Graham Fagen is in awe.
He’s also more than a tad disorientated. As well he might be. From mobile phone to tube to car, he’s just been through a cloak-and-dagger rollercoaster ride across London, which eventually led him to a man whose music he’s been listening to for most of his life. Now he’s about to somewhat gingerly ask that man to cut some tunes for him as part of a project that will later become Clean Hands Pure Heart, Fagen’s 2005 February/March installation in Glasgow’s Tramway.
Adrian Sherwood, who’s never been in an art gallery in his life, but who, sludge deep in Dub and all spaces between, has for a quarter of a century been a Zelig-like figure on the UK underground, makes the coffee, and listens hard. He’s had Fagen licensing tracks off him before, so he sort of knows where he’s at. This time, though, it’s personal.
It’s something about Robert Burns, Fagen burbles. Oh, and reggae too. Of course. ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and a lesser known Burns song, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, but done differently. It’s something about cultural identity, then, and the subversion thereof.
How, set to a skank, a hoary old heritage industry Hogmanay perennial becomes valid beyond the kitsch, tartan shortbread image.
And how a song of slavery, written by a radical 18th-century poet who almost sailed to Jamaica to become an overseer, can, in the right hands, and from the right mouths, loosen chains, free minds, and unfreeze asses.
For Sherwood, who survived the still hippified late 1970’s Ladbroke Grove post-punk squat roots scene to form the now seminal On-U Sound Records, it’s just weird enough. And he should know. From the start, On-U’s prolific output defined a very British, often eccentric accent on reggae. It went beyond both UB40’s watered-down proletarian plod, as well as the slumming-it white rasta trustafarian mentality that would later give rise to coffee table ‘World’ music. There was rhythm and flow, for sure. But there was polemic too.
It’ll take three days, says Sherwood. Two days recording. One to mix. Long-time On-U Sound crew member Skip McDonald will play the instruments. Sometime Asian Dub Foundation and African Headcharge mouthpiece Ghetto Priest will give voice.
Easy. Now, the deal done, would Fagen, Sherwood wonders, care to step into the next room and check out the new African Headcharge album he’s just finished work on?Fagen is amazed
‘It’s like a gig,’ says Fagen, in Glasgow a few months later, moving around a lunchtime Tramway echoing with noises. ‘The underlying aesthetic is to make it like a venue. There’s a backstage area, a screen on which the songs are being performed on, and an audience. It’s quite bare, physically,’ he says, sounding like an events organiser, or a promoter. ‘But once the music’s playing, it becomes about something else.’
Clean Hands Pure Heart then, is about filling an empty space with sound. It’s about lobbing a reclaimed whoosh of dub sh’boom into every corner. A soundclash. But it’s more than that. It’s a culture clash too; a sense memory of a well-spent mis-spent youth; an education; and, above all, an Event.
‘There are elements of performance running through all my work,’ says the maker of ‘Theatre’, a video piece he made while war artist in residence in a then bombed-out Kosova. ‘I’ve always been drawn to that. I don’t know why.’ And the audience? In the case of Clean Hands Pure Heart it’s a quartet of brass casts—a pineapple, an orange, a black pansy and a leek—spread about the room. A still life. Full of organic associations with sex and death and exotica and references to old work, but a still life nevertheless.Fagen is in Ayrshire
‘There was a lawn with pansies, and a big garden at the back where you could grow your own fruit and veg. I don’t know if I’m imagining these things to be strong enough to have a look round when no-one’s there, but that’s how it felt. You were always aware of them. If you walked ten minutes, you’d be walking on farmland. There was all this space, without any architecture. But in a sense there was architecture, only a different kind.’
An adolescent boy displaced by Glasgow’s overspill to a New Town, and creating a brave new world for himself. It’s like the most gorgeous scene in Lynne Ramsay’s rite of passage film, Ratcatcher, where the boy-urchin hero visits the half built concrete shell of the house he and his family are to be transferred to. Magically, but really, he’s lurched through the window and into the wide open space beyond the no man’s land where town and country planning meet, to somewhere else.Fagen is at an annual school recital of Burns poems
It makes little sense, even though the Burns industry is literally on his doorstep. ‘I don’t think I’ve laughed so much, hearing my peer group of the time trying to pronounce things they didn’t really know what they meant. Because of that they ended up making sounds and rhythms that were hilariously funny, because they weren’t meant to sound like that.
‘We could see the house he used to live in, and where he weaved his loom, and we were taught at school that Burns was part of our heritage. So for us it was more matter of fact than the reverence he’s treated with elsewhere. At the same time I was discovering Jamaican reggae, which obviously was the polar opposite of where I was from, but I had more understanding of the lyrics and rhythms of what I was listening to by myself than what I was being told was my cultural heritage.’Fagen is in Glasgow
It’s punk’s first flush, year zero, and Siouxsie and the Banshees are headlining the Apollo. The Banshees are all washing machine guitar and voodoo doll urgency. Supporting is poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who performs work from his debut album, Dread Beat And Blood, complete with dancers and heavy Dub backbeat. First thing he does is a tale of exile, of strangers in a strange land ghettoised by their colonial masters. It’s called ‘Inglan’ Is A Bitch’. For Glasgow, and for Fagen, it’s love at first listen.
