Buried Reggae Treasures: The Torpedo Record Label

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 5 June 2020 |



The Internet is heavily driven by populist themes. So if your interests have often strayed outside the mainstream, you may have struggled at times to find detailed coverage of those fascinating quirks of culture. The things everyone forgot about, and then neglected to remember again when it was time for the nostalgia.

Eddy Grant and Lambert “Hot Rod” Briscoe’s reggae/ska record label Torpedo, is one such forgotten quirk of culture. But Torpedo was far too interesting to remain a virtual void on the World Wide Web. So, for anyone who wants a break from populism, here’s the article Wikipedians never bothered to write…

BACKGROUND


The Torpedo label divided into two separate eras, distinct enough in output to have gone under separate brandings. The first era’s releases were entirely contained within 1970, and were blatantly an appeal to the skinhead subculture, which in 1969 had looked like it could become a mainstream megatrend – possibly spreading around the globe.

The preferred skinhead music of the late ‘sixties was Jamaican. And Jamaican or Jamaican-descended artists had begun to specifically court UK skins. Not only by tailoring the slant of their music towards that youthful, energetic community, but also frequently by acknowledging skinheads and or/their cultural themes verbally.

Early on in the timeline, Skinheads had been attracted to the work of high-cred musical raconteurs like Prince Buster. But a lot of London’s enthusiasm for the excitement of rhythmic Jamaican tracks had really come about during the fragmentation of the mod movement. Even by 1967, before skinhead was an established separation, some of the coolest clubs in London were pumping with the sounds of Desmond Dekker, The Flames (later named Toots and the Maytals), Rita Marley, The Skatalites and Justin Hinds.

By 1969, with skinhead exploding as a phenomenon, the formula of deliberately aiming an authentic reggae product directly at skinheads had become a serious business strategy. Epitomised by the band Simaryp, and their 1969 recording of the Skinhead Moonstomp album for Trojan Records, a new quest to tailor skinheads’ music to their lifestyle was set in motion.

TORPEDO ARRIVES


And that’s where Torpedo entered the picture. A UK record label driven by skinhead demand. Although all of the records in the label’s initial run have 1970 release dates, the first releases came so early in the year that we can safely assume the planning and some of the recording for this project dated back to 1969, when in the UK at least, skinhead culture looked like the next big thing.

As commercial music goes, the original Torpedo was clearly not a high budget operation. Everything sounds as if it came out of the same recording facility, for the most part, with use of the same instruments and amplification. Most of the backings were probably played by The Cimarons (and some definitely were), who for this project went under the name of The Hot Rod All Stars, to tie in with the branding of label co-boss Lambert Briscoe’s sound system.

Many of the non-vocal melodic features, which on higher budget recordings would have been handed to session brass or string players, are played on a ‘sixties combo organ – probably a Vox Continental, by Carl Levy.

The budget restrictions, however, worked in the label’s favour, giving the output a recognisable personality and character. We’re talking about an era when monaural sound was the norm, but the studio’s heavy use of compression, and what sounds like deliberate tape saturation, coupled with the musicians’ feel and style, created an evocative excitement. I doubt each track took more than two or three takes to commit to tape, and it sounds like most of the backings were predominantly recorded live, with only the vocals and perhaps some instrumental embellishments overdubbed. But that lack of studio separation fuses everything together in a much more natural way - as well as putting some adrenaline into the performances. You hear that. The songs aren’t always the best you’ve ever heard, but the vibe is wicked, throughout.


The original 1970 Torpedo singles were characterised by a light green label.

HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE


Historically, the 1970 Torpedo releases are fascinating as a body of work. They totally straddle the transition period between ska and reggae. It’s not so much the tempo that’s changed since 1960s ska, but the beat emphases.

1960s ska had a heavy emphasis on the guitar chops appearing at steps 2 and 4 in a 4 beat bar. The 3 beat was normally filled with a bass drum, and the 2 and 4 were additionally bolstered with piano stabs. That’s exactly what happened with classic 1970s reggae too, except the whole thing was a lot slower.

But the interim skinhead stuff, which is encapsulated in the 1970 Torpedo releases, had more variable rhythmic emphases. Some of the 1970s Torpedo singles have the old 2 and 4 guitar emphasis. Some have an elongated 2 guitar chord that extends to the 3, then a short 4 chop. And some have what I regard as the classic skinhead reggae emphasis of short guitar chops on all beats except the 1. So it’s like: space, chop, chop, chop; space, chop, chop, chop… That appears on Simaryp’s Skinhead Moonstomp, and it’s exaggerated to the hilt on the Torpedo single Why, Why, Why by Betty Sinclaire. Archetypal old-school skinhead music, but also an absolute midway milepost in the transition from pure ska to pure reggae. It has the ingredients of both ska and reggae at the same time.

