As I recall, just two members of a band called Aswad arrived at the Hammersmith office of Island Records with a cassette tape one day in the summer of 1975. They were Brinsley Forde, the singer and rhythm guitarist, and George Oban, the bass player. There wasn’t much on the tape beyond a few scratchily recorded rhythm tracks. But I liked what I heard and I wanted to know more and to meet the rest of them. We arranged for them to return a few days later, at five o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 15.
The timing was important because one member of the band was still at school. That was Angus Gaye, their drummer, who turned up along with Brinsley, George, Donald Griffiths, the lead guitarist, and Courtney Hemmings, the keyboards player. They were young — Angus was 16 — and they had a nice combination of energy (particularly Angus) and seriousness (particularly George). I liked the fact that they chosen a name that meant “black”.
It was obvious that they worshipped Bob Marley and the Wailers, who would be playing their historic gig at the Lyceum two nights later, on Thursday, July 17. Their song titles would make the influence explicit: “I A Rebel Soul”, “Concrete Slaveship”. I liked the idea of a young British reggae band taking that as their inspiration and doing something of their own with it, infusing their songs with their own experience as the children of immigrants from the Caribbean. There wasn’t yet a Steel Pulse or a Misty in Roots on the scene, while Greyhound and Matumbi were still basically pop rather than roots reggae bands.
A combination of memory and diaries tells me that we gave them some time in the rehearsal room and the studio to make demos, and eventually I played something to Chris Blackwell on one of his visits to London and told him I wanted to sign them. He was fine with that, so we gave them a contract. They went into the studio at the back of our building on St Peter’s Square, with Tony Platt — who had worked with Blackwell on Catch a Fire and Burnin’ — as their engineer and co-producer, and came out with the 16-track tapes that they and Platt mixed at Basing Street into a debut album that was something to be proud of.
By the time it came out they were adopting new names. Angus would become Drummie Zeb. He sang lead on “Back to Africa”, the track that was pulled from the album to make the first single, and eventually he became the group’s main lead singer. I left Island soon after the album was released, just as they were starting what I believe to have been the first experiments by a band using dub techniques in live performance. I was able to watch in admiration from afar as they made great records like “Three Babylon” and “Warrior Charge”, as they backed Burning Spear on his concert dates, as Angus played drums on Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party”, as — much later — they had their No 1 hit with “Don’t Turn Around”, and as they played big gigs like Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley and Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay.
Angus/Drummie died last Friday, September 2, aged 62. I think of him and his band, and of their youthful enthusiasm on the day they came to see me at St Peter’s Square, with great fondness.
* The portrait of Angus/Drummie was taken by Dennis Morris for the cover of Aswad, the band’s debut album.