This is the second and final part of Tighten Up: The Story of Trojan Records, a BBC documentary narrated by Don Letts recalling the story of the influential record label that brought Jamaican music to the UK, and to the world. Part 1: A Tale of Two Islands
In the early 70s Trojan Records had became a huge independent label. To make reggae more accessible to the British audience, they would soften original Jamaican mixes by adding strings, turning them into hits. To further popularise reggae they released inexpensive compilations packed with successful singles: the now cult Tigthen Up series. Progressively, Jamaican music started to be recorded and produced in the UK. Reggae was finally getting mainstream recognition.
Success didn’t last though. Rival labels were gaining more and more interest from the black communities with their rawer sound, the skinhead culture was dying out and Trojan was missing out on important evolutions in reggae, such as the adoption of Rastafarian culture. In 1975 it went bankrupt.
But all wasn’t forgotten. The Trojan sound was later revived first by the punks who identified with the street culture and socially conscious lyrics, and then by the Two Tone movement with the skinhead revival.
This BBC documentary tells the story of Trojan Records, the cult UK-based Jamaican music label. Dubbed the Motown of reggae, it was widely responsible for bringing to Britain the Jamaican sound.
In the 50s, Jamaica was dancing to the sound of mento, a folk music style that could be heard everywhere across the island through the numerous sound systems. But it’s when mento morphed into the speedier upbeat tempo ska that Jamaican music started to get traction in the UK, embraced by Jamaican immigrants’ sound systems and record shops, but also for the first time by the white youth through the mod subculture.
By the mid 60s, ska had slowed down into the more musical and less macho style rocksteady, accelerating its diffusion in Great Britain through newly created label Trojan Records. But Jamaican music was still fairly obscure to the public when reggae arrived in the late 60s. This new genre was quickly adopted by the original skinheads who identified with the Jamaican rude boy style and Trojan Records went from being a cult underground label to full on charts sensation.
Brel didn’t want to live a conventional life and would always try to run away from routine. That’s why he started to compose and sing. That’s why he then quit the stage in 1967 to focus on acting and directing films. Eternal adolescent, he developed a passion for sailing and navigated around the world. But he also had many affairs and fear of routine eventually lead him to abandon his wife and daughter.
In 1974 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But his illness didn’t quite manage to take away his extroardinary energy. He spent his last years living on the Marquisas islands while sailing around the Carribeans and working on his last album, Les Marquises, which remains one of his most acclaimed. He died one year later, in 1978.
Part 2 of the documentary covers the first half of Jacques Brel’s musical career. Leaving Belgium for Paris in the early 50s, he is an idealistic catholic young man when he encounters the sophisticated intelligentsia of Paris’ left bank. Heavily influenced by French existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, he becomes more socially aware and starts writing about universal themes such as life, death, loneliness and poverty. Following post war existentialist tradition, he expresses his anger against the military, his fears of loosing his individuality and his hatred for mediocrity and ‘respectable people’.
Universally revered in the French speaking world, Jacques Brel is widely considered to be one of the greatest songwriters and performers of all time. But despite having sold tens of millions of records and some of his songs being adapted by the likes of David Bowie and Nina Simone, he still remains subject to a modest cult following in the English speaking world.
In part 1 of this BBC documentary series, Brel’s friends and collaborators introduce us to the world of the Belgian genius. They discuss the beauty, complexity and power of his literary lyrics, as well as the extroardinary way he embodied them on stage, in the pure tradition of French chanson.