater for Caribbean people who had settled in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, the label also promoted reggae to the type of mainstream audience that tuned into Top of the Pops. Without Trojan, the music may never have left Jamaica’s shores; its catalogue of up to 20,000 songs is celebrated as one of reggae’s finest troves of recordings. But the label’s habit of signing contracts with producers rather than artists replicated unfair practices that had been established in Jamaica. It was left up to the producers to decide whether to distribute royalties to singers and musicians.
Barker’s dealings with Trojan were likewise informal; he was not offered a contract when the song was released in the UK in 1971. While he was in the UK touring “Double Barrel” and “Monkey Spanner”, he remembers being called with Collins into Trojan’s office by the label’s founder, Lee Gopthal, who advised them to get a lawyer. “He also turned and said: ‘You guys never heard this from me. I’m just advising you to go and sort things out before it gets too late.’”
Good advice — but impractical. Barker was a young Jamaican musician newly arrived in a foreign country, whose legal system, moreover, was hardly known for its impartial attitude to people of colour. “We didn’t have a clue,” he says now. Trojan did give Barker more money, a cheque for £1,000 — intended to offset his touring costs after he complained about only having one stage outfit. Given that “Double Barrel” charted across Europe and reached number 22 in the US, likely selling well over a million copies, it is a fraction of what Barker believes he was owed.
He should have received a specified royalty rate from sales of the recording and publishing royalties as the song’s co-author. But for most of the song’s lifetime he has received neither. In the 1990s, when he came to realise the scale of his loss, he went to a lawyer. “Look,” he was told, “you have let this thing ride for quite a long while. I can’t help you because you don’t have the money to pay me.”
In 1975, Trojan Records went into liquidation, leaving royalties and debts unpaid. Its huge song catalogue was transferred to a complex sequence of incorporations. Later that year, it re-emerged through Trojan Recordings, which was purchased 10 years later by a company run by accountant and businessman Colin Newman. In 2001, Newman sold the Trojan catalogue to the London label Sanctuary Records for £10.25m; six years later, Sanctuary itself was purchased by Universal Music Group, which in turn sold Sanctuary’s catalogue, including Trojan’s songs, to the Berlin-based record label BMG in 2013.
Barker signed a recording contract with Trojan Recordings in 1988, prior to its sale to Sanctuary. He finally obtained his writer’s credit in 2003 when Riley made an agreement to recognise him and Collins as co-writers of “Double Barrel” and “Monkey Spanner”. A BMG spokesman says the label — which deals with Barker’s recording royalties not his publishing royalties as co-writer — is “pleased to have a good working relationship with Dave Barker and Ansell Collins”. But Barker is aggrieved at losing his stake in the song during its most valuable years, when it was a huge hit. He has also missed out on licensing revenue, he adds: “Double Barrel” has been sampled more than 100 times, including by Prince and Kanye West.
Complaints from musicians about getting ripped off have a long and difficult history in pop music. Black musicians have been particularly badly affected. But the situation in reggae has a postcolonial edge. For all that its popularity in the UK in the 1970s was the soundtrack to the country’s consolidation as a multicultural society, the music’s passage from Jamaica served only to magnify the problem of producers claiming sole credit for songs. Upon crossing the Atlantic, it entered a British legal maze.
In 2016, Barker’s revenue from “Double Barrel” was frozen by the royalty collection agency PRS for Music because another music publishing company put forward a claim for a share of the rights. Last December, the dispute was closed and Barker’s revenue was finally restored. PRS for Music will not comment on the matter, but state that it has “a process in place to resolve and identify dispute claims”.
“There is worry and stress, bills upon bills coming in,” Barker says. He and his wife live in Neasden, a northwest London suburb with a drab reputation. People can’t believe that a star of Jamaican reggae has not prospered more, he says. “Dave Barker, from Dave & Ansell Collins, living in Neasden? In just some ordinary lifestyle? Naah.”
Barker’s plight is echoed by another Jamaican singer who moved to London in the 1970s. Dennis Alcapone is a pioneer of the vocal style known as “toasting” — a form of sing-speak developed by sound system DJs as they talked over records in the late 1960s. In Alcapone’s heyday, he was among Jamaica’s leading toasters. “My Voice Is Insured For Half A Million Dollars” is the title of one of the many songs he recorded. (This was braggadocio: his vocal cords were not really insured.)
