Sir Coxsone Outernational has long been an important part of Britain’s soundsystem culture.

In its heyday of the 70s and 80s, the sound retained an insurmountable edge, thanks to the unbeatable tag-team of proprietor Lloydie Coxsone and his star selector, Festus, and an ever-changing crew of supporting members that kept the sound perpetually fresh and innovative. With an endless supply of superior dubplates sourced from top producers in Jamaica, augmented by some of their own productions cut with high-ranking music makers in the UK, Sir Coxsone was undeniably top of Britain’s sound system circuit. Their superior selection and the manner in which they presented it to the public gave Coxsone the kind of credibility that most other sounds were never able to achieve, leading to longstanding residencies at nightclubs in the fashionable West End.

They played a big part in spearheading the lover’s rock movement, and helped instigate the shift towards digital dancehall too. But by the dawning of the 1990s, Sir Coxsone Outernational was in serious decline. Its audience began to dwindle before internal conflict finished it off entirely, particularly after unspecified differences surfaced between Lloydie and Festus. Each man went their separate ways, and stayed out of the limelight for the better part of 25 years.

Then, a few months ago, there was a request from the Kingston Dub Club for the pair to do a guest spot together in Jamaica. Although the two men ended up playing separate nights there, this was actually due to logistical matters rather than any unresolved personal differences. Instead of allowing smouldering resentments to fester, they’ve moved on from whatever beef has been spoiling the atmosphere all this time, and delighted their many friends and fans by joining forces once more to prove to the world that Sir Coxsone Outernational remains unparalleled.

“I brought that test pressing to England and start to play it, and it’s the first time people hear the name Burning Spear.”
Lloyd Coxsone

Sitting down with Festus and Coxsone today, there’s no sense of any kind of animosity. They display closeness that can only result from decades of friendship, complimenting what the other has to say and showing lots of mutually appreciative respect. Festus’ passion for music really shines through, too, while Lloydie is rightly proud of the sound’s many innovations.

They tell me that the Sir Coxsone story really begins in Jamaica, where Lloydie and Festus knew each other as schoolkids, growing up in rural St Thomas to the east of Kingston, which has the reputation of being the ‘rebel parish,’ since the Morant Bay Rebellion and other notable uprisings took place there in slavery days. It is perhaps unsurprising that the parish later became a hotspot of soundsystem culture, given reggae’s general association with ‘rebel music’.

“Growing up in St Thomas, there was a lot of sounds that inspire us, right in our region,” says Lloydie, his voice a slow, deep drawl. “Like there was Mighty Merritone, Atomic, Phonics, Mellow Canary. So when I come to England in 1962 to join my father and my brother, I didn’t really know that I was going to go down the sound system way, but it happened automatically. I know Festus from Jamaica, going to school, and when Festus come to England, we link and we create this history.”

Both men were based in south London, amongst the growing Jamaican expat community. In fact, at his first London home, which was in Balham, Lloydie lived next door to a West Indian social club that had a resident sound called Queen of the West, Lloydie began playing on that sound until a friend introduced him to the better-paying Barry Skyrocket, based at Colliers Wood. Lloydie says he brought Festus to play on Skyrocket, not long after the latter’s arrival in Britain in April 1965, and by September of that year the pair had formed a set of their own called Lloyd the Matador, which soon became the hottest sound around. Incidentally, the name was lifted from the powerful set established by Lloyd Daley in Jamaica, which was standard practice for British sounds in those days, and the name made sense for the south London sound, too, since its chief proprietor also had Lloyd for his given first name.

During the mid-50s, Duke Vin and Count Suckle introduced soundsystem culture to Britain, after stowing away on a banana boat at a time when rhythm and blues ruled Jamaica. These men and a number of counterparts played ska and rocksteady in basement shebeens and house parties through the mid-60s, with Suckle even bringing ska briefly into the West End before settling into a long residency in Paddington. But by the time the new reggae style hit Jamaica, down in south London, Lloyd the Matador transformed itself into Sir Coxsone sound, following a very contentious incident.