You can also hear a lot of really interesting experimentation going on within the early Torpedo material. There are numerous straight pop songs played in a skinhead reggae style – some of which have skinhead-orientated themes or lyrics. And then at release number TOR 18, circa spring 1970, the hunt for success seems to start casting the net a lot wider. The Milkman’s Theme by The Mackenzie Jet Combo is very much a return to the hum-all-day 1960s rhythmic instrumental. Speeding up the tempo, pushing the feel back towards ska. And the B-side – The Capadulah Recipe – is even faster and more closely aligned with mid ‘60s ska. It’s even got the humorous verbal theatre that must surely have been an attempt to capture some of the appeal of Prince Buster.

Then you get the archetypally skinhead Why, Why, Why and after that, Loosen up Strong Man / The Strong Man – a much more avant garde interpretation of the early reggae format, with distortion on the organ as well as the guitar. At this time, it’s also notable that label bosses Grant and Briscoe take over the songwriting duties themselves.

And next comes Open Up Wide. If you think Ducks Deluxe invented Pub Rock, listen to Open Up Wide! It’s another Eddy Grant number, probably intended to draw in the pre-glam market, which at that time was really just a plodding rhythm & blues / rock ‘n’ roll fusion waiting for the sequins to arrive. But Open Up Wide retains some reggae ingredients, and has definite pub rock sensibilities. Swap the vocalist for Lee Brilleaux and it would be Doctor Feelgood – before Doctor Feelgood. Let’s just clarify that. It’s even got the blues harmonica. Then things go to the other extreme with Errol English’s very pop cover of Sha La La La Lee.

Soon after that it became clear that the market for anything based around skinhead reggae was in irrevocable decline, and Torpedo ceased trading.

This first period of Torpedo showed the transitional Jamaican-style music of 1970 at its most exciting. It brought the world Winston Groovy’s original version of Please Don’t Make Me Cry, which later gained huge recognition not only through another mid ‘70s release by Groovy, but also a UB40 cover which charted as a single in the early 1980s. Conversely, at times Torpedo circa 1970 also had a definitively alternative feel.

RE-LAUNCH



The revised look of Torpedo's record labels marking the mid 1970s re-launch period.

The second spell of releases from Torpedo came amid a different climate, in which the primary potential for UK reggae success lay in the mainstream rather than with a subculture. Almost certainly due to the autumn 1974 UK chartbustin’ success of Ken Boothe’s Everything I Own, the Torpedo label was reopened – Eddy Grant himself fronting the re-launch with the release of his own single, My Queen Tonight / Hello Africa. This was one of three singles released late in 1974 on the re-launched Torpedo.

The following year, Grant also released an album featuring the two tracks from the re-launch single. The album was on Torpedo in the UK under the eponymous title Eddy Grant, with My Queen Tonight headlining Side 1. But the same album was released in Trinidad on Grant’s ICE label, with the two numbers switched around in the track listing so that Hello Africa took priority. This revised track listing also appeared on the Canadian release, and the actual album title was changed to Hello Africa for Canada too. Hello Africa would remain a favourite in Grant’s live set, and appears in extended form occupying a whole side of the 1981 double album Live at Notting Hill.

After the re-launch, Torpedo had more conventionally commercial values. Some of the illustrious names appearing on the 1975 singles included Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths, Gregory Isaacs and Judy Mowatt, plus there was more from Eddy Grant himself.

Once again, however, Torpedo did not last long and did not trade after 1975. The popularity of Hello Africa (not a reggae track) within Eddy Grant’s own repertoire may have indicated to him that a reggae record label was still not, at that time, going to be the most productive venture. The ICE label was broader in its remit.

And another big component in the shutdown the second time may have been Grant’s completion of the Coach House studio and his newfound independence as a solo artist. He could play all the instruments himself, he could write the songs, he didn’t have to fund studio time, and his own solo work was gaining a lot of interest. Grant confirmed in a 1988 Guitarist magazine interview that his building of Coach House had brought a turning point in his life, because he could suddenly make the music he really wanted to be making. He probably reached a moment at which his own career as a musician became all-important, and required all of his focus.

