Arguably, most pop/reggae fusions should have been stubbed out along with the joint that first inspired them. Recent evidence bears this out: Sugar Ray’s insipid “I Just Wanna Fly,” Ace of Base’s criminal “All That She Wants (Is Another Baby),” and pretty much all of the nauseating funk/reggae of 311 will be played on a permanent loop in hell’s waiting room. But the genre wasn’t always such a gruesome train wreck. Before Sting’s ego engulfed the Police, songs such as “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Walking on the Moon” artfully paired twangy reggae syncopation with punk’s ironic lyricism.
Punk’s alliance with reggae arches back to the scene’s beginnings, where disaffected white English youth found common ground with impoverished Jamaican immigrants in the bleak post-industrial misery of ’70s London. The punks recognized that the Jamaicans were victims of the same racial and class-based discrimination they themselves were reacting against, while the dreads correctly identified the punks as fellow suffrahs on the bottom rung of a system designed to keep them all politically and economically marginalized. It was only a matter of time before this common experience was reflected in music.
Wild Dub, from Germany’s progressive roots label Select Cuts, explores this collaboration through a reissue of rare B-sides from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bands such as the Clash, the Slits, Generation X, and Stiff Little Fingers got the dub treatment from producers including Adrian Sherwood, Mikey Dread, and Dennis Bovell, then at the most radical stages of their production careers.
The first two tracks, the Clash’s “Bankrobber” and the Ruts’ protest song “Jah War,” are traditionally Jamaican in structure, full of simple drumming, distorted guitar riffs, and out-of-context voices trailing off into deep echo and reverb. But the comp isn’t simply a punk/reggae makeover; it disassembles and remakes the original music using dub’s expansive style as a framework. The tracks are wildly varied in style. Bovell’s radical dissection of the Slits’ “Typical Girl” and Sherwood’s whooshing and disturbed treatment of Vivian Goldman’s “Private Armies” evoke punk’s cut-and-paste collage aesthetic, while the Pop Group’s alternately spaced out and frantic “Where There Is a Will,” contains a readily identifiable swing that points the way to modern dance music.
This is a remarkable collaboration of elements, a snapshot from a time of volatile politics and unmatched creativity and talent. Wild Dub beautifully demonstrates that, however brief the marriage, punk and reggae really were kindred spirits, and why no amount of pot-inspired slap bass is ever going to reunite them.