As Lloydie explains, “Matador had a big fight and mash up, so we weren’t playing no sound for two years. There was a sound in Balham called Duke Reid the Trojan, and some of my friends persuaded me to go and play Duke Reid. So I went as a selector and bring Duke Reid to become one of the biggest sounds in London. Neville the Enchanter was playing at a pub in Balham every Thursday and he left, so Duke Reid took the job and the sound went and string-up there every Thursday. One night I was coming late as the selector, and two white man grab me up at the door, and me and them have a fight, and I fling one of them down. I didn’t know that they were two police, so they gather all the police from the station and arrested me, and the policeman planted me with a big machete — I remember the policeman’s name up until today, his name is PC Salter.

“When I go to court in Balham High Road, Mr Reid was supposed to come and give evidence for me, because Mr Reid know I didn’t have any weapon, and Mr Reid only live round the road from the courthouse. The judge put off the case two times, and the third time I go round and beg Mr Reid to come, just walking distance, and he say, yes, he will come, but he didn’t. So the judge give me six months for the machete that the policeman planted me with. So while was I doing six months in Brixton Prison, I decide that I wouldn’t go back and play Mr Reid’s sound; I’m saying to meself, in Jamaica, you’ve got two big sounds, one named Duke Reid, and one named Sir Coxsone, so when I come out, I’m going to build over my sound and call it Sir Coxsone, and lick off Duke Reid’s head.”

“Coxsone sound started in 1968 in Clapham Common,” adds Festus. “Three of us start Coxsone sound: Lloydie, myself and [future Top Records label founder] Glen Marcinick, because Glen had two amplifiers, and we had the records. Then we start to play in the West End at the Grotto on Wardour Street, in front of the Flamingo jazz club.”

Coxsone later settled into a long residency at the Roaring 20s on Carnaby Street, bringing reggae firmly into the consciousness of a growing multiracial audience. Part of the appeal was the unknown exclusives that remained outside the grasp of any other soundsystem, including unreleased material by Bob Marley and the Wailers. “People used to come to the Roaring 20s just to hear ‘Rainbow Country’, because we were the only sound on the entire planet earth that got that song,” says Festus of the legendary number, recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio. “We played it for 21 years on dubplate till Mr Perry decided to release it!”

Burning Spear was another specialism of Sir Coxsone. In fact, the sound system was responsible for breaking Spear in Britain, at a time when he was not even well-known in Jamaica. The Spear link originates from the time when Lloydie Coxsone finally met the original Coxsone — that is, Studio One founder, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, whom Lloydie was introduced to by veteran singer Alton Ellis, on one of his many visits to Jamaica in search of exclusive material. The pair hit it off, leading Dodd to sanction Lloydie’s use of the Coxsone name, and when Dodd asked Lloydie for feedback on a test pressing of an album he’d recently recorded with “a countryman,” it turned out to be the landmark Presenting Burning Spear LP. “I fall in love with a track on there named ‘Swell Headed’,” says Lloydie. “So I brought that test pressing to England and start to play it, and it’s the first time people hear the name Burning Spear.”

After Spear left Studio One to work with Jack Ruby, Sir Coxsone continued to air Burning Spear material before it was on general release, boosting the popularity of his peak-period works and enabling him to build a strong following in Britain. But it wasn’t just Burning Spear that the sound was associated with. Sir Coxsone was known for strong links with King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Roy Cousins, Gussie Clarke, and a range of other producers in Jamaica.

In 1973, Lloydie began making his first forays into record production himself, but early efforts felt a bit random: there was a reggae instrumental of a Louis Jordan rhythm ‘n’ blues standard, cut with a London-based horn player, and a KC White record issued by Gussie in Jamaica, but crediting Lloydie Coxsone on its UK issue. Their exclusive I Roy dubplate ‘Coxsone Time’ was eventually issued by Roy Cousins in Britain too. But then, in 1974, Lloydie shook up the British reggae scene in an unprecedented fashion by cutting ‘Caught You In A Lie’ with teenage schoolgirl Louisa Mark, kick-starting the lover’s rock craze.