When we speak, Alcapone (born Dennis Smith) tells a similar story. His songs were mainly distributed in the UK by Trojan Records as well. “It’s been a lot of exploitation that’s been going on over the years,” the 73-year-old says, talking from his east London home.
Contracts in Jamaica were often verbal, he explains. Producers frequently sold their music abroad and did not tell the artists, meaning that they could avoid paying them royalties. “We were just happy to sing because we loved the music so much,” he says. “We never knew we could get a reward from it . . . When I travelled to England I realised that there were a lot of things going on that I did not know.”
When Trojan’s song catalogue was sold in 2001, none of that money was shared among Trojan acts, Alcapone says: “If we hadn’t read in the paper that that company was sold, we wouldn’t know that it had been sold.” The man responsible for the sale, Colin Newman, tells the Financial Times that “the allegations that have been put forward have no merit”.
Alcapone remembers going to a concert once in Reading, where a small boy spotted him driving a Ford Cortina, a popular but prosaic British car in the 1970s. The boy was disbelieving that it could really be Alcapone, the sound system star.
“Because he’d heard my name over the years he thought I’d be driving a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. He was convinced that I wasn’t Dennis Alcapone,” he laughs ruefully, then grows serious. “Right now, when a bill comes through the door I have to start worrying where I’m going to get the money to pay for it. Meanwhile, other people are living a big life off my work.”
British reggae has suffered similar difficulties. Pablo Gad, 65, is a British-Jamaican roots-reggae singer who released his best-known song “Hard Times” in 1979 on a UK label. It recounted a visit back to Kingston where he was shocked by the poverty he encountered. “Do you really wanna know what ’appen to our silver an’ gold?” he sings — a question that has rebounded on its writer.
“Hard Times” has been sampled almost 20 times, including by the UK rave act The Prodigy in 1992 for their hit single “Fire”. They were able to do so, entirely legally, without approaching Gad or paying him.
Following the 1981 liquidation of the label that released it, Burning Sounds, the song’s publishing rights were ultimately claimed by yet another company, New Town Sound, owned by Trojan Recordings’ former owner Colin Newman who, again, denies any impropriety.
When I speak to Gad, he is in north London. “I’m nomadic, I don’t live anywhere, I’m here, there and everywhere,” he says. “I didn’t get the money to buy the house.”
One of the people watching Top of the Pops that night in 1971 was Errol Michael Henry. Eight years old at the time and living in south London, he went on to become a music producer and songwriter. After recording a song with Barker in 1988, he learnt about the singer’s difficulties.
Based on his experiences recovering his own song rights from major music companies, Henry now represents Barker in his attempts to recover lost revenues and assets, along with Alcapone and Gad, on a no-win, no-fee basis. Last December, he persuaded PRS for Music to unfreeze the money owed to Barker and close the dispute for the revenues from “Double Barrel”.
Henry doesn’t believe that blame lies with the Jamaican producers: in fact, the issue is with the deals that were done in the UK, he says. “They’re awful. They’re fundamentally unfair. The problem isn’t in Jamaica, the problem is here. There’s a systemic problem with companies not returning rights.”
Last year, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, BMG, mindful of what it described as “the music industry’s record of shameful treatment of black artists”, pledged to review all historic record contracts. Trojan was not at first included, but the company now says that it will launch a standalone investigation. “If any issues are found, they will of course be addressed,” a BMG spokesperson tells the FT.
The 50th anniversary of “Double Barrel” is a tribute to reggae’s almost unparalleled success, the national music of a small Caribbean island that rose to global prominence. It transformed the sound of British pop, a powerful act of creativity exerted by a former colonial territory over its one-time ruler. But there is a historic injustice at its heart.
“The thing I would love to see happen is for the people who are in the position to make things right to stand up, step forward and do what’s right,” Barker says, in an emphatic voice — not unlike the way he once proclaimed his magnificence to millions of watching British households. “We are the people who created the music, so give us justice.”
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop music critic
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