‘The way they’ve been exploited is obscene’: the untold story of forgotten UK reggae heroes Cimarons

Estimated read time 8 min read

When Locksley Gichie arrived in England in 1962 from Jamaica, age 13, he landed with a bump. “It was a shock,” he recalls. “It was cold and misty. There was no sun or blue skies. Everything was grey, dark and dull.”

However his arrival would bring a riot of colour to British music when, years later, he formed the UK’s first reggae band, the Cimarons, who went on to back Jimmy Cliff, collaborate with Paul McCartney, and thrill the UK punk movement. The first ever UK shows by Bob Marley and the Wailers did not in fact feature the Wailers – it was the Cimarons. “They were the spark that started the fire,” says General Levy in Harder Than the Rock, a new documentary about this hugely important yet frightfully overlooked band, which had its premiere last weekend at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Even the film’s director, Mark Warmington, hadn’t heard of them when he was first told about them. In 2020, he says, “I met Locksley in his tiny little Honda Jazz car outside Burger King. He lit a spliff up, I bought him a burger, and for hours he was telling me all these stories. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Gichie had been turned on to music from a young age, while living across from a nightclub in Montego Bay as a boy and soaking up the rock’n’roll sounds of the day. By the time he picked up a guitar in his late teens, now living in London’s Harlesden, he found he could instantly imitate songs he heard. “It was in the blood,” he says when we speak by phone. Having fallen hard for rocksteady music, he was looking to form a band. One night in 1967 he saw a shadowy figure in the streets. “I saw this brother sheltering from the rain at a bus stop,” he says. “He had an acoustic guitar in his hand. I was very excited but, unfortunately, he couldn’t play it.”

Lockley Gichie of the Cimarons in 1982.View image in fullscreen

Nevertheless, Gichie invited Franklyn Dunn to his local youth centre the next week to play. Dunn switched from the guitar to bass, which he soon took to. “A couple of weeks later another brother walked in who could play piano,” says Gichie. “Then another wanted to play drums, so we gave him a cardboard box.” Soon enough, Gichie, Dunn, Maurice Ellis and Carl Levy were a band.

They would go to illegal blues parties to source tunes. “You could hear all the latest records from Jamaica there,” says Gichie. “Every time there was a new unreleased rocksteady song we would hear it, practise it, and play it almost exactly like the original.” By the time they got booked for their first gig at a cricket club, around 1968, they had a catalogue. “People went crazy because they hadn’t ever heard live reggae before and we started doing all the latest releases. They were like, ‘I just bought this record this morning!’ They were blown away.”

The band swiftly gained a reputation because, quite simply, there was nobody else like them at the time. “There was no such thing as Black British reggae,” ex-Steel Pulse member Mykaell Riley says in the film. “You had Jamaican reggae and then you had shit.”

More gigs followed, and then a promoter invited them to play in west Africa. The band were confused by his unrelenting insistence that they must know The Champ by session-musician band the Mohawks, but they leaped at the chance regardless – it turns out the promoter had billed them as the Mohawks to unsuspecting audiences. Then a manager ran off with their money and they were left stranded in Ghana while their equipment was on a plane to Nigeria, forcing them to make the perilous journey after it by road, into a country in the middle of a civil war. They had to sell all their equipment to get back home. “A crazy, crazy experience,” says Gichie.

It was also the first of many occasions on which the Cimarons would be presented as another band. Upon their return they got asked to back the rocksteady singer Pat Kelly on his UK tour, then Laurel Aitken, and Jimmy James and the Vagabonds. They did Top of the Pops with Ken Boothe and played with everyone from Jimmy Cliff to Toots and the Maytals and Dennis Brown. “People in Jamaica would hear about them as the only band in England playing real Jamaican music,” says Winston Reedy, who later joined as a singer.