“When I produce music, I hardly want to release it, I just want to keep it, playing it on the sound,” Lloydie explains. “But, yeah, we made the first lover’s rock music with Louisa Mark that was recognised worldwide, coming out of England. And since that, it’s like we open a can of worms, where so many woman singers in England was inspired by this likkle 16-year-old girl. I think the other girls think that, if she can do it, we could do it too.”

coxsone2-9.1.2015

“We started the revolution of everything.”
Lloyd Coxsone

Some sporadic Coxsone-produced roots reggae singles followed, with established figures like Delroy Wilson, Keith Poppin and Barry Brown, as well as a few with British-based vocalists such as Tony Washington and the J Sisters. The very rare 1977 album The Coxsone Affair had unknown dubs of Lloyd Campbell productions and some Channel One material, all embellished by unusual horn overdubs; later, King Of The Dub Rock featured scintillating dubs from Gussie Clark, as well as dubs of Lloydie’s own productions, while King Of The Dub Rock Part 2 was cut at Channel One and mixed by Scientist.

“We start go to Jamaica and start to record Fred Locks and Creation Steppers, and do Jimmy Lindsey’s ‘Easy’, and that’s where we really get into the producing thing,” continues Lloydie. “Mostly we was doing those things just for Coxsone sound, but we start to release them on the Tribesman label and that’s how we come into the business.”

Soundsystem culture is all about evolution and keeping abreast of the times. Sir Coxsone was one of the first British soundsystems to tour the UK, and as reggae’s audience widened, they began branching into other territories too, leading to the Outernational tag. “We started the revolution of everything,” Lloydie emphasizes, “cause there was some very good sound in London, like Metro Downbeat, Duke Vin, Count Suckle, Duke Lee, Sofrano B, but they were only great in London, they wasn’t going anywhere else. When me and Festus come with Sir Coxsone Outernational sound, we start to go to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, and we mash the whole of England. We are the first sound to play in Holland, the first sound go to France. Germany, Belgium. We revolutionise the reggae right through Europe and the US, and right here in the UK, and we hear a lot of people make claims that they do this, and they do everything, but we are the first soundsystem to play stereo, with weight, middle and top, and we are the first soundsystem to put two 18-inch speakers into a speaker box.”

Even though Sir Coxsone was at the forefront of the roots reggae scene, when the new dancehall style became the order of the day, Coxsone helped usher in that new wave as well, thanks largely to bringing through a younger crew. “Coxsone is a sound where, we always maintain a team,” Lloydie emphasizes. “When it come down into the 80s, we have youth like Blacka Dread, Gappy Crucial, Bikey Dread, and Levi Roots; they were the understudies to Festus and myself, and we tour so much places that we get a bit tired, so the sound automatically hand over to those youth, and they carry the sound into a different area.”

Soon, dancehall stars such as Frankie Paul, Super Cat and Nicodeemus were featured guest artists on the sound, and Blacka Dread launched into record production under the Sir Coxsone banner, cutting some of the best digital dancehall of the late 1980s. His passion for dancehall and his understanding of that field helped keep Sir Coxsone to navigate the scene’s turbulent waters. But by the dawning of the 90s, the sound was clearly beset by difficulties. “That is when Coxsone sound started to go down the hill,” Lloydie suggests. “After they put away the music that we had and start to cut their own thing, it couldn’t work, because the generation of people who listen to Coxsone over the years, the same standard was not there. So the crowd start to fall away. But we were a big team of people, and everybody was knowledgeable in their own right, so I don’t think we could have stayed together for ever. I go and do my own thing, Festus went and do his own thing, and the other man, them doing their own thing.”

Despite the long wilderness years, the enduring friendship of Lloydie and Festus means that another chapter of Sir Coxsone Outernational is about to unfold. A recent appearance backing Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry brought to mind their longstanding reputation, these two champions of sound thrilling the audience with a specially tailored selection as usual. “Although we split up, we always was friends,” Lloydie emphasizes. “It wasn’t in a bad way, so today we can get together. We reason and decide that we still have some history to give people who never really hear it. So no love was lost. We have got all the original dubplates and we are coming back now to let people hear some of the tunes that they never hear before. So we are back for real.”

Read this next: A beginner’s guide to dub

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