Prince Buster 1938-2016
When I read today of the death of Prince Buster at the age of 78, I thought immediately of my favourite piece of music writing. It’s an essay titled “Johnny Cool and the Isle of Sirens”, written by Johnny Copasetic, a nom de plume disguising the identity of Mark Steedman, a computational linguist who is now the professor of cognitive science at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. The piece first appeared in 1972 in the first volume of Rock File, a paperback edited by my friend Charlie Gillett and including a selection of commissioned pieces alongside a pioneering list of every record to enter the British Top 20 between 1955 and 1969.
The essay’s author meditates at length on certain evolutionary strands of black popular music, concentrating on Prince Buster and Curtis Mayfield, and in particular on Buster’s 1967 hit “Johnny Cool” and the Impressions’ “Isle of Sirens”, a relatively obscure track (first released on the 1967 LP The Fabulous Impressions) that is nevertheless up there with Mayfield’s finest work.
He also talks about “Ghost Dance”, which is my favourite Buster track because of its sheer strangeness. “The theme,” he writes, “is that it is an open letter to his friends back in Jamaica, written/sung from abroad… it shows the use he makes of everyday phrases, the effect of the phrase with no context, the effect of sequence without a story.” Indeed, “Ghost Dance” is a kind of epistolary poetry:
“Dear Keith, my friend, good day — hoping you’re keeping the best of health / How is the music down there in Bone Yard? / I hear that Busby have a sound system / And that Nyah Keith is the disc jockey / But them can’t get no Red Stripe beer to sell in the dance at night / Tell Zackie, the high priest, who used to lead the toughest / Give him my regards / Tell him Prince Buster said, ‘Hello.’ / And Keith, if you should see Rashie / You know, Rashie from Back o’ Wall? / Give him my regards / And if you should see the two brothers, Stinky Pommels and Herman / We grew together / Tell them Prince Buster says, ‘So long, / Sorry we had to go, so soon.’ / Since music be the food of love / I’ll forever sing on / And Forresters Hall will soon get back my shape.”
Real people and places are being described here. Busby was indeed a sound system. Nyah Keith, born Albert Brown and murdered by a gunman in West Kingston in 1966, became the subject of a song by Burning Spear included on the 1978 album Marcus’ Children. Zackie was apparently a heavy for Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party, shot dead in 1966. Back o’ Wall was a Rasta community in West Kingston, demolished in the early ’60s and redeveloped as Tivoli Gardens. Forresters Hall was a popular dance hall on North Street in, I think, Campbell Town. On Rashie, Stinky Pommels and Herman, history is silent.
Thanks largely to Mark Steedman, the characters and scenes evoked by Prince Buster in his “Ghost Dance” have been running through my head for more than 40 years, along with that touching little valediction: “So long. Sorry we had to go, so soon…”
I was recently asked by a mate to join him on his weekly ska & reggae show on a small community radio station. I had to pick about a dozen tracks to play. My first choice was the great Prince Buster single Al Capone – ‘Don’t call me Scarface’ – simply because for me, as for many teenagers in the mid-Sixties, it was my first real exposure to Jamaican music. They used to chuck it in among al the Motown singles at my local dancehall and its mysterious sound always intrigued me.
Playing it broke the ice and got me and my friend, the DJ, talking about ska and blue beat, going on to 2-Tone and the great Specials single ‘Gangsters’, which was Jerry Dammers’ homage to Prince Buster and obviously heavily based on Al Capone. There’s a great Toots & the Maytals track called Desmond Dekker Came first, but for me it was the Prince
A lovely touching and heartfelt piece Richard, rather like Ghost Dance itself. It got me thinking about why the open letter/free verse format has not been more widely used in pop song. Dexy’s splendidly acerbic There There My Dear is the only one I can think of. (“The only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things” – Prince Busters track puts a whole less rhetorical gloss on that doesn’t it?)
Often wondered if Ghost dance was a diss track/record….I’m guessing he is calling it a ghost dance and making fun of it because nobody would come to their dances, hence “ghost dance..and they couldn’t even sell a red stripe at the dance because no one was there. I feel it’s a sly way of making fun of a rival sound system
Very good piece Mr Williams. Buster was quite a character, and the track is a paean to long departed ‘bad men’, the precursors to todays ghetto ‘enforcers.I always wondered who ‘Johnny Copasetic’ was…..
I also like the witty “Train To Girls Town”, lyrics of which I appended to a little piece I did on Prince Buster when filming various people in Kingston and London for Island in 1994-1995.
Here’s the link if anyone’s interested
The link to the Buster interview can be found on the Sierra Nevada Music Festival site below…
A very well-written piece about a great talent. I was always a little puzzled Prince Buster was not even more well known that he was. This blog sums the whole package up for me. Two thumbs up.
When I learned of the death of Prince Buster I dug out my copy Fabulous Greatest Hits bought many years ago ,in what used to be called a junk shop,in downtown Cheltenham.I also located the Rock File book and re-read the piece you mentioned..As with the best music writing it makes you want to listen once more to the music…’Ten Commandments’ must stand as the definitive sexist manifesto but as the man said ‘those were different times’…