I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Is Babylon (1980) Reggae Music’s Quadrophenia?

by Anthony Galli
March 13, 2013

In the 1978 documentary Reggae in Babylon, Jamaican born singer Jimmy Lindsay explains the primary difference between the reggae music that originates from his homeland of Jamaica, and the reggae music produced in his adopted home of Great Britain. Lindsay posits that the geographical island atmosphere of Jamaica lends the music a naturally relaxed and positive vibe, whereas the reggae music produced in the UK is under the influence of stress, racial tensions, and economic inequality, resulting in a less easygoing musical experience. Of course, Jimmy Lindsay’s broad generalization and simplification inadvertently glosses over the political and spiritual turmoil that has haunted the foundation of Jamaican music since its danceable 1960’s bluebeat and ska rhythms gave way to the 1970’s rocksteady and dub excursions of roots reggae.

Reggae music has become one of the most popular and recognized types of music in the world, yet also one of the most frequently misunderstood. Despite the overtly social messages integral to Reggae, the deceptively mellifluous offbeats and harmonious vocal deliveries tend to hypnotize listeners away from the strife and suppression underlying the seemingly simple song structures. The music is great for dancing and, I guess, getting high to, but the lyrics often depict tales of the British imperialism and domination that followed Reggae’s originators from Africa to Jamaica and, eventually, to the United Kingdom. England in the 1970’s and 1980’s was a hotbed of racial discord that resulted in numerous race riots in a variety of locations around South London, where much of Babylon was filmed. Just as England’s Punk movement developed its own aesthetic out of the economic inequality of the time, so too did Britain’s burgeoning Reggae movement, giving voice to such acts as Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, and Aswad, whose music features prominently in Babylon, and whose lead singer Brinsley Forde plays the lead character of Blue. Essentially, 1980’s Babylon explores the Jamaican “sound system” culture of late 1970’s Britain that grew out of its displaced Caribbean populace and the social conditions that necessitated its existence.

Babylon captures a moment in British history that was largely unknown to American audiences at the time of its release, but it can also be assumed that the low-budget Babylon received a very limited release in America. The “sound system” was virtually unheard of in 1970’s America, unless one belonged to a culture that participated in them, although New York City’s “block parties” could provide a close analogy. Basically, a sound system consists of a group of dj’s, mc’s, and engineers who would set up their enormous mobile discothèque of turntables, speakers, and other sound equipment, in dancehalls or on the street, and hold a giant dance party, where food, drink, and fun would be had by all. The sound system scene was a staple in Jamaica, and was imported to Britain by the growing Caribbean population from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. However, the harder the misplaced Caribbean émigrés attempted to hold on to their native cultures, the harder and more violently neo-fascist, pro-white groups like the National Front attacked non-white citizens.

Babylon tells the story of a local sound system, the Ital Lion, preparing for a sound clash with a nationally popular sound system, Jah Shaka. The appearance of an actual DJ and sound system, Jah Shaka, amidst the fictional story told in Babylon is one of the many realistic touches that gives the film a cinema-vérité, documentary-like feeling. Many of the South London scenes were filmed covertly, due to the local racial tensions festering in the neighborhoods, and many of the film’s actors and extras were not professionals. The film was scripted by Martin Stellman, from an idea he and director Franco Rosso conceived for BBC television a number of years before, but was rejected. Stellman and Rosso have recounted in interviews that much of the plot and dialogue for Babylon came from witnessing these events firsthand, through working with underprivileged youth groups in the 1970’s, and by getting to know participants of the sound systems taking place in and around London at that time.

Martin Stellman is notable for scripting the gritty working-class realism of 1979’s Mod vs. Rockers epic Quadrophenia, and later such other tales of intrigue as Defense of the Realm, with Gabriel Byrne and Greta Scaachi, as well as The Interpreter, with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Babylon’s director of photography, Chris Menges, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for The Mission in 1987 and The Killing Fields in 1985, as well as work on such recent projects as Up Close and Extremely Personal and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In addition, Babylon’s soundtrack is a remarkable amalgamation of reggae hits by Yabby U, I Roy, and Aswad, among others, but also some of the most imaginative incidental music committed to film by Barbados born musician Dennis Bovell, who was known for his work with Jamaican born and Brixton bred political poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, and his own band Matumbi, and who later went on to produce such disparate acts as The Thompson Twins, The Slits, Madness, and Bananarama.

Babylon presents its characters trapped in a cycle of violence that threatens to engulf them unless they can come to terms with its destructive consequences and navigate their way out. Whether they succumb to the expectations of violence heaped upon them, or find a creative or spiritual path out of the morass is up to them and their own individual choice. Among the boarded up houses and heaps of burning trash in their neighborhoods, Babylon’s characters are not given much hope for an easy way out of their circumstances, and the film does not offer any easy answers. Not long after the film was completed, riots broke out in Brixton that lasted for three days and left over 300 people wounded, over 100 businesses and houses damaged, looted, or burned down, and over 100 police cars and private vehicles destroyed. Babylon tries to show that the cycle of violence only perpetuates itself, and that survival is only possible by not giving up and giving in.

Works Cited

Interview with Franco Rosso

Babylon returns to the Albany

The legacy of the Brixton riots

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.