“AMPLIFICATION AND records. If you have those two items, then you can go somewhere”, says Percival Miller, better known as Metro, a pivotal figure in the development of British sound system culture. Although the fabled Duke Vin claims to have been the first to introduce Jamaican sound systems to England in 1955, Metro was a formidable presence in this area from the late Fifties, exploiting his skills as an electrician to have a qualitative impact on the nascent British scene. The Notting Hill Carnival of today is an indirect product of the entrepreneurial spirit and technical experimentation of such men as the Duke, Count Suckle and Metro in the 1960s.
“My intention is power,” states Metro today. As well as organising his own system, Metro built amplifiers and speakers for others in Manchester, Bristol and London. Indeed, Jah Shaka, a current London system chief, continues to use the powerful valve amps Metro constructed for him. “I’ve still got them and I’m still using them 20-odd years after - so that’s how good they are,” says Shaka.
Metro was one of many optimistic Jamaicans to migrate to Britain in 1958, the year of the first Notting Hill riots, a decade after the SS Windrush docked in London. Metro recalls that he brought with him 22 rhythm and blues records belonging to his British-resident brother, which duly delighted the passengers on the monotonous trip from Jamaica. Funnily enough, his brother remained unaware of Metro’s arrival in Nottingham for some time after. The records became Metro’s calling card.
“When I got on the ship,” he says, “these records were entertaining people until I came off the ship. I set the passengers alight, because these records I had, the ordinary sound system in Jamaica didn’t get them.” This wave of enthusiasm was soon dampened however, when he found that the likeliest place to land a job in Nottingham was down a coal mine. “When I got here, I cry living tears,” he says ruefully. “When I think of the happiness and music I left behind in Jamaica…. I didn’t know where I was - I was lost.”
As he would experience himself, sound systems in England drew disparate, disorientated immigrants together and recreated something of the musical atmosphere of Jamaica. But only up to a point. In the Caribbean, Metro was accustomed to the blockbusting amplification of the system belonging to Duke Reid, who performed at the botanical gardens his parents ran. In England, however, Metro was struck by the feebleness of the sound. “Imagine, I’d left Jamaica to listen to this,” he says.
Ironically, he had dreamt about building a sound system in Britain and once in London, he began modifying amplifiers and speakers. He housed a 12-inch speaker in a mahogany cabinet acquired from the plywood factory he was working in at the time. This huge cabinet - a “house of joy”, in the vernacular - was initially too big to be moved out of the room it was built in. He also created a 300watt amplifier by using “807” valves, the common currency in Jamaican systems, and experimenting with compositers and resistors. His animation over this particular item is still palpable: “When this thing lit up, the valves were as blue as indigo. When you were playing, you could see the electrons actually flowing in the valve itself!”
He called his system Metro Downbeat, in homage to Clement Dodd’s famous Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat system. Metro performed in Manchester, Birmingham and, in London, at the Flamingo club in Soho and in the aptly-named Metro Club in Ladbroke Grove. The antagonism between opposing systems in Jamaica was notorious and the supporters of one sound system were often subjected to physical intimidation by those of another. But, Metro maintains, the competition in Britain was still more intense: “It was wicked,” he says. “It was even worse than Jamaica. It reached a stage that nobody talked about Jamaica, because it was happening here now. It start to boom.”
As a measure of the competition, Metro continued the Jamaican practice of removing the labels from records to hide their identity from rivals. He played obscure R&B from America by musicians such as Felix Gross, Consalez, Calvin Boze and Joe Lutcher. He remains proud of his vast collection of imported rarities, despite the fact that he had to order many of them anonymously from shops which, because of his race, he would not have been permitted to enter in person. He still retains the competitive enthusiasm that drove him in the 1960s. “Listen, man,” he says. “I’ve got records from American shops like Rock and Roll in the Bronx and Ray Avery’s record shop in California.”
Oddly, there was some initial resistance to bluebeat and ska from Jamaicans resident in Britain, as if this hybrid form, spontaneously fashioned from the indigenous island music, called mento, and North American R&B were somehow suspect. Early ska records were not played on the radio, so Metro and members of the other sound systems, undeterred by their audience’s indifferent response, gradually altered the dancers’ musical taste. Metro recollects that ska “breaks itself in by we playing the music”, and, by 1964 “everybody was skaing and Slim Smith and all those guys came on the scene, and there’s a change, you could actually see the changes in the music”. In due course, homegrown Jamaican ska was deliberately recorded for a growing English market.
During one gig in 1969, the retina of Metro’s right eye was damaged when a glass was hurled in a fight. “I got this eye blind through sound system,” he says. “Somebody threw a drinking glass and it hit me straight in the eye. I was way up on the stage. It wasn’t intended for me.” Although Metro continued his sound system, the long, late hours took their toll on his injured eye: “When sleep comes in that eye, the pain that I get!” This precipitated his decision, in 1979 - ironically at the height of reggae’s popularity among rock fans - to discontinue his Metro Downbeat.
Metro attended the first Notting Hill Carnival, and Jah Shaka, a current sound system maestro, is happy to pay his respects. “There’s not much people using old stuff, everybody’s mostly gone digital now,” he says. But Shaka remains infatuated with the sound produced by Metro’s valve amplifiers. “If you’ve got a recipe and it’s working,” he says, “what are you going to get something else for?”
Jah Shaka is celebrating the Notting Hill Carnival by performing at the Tudor Rose nightclub at The Green, Southall, tonight. The Notting Hill Carnival takes place on Sunday and Monday
The Great British
In Jamaica, Duke Vin had been decksman for Tom “The Great” Sebastian’s “sound” in the early Fifties, preceding both the legendary Clement Dodd and Duke Reid into the market. On arrival in this country in 1955, Vin instigated the first British sound system, playing a set of American R&B to dancers up and down the country. Subsequently, he pioneered a somewhat reluctant Anglo taste for bluebeat, ska and reggae.
Named in tribute to Clement Dodd’s famous Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat in Kingston, Jamaica, the British Sir Coxsone’s is a long-standing staple of the British sound system scene, now mainly turning out for “revival” dances. Noel Hawks, owner of reggae emporium Dub Vendor, says: “Sir Coxsone started in the Sixties, played town halls everywhere throughout the Seventies and had a residency at the Roaring Twenties Club.”
Shaka is an institution in the sound system world, with a penchant for mighty roots rhythms of a spiritually and politically didactic nature. “I’m not into competition,” he says. “I go round the world spreading the message of God to people. It’s not just about playing a record.” He has not played Notting Hill Carnival since 1986, when a performance fee was introduced.
Aba Shanti-I/ Boom Shacka Lacka/ Manasseh
Three sounds illustrating the diversity of the modern sound system. Hawks says: “They’re based on the Shaka attitude and therefore different to most contemporary sound systems. They mainly play dub plates they’ve made themselves. They are strictly a roots organisation, unlike other systems which will play upfront ragga music or soca.”
A Lewisham-based contemporary sound system run by Lloyd “Musclehead”. “The undisputed champions - the whole British MC thing started here. They had Levi and Smiley Culture and Maxi Priest singing live with them; they were the breeding ground for a whole generation of performers in this country. They’ve got more specials, more equipment and more DJs than any other sound.”