top of page

The popularity of Jamaican music in the UK has proved pivotal in ‘crossing over’ its myriad styles and fashions to a wider international audience. From the earliest days of shuffle and boogie through ska, rock steady, reggae, roots, rockers, ragga and dancehall “the sound of young Jamaica” has inexorably altered from being of ‘minority’ interest to an expatriate audience into main stream acclaim and worldwide approbation.


When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948 Pathé News were on the quayside to film top Trinidadian calypsonian, Lord Kitchener, optimistically singing “London is the place for me...” and throughout the fifties immigration to the UK from the West Indies became increasingly widespread. It was not always easy for the new arrivals to accustom themselves to their surroundings as they strove to keep warm in the cold, wet climate while longing for the warm weather and bountiful pleasures of their Caribbean homeland. The better life that they had traversed the Atlantic Ocean for was not necessarily forthcoming but bridges had been burned for many and a return to the Caribbean was, out of economic necessity, impossible.  A culture began to develop that reflected these dreams of home but, for the foreseeable future, the UK was home. Music played an increasingly important part in the development of this new outlook and, in record shops in Brixton, Dalston, Harlesden and Notting Hill in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Moss Side in Manchester, Clifton in Nottingham, Harehills in Leeds and St Pauls in Bristol homesick Jamaicans would ask for records with “the blues beat”. A number of record companies were not backward in coming forward to oblige them…


In 1959 Esquire Records, a prestigious jazz record company owned by Carlo Krahmer and Peter Newbrook, became one of the first labels to license Jamaican recordings for UK release on its Starlite subsidiary. Their inaugural Jamaican release was Laurel Aitken’s ‘Boogie In My Bones’/’Little Sheila’, a Chris Blackwell production, which was also the first ‘local’ record to top Jamaica’s JBC Charts. But Jamaican productions were only a part of the Starlite roster and Melodisc, founded in 1947 by Emil E. Shalit, who also specialised in jazz (and blues) records started their Blue Beat subsidiary specifically designated for Jamaican productions in 1960. The first release on the label was from that man again, Laurel Aitken (along with his Boogie Cats), with ‘Boogie Rock’ and the influence of the label would prove so profound and all pervasive that, for the rest of the decade, Jamaican music would become known as Blue Beat in the UK. Many other labels flourished in London including Sonny Roberts’ Planetone organisation in Harlesden, Rita and Benny King’s R&B and Ska Beat (see what they did there?) imprints operating out of Stamford Hill and, following his relocation to London, Chris Blackwell’s Island label who originally set up business in the same premises as Planetone.


As the decade progressed Island graduated towards British based ‘progressive rock’ music, gradually become one of the most influential independent record labels ever, and in 1968 Chris Blackwell transferred his Jamaican catalogue to a new company, Trojan Records, named after one of Duke Reid’s (the proprietor of the Treasure Isle record company, recording studio and liquor store on Bond Street, Kingston) subsidiary labels. They set up contacts and contracts with a number of Jamaican producers, giving many their eponymous London based labels, and began to exert a stranglehold over the ever expanding market for Jamaican music in the UK. The following year Trojan began to make inroads into the UK National Charts with a slew of hits from legendary figures including The Pioneers, The Upsetters, and the mighty Desmond Dekker.


Trojan’s closest rival for supremacy on the Jamaican music scene in the UK was the Palmer Brothers Harlesden based Pama Records, established the same year as Trojan, with a number of beautiful pictorial labels including Unity, Camel, Punch & Gas. Pama enjoyed huge success in what was now referred to as the ‘ethnic’ market but inexplicably failed to cross over quite so spectacularly. Junior Lincoln’s Banana and Bamboo labels, operating out of Finsbury Park, despite paying particular attention to Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Studio One genre defining productions, were hampered by recurring distribution problems and also failed to make the same impact as Trojan.


But, by 1975, the Trojan empire was beginning to flounder and Saga Records, a classical music label, purchased the operation and, despite releasing seriously significant records including Big Youth’s ‘Natty Cultural Dread’ and ‘Hit The Road Jack’ albums, were no longer able to exert the same overwhelming influence on the market. That same year the stupendous crossover success of Bob Marley & The Wailers ushered in what many consider to be reggae’s most creative and productive period and a plethora of new labels came to the fore. Innumerable trailblazing UK based record shops and labels had laid the foundation and further storeys, and many stories, were now added: these included Ariwa, Ashanti, Atra, Ballistic, Black Wax, Cactus, Carib Gems, Cha Cha, Creole, Castro Brown’s DEB, Dip, D-Roy, Ethnic, Fay Music, GG, Greensleeves, Grounation, Hawkeye, Jama, Lightning, Morpheus, Nationwide, Sioux, Sound Tracs, Count Shelly’s Third World, Tropical, Viking, Vulcan... and Burning Sounds.