‘Like all reggae and punk it talked about people’s own understanding of their cultural and social positions,’ says Fagen, a lovelifetime on. ‘The lyrics were current and contemporary. They made sense to us living in the council schemes, the shitey council schemes that we lived in. We felt below people, and that nobody was below us. That was expressed in Jamaican reggae more strongly and heartfelt than the Clash would sing about it, because the Jamaican experience of oppression or of being controlled was very different to our own. But somehow it clarified the social position we felt we were in, and gave us confidence to express ourselves.
‘I don’t know whether “fight back” is the right phrase, but it allowed us to be who we wanted to be and to do what we wanted to do. At that time there was a whole fanzine aesthetic, and of not waiting to be told what to do but to just go ahead and do it. I’m sure that’s how I flocked and staggered and squirmed my way into art school, without having any real knowledge of what an artist is or what art should be.’
For Fagen, somewhere between life and art, between Scotland and Jamaica, came three other related works. ‘Radio Roselle’ was a video piece set on an imaginary pirate radio ship that played Burns and reggae. Later, for an Edinburgh College Of Art publication, Fagen constructed a dialogue between Burns and former Wailer Peter Tosh.
This year, at the V&A—symbolically, at least, a keeper of the colonial flame—his contribution to the Bloodshed exhibition was a garden shed turned pirate radio station broadcasting a play list of On-U and Burns. Each track was chosen for its botanic theme, closing with ‘My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose’.
‘It was only after I’d been to Kosova that I went back to exploring my own roots, and my own cultural identity.’
Fagen discovered James Robertson’s novel, Joseph Knight, an imagining of true events concerning a black slave brought from Jamaica to Scotland.
‘It was the first time I found any real historical connection with what I was trying to get at. Like it was some kind of validation.’Fagen is in Jamaica
It’s the first time he’s made the pilgrimage Burns almost embarked upon. It’s also his honeymoon. In Montego Bay, Fagen hooks up with some guys who he thinks might be able to find him the sort of records he’s looking for. Records that relate to the sounds he grew up with in quaking, pitch-black rooms made even unsteadier by the constant waft of thick ganja fug.
The guys humour him awhile, but when they hear what Fagen’s after, they stare at each other in disbelief. They can’t believe their ears, and whoop with laughter.
‘You old man, Braveheart,’ they cackle. ‘That’s the music of my father .’Fagen is in Adrian Sherwood’s studio
Later, on the single, which comes as part of Clean Hands Pure Heart, Fagen will get a co-producer’s credit.
When Ghetto Priest first heard the a cappella version of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, he tells Fagen, before spliffing up in the corner to get in the right place, he cried. It spoke to him, he said. He’d been waiting all his life to sing it. He was born for it.Fagen is back in Ayrshire
He’s watching Linton Kwesi Johnson play the Burns An’ A’ That festival, an event designed to bring Burns kicking and screaming out of classroom recitals, and into the 21st-century global village’s bigger picture.
Johnson’s older. Mellower. He speaks about Burns as a love poet, and leaves the polemic alone, like he thinks he should play to type and stick with something more, well, traditional. Even so, Inglan’ is still a bitch. Scotland too, sometimes.
‘There are things here that aren’t talked about, about religious and sectarian bigotry that simply aren’t being addressed. I know there’s bigotry in Jamaica as well, especially regarding some of the homophobia going on with some of the dancehall acts, and some of the violence that goes along with that. Obviously it’s a more volatile situation, but at least I’m not saying they’re being more honest, but it is being addressed. Here, the bigotry’s never ever spoken about. It’s hidden.’
Inspired by Clean Hands Pure Heart, Sherwood and Ghetto Priest are planning an album of folk songs, not just from Scotland, but versions of Irish rebel songs, and songs from other lands, co-opted and reconstructed in their own image. Even as things get less black and white, then, they become clearer.
‘In a sense I’m not reclaiming it because I’m projecting it in a way I’ve always known it,’ Fagen says of his non-tartan heritage, in Ayrshire, Jamaica or wherever. ‘So in a way I’m dealing more with cultural reflection, and getting to know about the roots and reasons for that culture being the way it was in the first place. I wouldn’t be as bold or as brave or as important to say I was reclaiming it or kicking it into the shape it should be. I’m just looking at the space between things, and seeing what’s left.’
Neil Cooper is an arts writer and theatre critic for The Herald
A new book on the research and work of Graham Fagen will be published by Tramway in February. It includes an essay by James Robertson, who explores Scotland’s relationship with Jamaica, the empire and slavery in his latest book Joseph Knight