Black Roots, 1981
It’s no overstatement to say that Bristol Archive Records is one of the most important archives of a city’s musical culture anywhere in the world. Since 2008, they have been working tirelessly to unearth and recognise lost or forgotten recordings from Bristol’s past. Also covering punk in its prime, it’s their reggae releases that has really caught our eye. Four Reggae Explosion compilations have been released so far, featuring Bristol’s two most famous reggae exports, Black Roots and Talisman, alongside Joshua Moses, Bunny Marrett and many others. Each compilation is a carefully constructed piece of musical history, accompanied by detailed footnotes and supported online, by a wealth of archive material. Each track, an historical record in itself, tells tales of unemployment, disillusionment, police brutality and overall, what it was like as growing up in Bristol in the 70s and 80s.
Meeting label head Mike Darby, you get some idea how BAR has come to be such an important Bristol institution. A tall, imposing figure, outspoken yet hugely passionate about the musical heritage of his hometown, he seems like just the man to lead the sizeable, often thankless task BAR has undertaken. In an illuminating interview that was used as part of my own dissertation on Bristol reggae (which you can read on the BAR blog), Darby sheds light on the scene in the 70s and 80s, and opens up about the rewards and challenges of running the label. Bristol Reggae Explosion Live is out now, available on from Bristol Archive Records, with all proceeds going to St Paul’s Carnival. Also, two years after reforming, Talisman have just released their third studio album, i-Surrection, available from Sugar Shack Records.
How would you describe Bristol Archive Records?
BAR is what is says on the tin. It’s a record label that tells a story of the history of the Bristol music scene from 1977 onwards. It tells a complete story of Bristol’s musical past through re-releasing old recordings, previously unreleased demos and compilations albums. The whole thing is very much scene based and anyone visiting it from around the world will discvoer hidden gems of Bristol music culture.
Creating historical record is a big part of that BAR mission statement and the archive on your website is like nothing else offered in Bristol. How have you gone about creating that and putting it together.
I think there’s nothing like it in the world! The reason for that is that most musicians can’t co-operate. When I was in a band in 1979, there was no music scene in Bristol, no collaboration, no assistance, no music industry per sé. So there were no lawyers, accountants and managers. Everybody was very insular and trying to do their own thing. I’ve been lucky enough to break down those barriers where musicians hang onto stuff in the hope it’s actually worth something. All it’s worth is a story, a piece of history, an account in time.
Looking at Bristol reggae in the late-1970/1980s, your ska/punk band Rimshots formed in 1979, the same year as Black Roots and Talisman. Was there any cross over between the white and black scene at the time?
We supported Talisman twice, Black Roots twice. There was a cross-over, but there were just a lot more gigs. You could go to five gigs a night and see three bands on every bill. There were so many local supports that any band, whether they were brilliant or terrible could get a gig.
Apart from the Bamboo Club, where else did you go out?
I wouldn’t’ve gone to the Bamboo Club, I was too young. That got shut down in 1977 after it burnt down just before the Pistol’s gig. I would’ve gone to places like Trinity Hall, the Stone House, Green Room, Cowardines on Park Street, Tiffany’s ontop of Black Boy Hill. And then you had all the University campuses which don’t exist anymore. Brstiol University’s Union doesn’t do anything anymore either but you had the Anson Rooms which had big gigs but also the Epicurium bar upstairs which was every Saturday night packed with students and a live band.
You’ve spoken before about Talisman as your favourite reggae band. What puts them ahead of Black Roots in your eyes?
Black Roots are the biggest and most successful and, rightly so, are the kings. I just found Talisman slightly more commercial, not so hardcore roots, slightly more pop. They were a little bit more accessible.
Did this cause tension between the two groups, the fact that they were vying for the same space in Bristol?
I think that’s bullshit. They weren’t vying for anything in Bristol. They both played all over the UK on the university circuit and did John Peel sessions. Black Roots toured Europe with UB40. Bristol has never been the hub of anything. Even now with Massive Attack and Portishead, Bristol isn’t the centre of the universe, it never has been. It’s just got a load of cool bands.
The Zion Band
Following on from that, has the attention trip-hop shined on Bristol helped what you’re doing at BAR or been an obstacle?
No because trip-hop doesn’t exist, it never has existed. Some journalist in London invented it. With the greatest respect to Massive Attack et al, that is not what the Bristol music scene was all about. Lots of the musicians who played in those bands, come from a scene which people have forgotten. There was no account of it. So without BAR, the history of these bands and the people in them would not exist. BAR’s job wasn’t to put the record straight at the expense of all the big boys, it was to try and account for lots of people who were important in their own, tiny way who never achieved any success.
So you’re trying to tell the real history of Bristol music?
I’m trying to give a bit of respect to any individual that played in any band that we can find any music from. However famous or successful they were is irrelevant. For me it’s about acknowledgeing their existence. It’s not saying they were brilliant, some of it was not very good at all, but it’s about them having their two seconds of ‘I was in that scene’.
Have you have any difficulties in this process?
The only difficulty is it’s impossible to sell records, which is hard to take given how much time and effort the team puts into each release. But for everything you think is potentially a waste of time you end up with feedback from Germany, New Zealand or America, which tells you it’s all worth while. It’s a bit like the old Punk theory: if you make music to make money, you’re not making music. So BAR has never been about trying to make money, it never will be about that. But what is does is paint the picture, and the pictures will hopefully be there forever.
I’ve got to go back in history to explain that one. Bristol’s a very affluent city, very middle class and is full of students that came to live and never went back home. So what you’ve had all through the 70s and 80s is a lot of very talented people making music, but they’re predominantly lazy and expect it to happen. They haven’t got a working class, fighting mentality like the Welsh bands out the valleys or the bands from the streets of Liverpool and Manchester. The Bristol bands, historically, have made a demo, sounds amazing, played it to their mate, then split up the next week because they haven’t got a major record deal. They’re just lazy. Bristol’s a nice place to be, lots of dope, lots of slow behaviour, no real fighting hunger.
And finally, what are the next plans and releases for BAR.
I’ve got three labels: Sugarshack Records, Reggae Archive Records and Bristol Archive Records. They’ll all attached but the big one going forward will be Reggae Archive Records. The most recent release was in June: Bristol Reggae Explosion Live, a CD/DVD of the Bristol Reggae Explosion Live gig in 2012 at the Big Top, which we’re doing as a fundraiser for St. Paul’s Carnival. After that, we’ve already got enough material to do Bristol Reggae Explosion 4 (end of the 80s) and virtually got enough mapped out to do volume 5 which will be the 90s. I doubt we’ll ever get past that.