THE CATALOGUE


I’m concluding the post with a summary of the Torpedo singles. Although I’ve listed the singles under the headings of three separate years, the latter two years were a continuous run lasting less than one year in total. The easy way to spot which era a single is from is by the label colour. Anything with a light green label is from 1970. Singles with a dark teal label are from the 1974-1975 period. Notice how the dark teal period is much more centred around individual vocalists, and lacks the light green period’s quirkier assemblages and general mystique…

THE 1970 RELEASES (LIGHT GREEN LABEL)…

TOR 1: The Hot Rod All Stars – Pussy Got Nine Life

TOR 2: Silkie Davis & the Hot Rod All Stars – Conversations (different artist on B-side: Twizzle – Peace and Tranquility)

TOR 3: Twizzle & the Hot Road All Stars – Jook Jook

TOR 4: Winston James & the Hot Rod All Stars – White Silver Sands

TOR 5: Hot Rod All Stars – Skinheads Don’t Fear

TOR 6: Winston James & the Hot Rod All Stars – I May Never

TOR 7: Les Foster – Run Like a Thief

TOR 8: Errol English – Open the Door to Your Heart

TOR 9: Errol English – Hitchin’ a Ride

TOR 10: Hot Rod All Stars – Moonhop in London

TOR 11: Winston Groovy – Please Don’t Make Me Cry

TOR 12: When I Was a Little Girl – Silkie Davis

TOR 13: Les Foster & Silkie Davis – I Didn’t Want to Tell You (different artist on B-side: Denzil Dennis – Come On In)

TOR 14: The Hot Rod All Stars - Control Your Doggy

TOR 15: Little Joe – Bad Blood

TOR 16: Errol English – Sad Girl

TOR 17: Eugene Paul & the Pilots – Sugar Dumpling

TOR 18: The Mackenzie Jet Combo - The Milkman’s Theme (Caysoe)

TOR 19: Betty Sinclaire – Why, Why, Why (B-side is The HotRod All Stars – A Fist Full of Dollars… “Tougher than A Few Dollars More”)

TOR 20: Willie Marshall – Loosen Up Strong Man (B-side is a ‘version’, featuring Kass – presumably on the powerfully grating, direct-injected superfuzz guitar)

TOR 21: The Urban Clearway – Open Up Wide

TOR 22: Errol English – Sha La La La Lee (different artist on B-side: The Bovver Boys – A.G.G.R.O.)

TOR 23: The Reids All Stars – Mafia

TOR 24: Rupie Martin’s All Stars – Last Flight

TOR 25: Silver & Glenroy – What You Gonna Do ‘Bout It? (different artist on B-Side: Ken Jones – Sad Mood)

TOR 26: Rupie Martin’s All Stars - Musical Container

TOR 27: Rudy Grant – Baby Don’t Let Me Down

TOR 28: Little Brother Grant & Zapatta Schmidt – Let’s Do It Together


THE 1974 RELEASES (DARK TEAL LABEL)…

TOR 30: Eddy Grant – My Queen Tonight

TOR 31: Marco – Do Me Bump

TOR 32: Steve Jarvis – Every Step I Made


THE 1975 RELEASES (DARK TEAL LABEL)…

TOR 33: Marco – I'm Coming Home

TOR 34: Gregory Isaacs – Tomorrow's Sun May Never Shine

TOR 35: Ken Boothe – Lady With the Starlight

TOR 36: Junior & The Cool Notes - Curly Locks

TOR 37: Johnny Osbourne – Put Away Your Gun

TOR 38: Peter King – My Eyes Adore You

TOR 39: Roman Stewart – Loving Arms

TOR 40: Eric Clark – Fight Against Babylon

TOR 41: Joe Higgs – My Baby Still Loves Me

TOR 42: Brent Dowe – No Sweeter Way

TOR 43: Johnny Jonas – Happy Birthday

TOR 44: Jerry & The Bluebells – Girls

TOR 45: Alvin Ford – Tears On My Pillow

TOR 46: The Melodians – I'll Take You Where the Music's Playing

TOR 47: Marcia Griffiths – Survival

TOR 48: Tyrone Taylor – Move Up Blackman

TOR 49: Nina McKenzie – Single Girl

TOR 50: Gregory Isaacs – Help Us Get Over

TOR 51: Negril – I Shot the Sheriff

TOR 52: Judy Mowatt – Too Good for Me

TOR 53: Eddy Grant – Nobody's Got Time

TOR 54: Ken Boothe – Say You

TOR 55: Buster Pearson – La La La

TOR 56: John & Jesse – One Man Woman

TOR 57: Buster Pearson – Take it Easy

TOR 58: Roy Shirley – Heartbreaking Gypsy

You may also be interested in Rhythm Guitar and Other Reggae Secrets, and if you're a keyboardist using the VST environment, you can download a freeware organ plugin that's perfect for creating early skinhead music.