Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown

on December 28, 2008, 11:00am

England has a way with myths. Since the dawn of the popular music era, the English have stolen their music from their colonies and then written the history books to say they invented it. They don’t exactly call it “The British Invasion” over there. Truth be told, whether it was an American, an Indian, or a Jamaican—if you were English and played any instrument except the lute, anytime after 1950, somebody who used to make your sugar had been there first.

In most cases, the play-by-play of who stole what is fairly apparent. The Rolling Stones nicked from Howlin’ Wolf. The Who from Chuck Berry. The Beatles ripped off Ravi Shankar, and the Police basically kept Jamaica as a musical banana republic. The end.

But one story of theft—or tribute—that runs a little more below the surface is that of “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”: the dub reggae single by Augustus Pablo and King Tubby that may have accidentally reinvented punk. Without “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” there would be no post-punk. No goth. No electronic music. No Radiohead. Or, if there were, they’d sound a hell of a lot different.

In late 1979, as punk took its final stage dive, bands with an exciting, revolutionary sounds started coming out of the woodwork in droves. Bands with names like Bauhaus, Public Image Ltd, This Heat, and The Cure. These bands had the distilled energy and aggression of punk in art-school aesthetics and a deliberately echoey, cavernous sound…an all “too ubiquitous” echoey, cavernous sound, which sounded suspiciously like dub reggae. Was there just something in the water of Thames? Or were these bands reading each others’ minds? How was it possible that something like this could creep up overnight?

It all comes down to one song.

A dub version of Jacob Miller’s “Baby I Love You So”, “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” was the title track on Augustus Pablo’s 1976 collaboration with reggae innovator King Tubby. Dub, although young, was not by any means invented on this session: Lee Perry’s 1973 LP Blackboard Jungle is probably the first purely dub album. Nor was this dub’s big break as it had made been popular at mobile sound system parties in the late 1960’s. Why then, did this song ignite a sonic revolution in the hotbed of punk rock?

It all started on a dark and stormy night at the BBC on July 16, 1977. Capital Radio’s the Tommy Vance Show was set to host Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten for an interview. Records stores were shoveling out copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, and Rotten was practically run ragged with interviews and press. His first words on the program were: “Let’s wrap up a really, really, tedious interview. Because when it comes to it that’s exactly what it is. Just play the records…” [Fodderstompf]

Not having really been given, but simply taking carte blanche, Rotten proceeded to play all his favorite records, and dished out pithy comments on Catholic school, the Rolling Stones, and his manager, Malcolm McLaren. All interspersed with cuts by Tim Buckley, the Creation, David Bowie, and Rotten’s favorites. All was proceeding normally until Rotten dropped the needle on Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”. The rest is history:

VANCE: That’s a big pile of reggae records, I’ve never, ever, seen anybody with a big pile of reggae records, who’s in, ostensibly, a white band…

ROTTEN: Come ‘round my place sometime!

V: I mean, really.

R: I was brought up on it.

V: You were brought up in Islington, yeah?

R: I mean from the early skinhead days, when reggae was going around. I mean, really terrible stuff then, but you just got into it. I like a lot of soul as well.

The chain reaction was staggering—Vance’s late-night radio program had drawn in thousands of listeners from outside its normal talk-show demographic. Legend has it that the then-struggling reggae label Greensleeves was actually saved from bankruptcy by a 50,000 copy spike in sales of Dr. Alimentado’s single “Born For a Reason” after Rotten’s impromptu DJ night.

Suddenly, unsuspecting punks were being spoonfed prime-cut dub by the ringleader of their own revolution. The deep, cavernous sound of “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” became the hallmark of bands immediately to come. Dub’s subterranean basslines became the calling card of Bauhaus’s David J; Augustus Pablo’s funhouse-echo production became the stock-in-trade of the Cure and Siouxie and the Banshees; UB40 even made dub remixes of their own songs.

But at the time, nobody could tell that as Rotten synched up “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown he was cuing over thirty years’ worth of musical trends. Without This Heat’s appropriation of the cut-and-paste M.O. of dub, Radiohead’s reactionary Kid A might have been wholly impossible. My Bloody Valentine’s nearly instrumental Loveless might have been just another rock album. American indie bands like Les Savvy Fav and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs wouldn’t be able to cop Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash’s dub-savvy guitar squall.

While the trickledown effect of “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” reads like a grocery list of the best bands of the last three decades, the influence of Rotten’s DJ spot was so massive that dub’s infiltration into rock music appeared almost seamlessly. The effects were so widespread and wide-ranging that some of the aforementioned bands may never even have heard Tubby’s record. Some of these bands may not even know what dub is. Some of them might not be able to find Jamaica on a map.

But the damage is done. In two minutes and fifty eight seconds, Augustus Pablo unwittingly stemmed the flow of music history with a little help from the Sex Pistols. And thirty years later, Pablo and Tubby’s experiments are still being recycled by new bands like Liars, who got them from the British bands who lifted them off the punk records that supposedly “pioneered” these ideas in the late 70’s.

I suppose, at least musically, it’s the same old cliche. The sun never really does set on the British Empire.

They had to steal that phrase, too. Charles I of Spain was there first.

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