In 1972 Bob Marley came to town and visited the band in the studio. “Bob asked if we knew any of his songs,” says Gichie. “Before we could answer him we started playing Duppy Conqueror. He couldn’t believe we knew his songs and grabbed a microphone – he was over the moon. We did three shows with him and in Bristol he couldn’t come off stage – every time he came off, the crowd actually lifted him off the ground and put him back on.”

‘Finally this story can be told’ … the Cimarons.View image in fullscreen

Gichie says he was invited to join the Wailers permanently. “It was very tempting,” he says. “But Cimarons was my baby.” However, the endless uncredited appearances on records were starting to grate. “People just didn’t know that it was Cimarons,” he says. The band would often be credited under aliases, such as the Hot Rod All Stars or the Soul Messengers. And the reply they got when they brought it up to management was “they didn’t want to overexpose the band”. Or pay them properly, it would transpire. Things came to a head one night when they were playing with Ken Boothe. “The announcer introduced us as ‘the backing band’ – and that was it. We decided: we aren’t no backing band any more.”

The band’s debut album, In Time, came out in 1974 on Trojan Records, the Cimarons having essentially become the label’s in-house band. A year later they passed the ultimate litmus test, as their cover of Marley’s Talking Blues went to No 1 in Jamaica for weeks on end. “When it comes to reggae music, Jamaican people will not accept just anything,” says Reedy. “If your songs are watered down, they will let you know straight away – but the Cimarons had a unique sound and energy with a real Jamaican feel.”

The band ended up out there to make their second album, On the Rock, recording at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark Studio as well as Channel One Studios. The groove-heavy roots reggae record produced some real gems, such as the infinitely infectious Rock Rock Reggae Rhapsody. But when they returned to the UK, keen to capitalise on their huge success, “there was no more Trojan”, says Gichie. “It was an empty building when we got there. They went into liquidation but no one told us.”

However, momentum was significant enough that they were signed to other major labels and toured Japan, Thailand and Ireland – indeed, they claim to be the first reggae band ever to play in those territories. And soon their influence was overlapping with the nascent punk scene, as they shared stages with the likes of the Jam, the Clash, Generation X and Sham 69. Reedy describes himself as a frontman around this time as “aggressive, like Tyson – I’ll knock you out in the first round.”

Paul McCartney also wanted to get in on the party, asking them to do an album of cover songs from his publishing company MPL, such as Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be the Day. “He just said, ‘Do what you think would make a good reggae version,’” Gichie recalls. “It was a very good experience. Paul would come to the studio and bounce around and smoke a few joints.”

But the resulting 1982 album Reggaebility didn’t take off, despite a glossy video directed by McCartney for lead single Big Girls Don’t Cry. “Some people had left and our sound had changed,” says Gichie. “It was too jazzy. It wasn’t that roots sound any more.” A final blow came when the song went on the TV show Juke Box Jury but lost out to Pass the Dutchie by Musical Youth, acting as a kind of symbolic passing of the reggae baton from one generation to the next. “We had laid the groundwork [for them],” says Gichie.

from left, Giechi, Franklin Dunn and Sonny Binns.View image in fullscreen

People began to go their separate ways, with Reedy having a successful career moving over to lovers rock, while Dunn returned to Jamaica to work on the family farm. Gichie worked as a session musician and the band dissolved, being completely forgotten by many. Even today the band are still without ownership or royalties for a huge amount of their work. “The promoters and producers are living in big houses and driving expensive cars but where is our money?” Gichie says with a sigh. “We didn’t get nothing.”

Warmington shares his frustrations. “If ever a band had an excuse to be bitter and resentful of the music industry, I think Cimarons would be top of the list,” he says. “The way those guys have been exploited is obscene.”

But, as the documentary captures with real warmth, tenderness and humour, the band are lovingly back together with a new singer, Michael Arkk, and playing festivals all across Europe, finally seeing some long overdue praise. “It’s such a great feeling being back,” says Gichie. “It feels like all the blood, sweat and tears didn’t go to waste. And finally this story can be told.”

Source: theguardian.com

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