It is February 1977. I am eleven years old and my family have moved from Rochdale, Lancashire to inner city Birmingham. But we haven’t just moved from a small town to a big city. We’ve crossed other borders. We’ve moved into a more socially diverse place. We’ve moved from Britain’s homogenous past into its multicultural future. I’ve left a school with one black pupil on Friday and, on Monday, walked into a school where black kids are the majority.
Straight away it is the music that grips me. Althea & Donna are high in the charts and Rasta girls are skanking to its beat on tinny transistor radios in the playground. Then we have a school disco and the black kids demand to have some of their own music for a change, so the school let them organise it. A group of ex-pupils bring their sound system into the assembly hall on the night, filling it with giant speaker cabs that throb bass at spine-shuddering depths. Rasta boys take turns on the mic, chanting over dubplates, dreadlocks whipping the air around their heads.
I stand at the side, watching it all, shaking with excitement, not sure if I am allowed to dance to it, not sure how to if I am.
I fall in love with reggae that night. It is a love affair I never grow tired of. I sleep around with other sounds – punk, funk, classical, jazz, drum and bass – but I always come back to reggae. It’s the bass.
Babylon is the film that takes me back to that first flush of love for dub. And for fans of great British movies, Christmas has come early this year, because Babylon is finally out on DVD after years of neglect.
I’ve had a bad video recording of it since Channel 4 last broadcast it in 1990, and I accidentally taped over most of it years ago. There was a VHS release but it preceded the BBFC and copies are as rare as rocking horse shit. There was also a dodgy Italian DVD release, which was better than nothing, but when there are so many really bad Brit movies out on DVD, it’s always been a bloody crime that this film has never been widely available.
It’s a simple tale of a bunch of kids preparing for a sound system clash, but it’s also an uncompromising examination of racism in all its forms that never sacrifices character and story for the sake of politics, or even at the expense of the music (even though it contains the most stunning musical climax of any film I’ve ever seen courtesy of the almighty Jah Shaka sound system and Aswad’s Warrior Charge).
It’s more than just a film about reggae music. To me it’s the inner-city Britain I grew up in. When I see Blue, Beefy and Spark (even Ronnie the reggae-loving white kid) I see the kids I grew up with, trying to make their way out of the frying pan of the Winter of Discontent and into the fire of Thatcher’s depression with just their fragile friendships and their love of the music to give them hope.
Screenwriter Martin Stellman also wrote those other classic slices of gritty British realism Quadrophenia, Defence Of The Realm and For Queen And Country, and there is a clear thread running through them and on through the years to the films of Shane Meadows today.
This is an important British film and hopefuly this new beautifully remastered DVD release will cement its place in British film history. Buy this DVD now.
Angus Taylor’s review at Britmovie.