During the latter half of the seventies Burning Sounds busy, bustling retail emporiums, situated in the heart of West London’s vibrant West Indian community at numbers 379 & 534 of the traffic snagged Harrow Road, established a redoubtable reputation as one of the capital’s most perceptive purveyors of the hottest pre-release (import) records from Jamaica alongside a the latest and greatest UK released music. Martin ‘Redman’ from legendary West London sound system, People’s Sound, manned the counter and Mr Rana took care of business behind the scenes. If Burning Sounds didn’t have it then it wasn’t available…

Music was being produced at an incredible, eye watering rate in Jamaica and the mid to late seventies and international exposure was essential to its development and continuing success. As well as the traditional audience of first, and now second generation, Jamaicans a new ‘crossover’ audience was crying out for the real authentic sound of reggae.


Following a tradition first initiated some twenty years previously Burning Sounds soon expanded into a distribution centre supplying other shops, and, in 1976, started releasing records licensed from Jamaican producers before graduating to creating its very own home-grown productions. The first single releases on the label came from Alvin ‘GG’ Ranglin in Kingston and London based Clem Bushay and Burning Sounds soon established a considerable catalogue of seven inch, twelve inch and long playing releases through their eponymous label and the Burning Rockers & Burning Vibrations subsidiaries. Their first album was released in 1978, ‘Lonely Man’ a co-production between Winston ‘Techniques’ Riley and his brother Stanley ‘Buster’ Riley, featured the dulcet tones of Pat Kelly. This was followed by a ‘country’ reggae classic, ‘Madness’ from The Mighty Maytones, produced by Alvin ‘GG’ Ranglin and two of the hottest deejays of the period, Dillinger and Trinity, then clashed on the third Burning Sounds long player which was produced by Clem Bushay. This initial trio of superior releases set the standards for subsequent long players and albums from Leroy Smart, as singer and producer on ‘Impressions Of Leroy Smart’ and ‘Dread Hot In Africa’, The Morwells with ‘Crab Race’, Augustus ‘Gussie’ Clarke with ‘Black Foundation Dub’ and the endlessly popular ‘country’ reggae stylings of The Maytones on ‘Boat To Zion’, again for Alvin GG Ranglin, all sold well and are now regarded as reggae classics. A sparkling array of the many facets of Jamaican music were issued on twelve inch ‘discos’ including deep roots recordings from Al Campbell with ‘Going The Wrong Way’, Fred Locks on ‘Love And Harmony’ and ‘Ya Ho’ from The Viceroys, the self-aggrandising ‘Mr Smart’ from the inimitable Leroy Smart, The Heptones take on Smokey Robinson’s ‘Sweat/Swept For You Baby’ and ‘The Crown Prince Of Reggae’ Dennis Brown’s reading of Peter Green’s (and Santana’s) ‘Black Magic Woman’.


And, as Burning Sounds flourished and grew, it became the label of choice for home grown musical talent when the children of the diaspora discovered their own voice. With a little help from Jamaica’s most soulful singer, Alton Ellis, Burning Sounds helped nurture the lover’s rock phenomenon, a music that could only have originated in the UK, with Alton and Tony Jay’s ‘Telephone Line’ and Janet Kay’s take on Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Lovin’ You’. This proved to be the perfect entrée to Janet’s later UK National Chart smash ‘Silly Games’. Local roots rock reality was also given an early introduction with Pablo Gad’s immortal ‘Hard Times, a huge hit in 1980 when Pablo Gad also won the prestigious Best Male Vocalist award in the Black Echoes readers poll. Deejay sensation Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, stepped forward with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and Barrington Levy’s  ‘Hunting Man’ disco and the pivotal ‘Shine Eye Gal’ album from the ‘Mellow Canary’ who sang with all the spontaneity of a deejay, transferred the live excitement of a sound system dance direct to record and captured the first stirrings of the dance hall style. Produced by Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes these were among first records to introduce dance hall and Barrington and Junjo would together go on to dominate the music in the first half of the eighties with their brash, bright approach. The list goes on…


But as the decade closed the Burning Sounds record shop on Harrow Road was summarily closed down and the label transferred its headquarters to Dun Laoghaire, on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland, and began trading as FORM... the Federation Of Reggae Music. A handful of records were subsequently released including some mellow lovers tracks from Junior English but, in 1981, this once proud institution ceased trading.


Fast forward to when Secret Records pulled off a remarkable coup when they purchased the rights to the Burning Sounds catalogue and began overseeing an extensive re-release programme of a selection of this groundbreaking label’s superb album releases. Gregory Isaac’s ‘Slum In Dub’, Freddie McGregor’s ‘Freddie’, The Twinkle Brothers’ ‘Rasta Pon Top’ and The Mighty Maytones’ ‘Boat To Zion’ were all repressed, repackaged and released to critical and commercial acclaim. The flame continues to shine brightly for Burning Sounds.

Burning Sounds Music notes.png
bottom of page