Virgin Front Line Presents: Reggae Discomixes - 24 Killer Extended Mixes

The Mighty Diamonds - Have Mercy
The Gladiators - Evil Doers
Dr. Alimantado - Find The One
U Brown - River John Mountain
Sly Dunbar - Cocaine Cocaine
Poet & The Root - Man Free (For Darcus Howe)
Joyella Blade - Cairo
Culture - Poor Jah People
I Roy - Fire In A Wire
The Twinkle Brothers - Never Get Burn
Prince Far I - Struggle
Gregory Isaacs - Permanent Lover
Delroy Washington - You Know I Want To Be
Poet & The Roots - Five Nights Of Bleeding
I Roy - Peace In The City
Sly Dunbar - Dope Addict
Big Youth - Isaiah - The First Prophet of Old
U Roy - Love In The Arena
The Gladiators - Exodus
The Twinkle Brothers - This Man King Pharaoh
Culture - Innocent Blood
G Isaacs/Prince Far I - Uncle Joe/Come Off Mi Toe
The Mighty Diamonds - One Brother Short
Congo Ashanti Roy - Weeping and Waiting

Today, most people are aware of Virgin, a 'multinational, branded venture capital conglomerate', through its trains, planes and multi media ventures whose businesses 'consist of more than four hundred companies worldwide'. And. while many will recall that Virgin's birth was in its progressive music record shop and label at the start of the seventies, its involvement in reggae music towards the close of that decade is, perhaps, less well known.

The Virgin label was founded by Richard Branson, Simon Draper, Nik Powell and Tom Newman in 1972, but Richard Branson and Nik Powell had previously run a small record shop in Notting Hill Gate, West London named Virgin Record & Tapes, which specialised in what was termed 'underground music', with particular emphasis on records imported from Germany. There followed their own label, designed by Roger Dean, an artist whose album covers, with Yes in particular, had come to typify the artwork of progressive music. The first release on Virgin, 'Tubular Bells', also the debut long-player of multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, went on to reputedly sell over fifteen million copies worldwide.

From its beginnings in the mid-sixties the majority of followers of 'prog rock' in the UK had dismissed Jamaican music as being unworthy of consideration, literally beneath contempt, largely due to its associations with the so called 'skinhead' subculture. it all came down to class, of course, but these upper vs. working class arguments took on many new dimensions: long haired hippies vs. short haired skinheads, layabouts vs. hard workers, intellects vs. C-stream drop outs. Reggae was widely regarded as being infinitely inferior to progressive music, despite there being more real progression in Jamaican singles such as Lynford 'Andy Capp' Anderson's 'Pop A Top' or Dave Barker & The Upsetters' 'Lock Jaw' than in most triple-disc 'concept' albums housed in lavish gatefold sleeves.

" the skinheads or agro boys have shown their distaste for current developments by championing the claims of reggae, a rhythmically insistent, melodically impoverished form of blue beat of West Indian origin."
George Melly

Progressive rock's adherents failed to recognise that reggae was a separate, but logical, progression from the same American Rhythm & Blues roots that had initiated their revered musical genre. This schism was meaningless to Jamaican artists and musicians, of course, but, as a direct result of this snobbish attitude, reggae music was not taken seriously. So it came as something of a surprise when, in 1974, Virgin ventured into reggae music with multi-talented Harris 'BB' Seaton who, as one of the founding members of leading vocal trio, the Gaylads, had enjoyed massive success throughout the sixties in Jamaica. Bibby's 'Dancing Shoes' album was released on their Caroline Records subsidiary, but the next set of reggae releases, from a formidable selection of the music's foremost producers and artists, came on the Virgin label.

Bunny 'Striker' Lee, Tony 'Prince Tony' Robinson, Joseph 'Jo Jo' Hookim and the enigmatic artist/producer Keith Hudson all signed on the dotted line and some of the most important albums of 1976, including 'Right Time' from the Mighty Diamonds, 'Vital Dub' from the Revolutionaries, 'Dread In A Babylon' from U-Roy and 'Trench Town Mix Up' from the Gladiators were released by Virgin in the UK. The label also pulled off the remarkable coup that year when they signed Peter Tosh, following his departure from the Wailers, subsequently releasing his debut album, 'Legalize It'. A cut-price sampler album, 'The Front Line', which, if memory serves me well, sold for the price of a seven inch single, showcased their impressive repertoire and boosted the label's profile considerably.

The Sex Pistols inspired the punk musical revolution of 1976 and the following year, despite their previous pronouncements of 'never trust a hippie', signed to Virgin Records in a blaze of publicity in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace. Their first release on Virgin, 'God Save The Queen', coincided with the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II and major controversy ensued. The band imploded in San Francisco in January 1978 and Richard Branson and the group's frontman, John 'Johnny Rotten' Lydon, an outspoken reggae aficionado, flew to Jamaica where they stayed at Kingston's Sheraton Hotel with no shortage of 'cash in hand'. John Lydon recalled, "all these groups and singers coming to see us at the Sheraton Hotel" and they returned to London with a multitude of record deals featuring an A-Z of top talents, from the Abyssinians to Tappa Zukie... "there was just an endless list..." To cater specifically for this amazing array of artistry, Virgin Records initiated their Front Line subsidiary under the auspices of the larger than life South African born, Donald 'Jumbo' Vanranen, with the label design lifted from the 'Front Line' album cover.

By this time, changes in the recording industry had given rise to a new format, which would play an important role in the Front Line story. Sound quality had always been of integral importance to Jamaica's Sound System operators, where the bass beat was ideally experienced as a physical rather than aural force, with Kingston's record producers and vinyl manufacturers always willing to push levels far beyond the accepted limits. The infamous American engineer, Tom Moulton, is usually credited with the introduction of the twelve inch single in New York in the seventies. The format not only added dynamic range, but also increased the all important bass frequencies and the 'for promotion only' 1973 release of Swamp Dogg's 'Straight From My Heart' is generally acknowledged as the first twelve inch record. However, these exclusive releases remained the sole preserve of deejays until demand proved too great and, in 1976, 'Ten Percent' by disco band, Double Exposure became the first commercially available twelve inch single.

That same year, the Hookim Brothers, whose Channel One studio on Maxfield Avenue was currently the acknowledged home of all that was happening in reggae music, were the first to release 12" 'disco mix' 45 in Jamaica. 'Truly', originally recorded in 1968 by Marcia Griffiths at Studio One, was given a 'rockers' update by the Jayes, powered by the drums of Sly Dunbar where, instead of the record fading out as the vocal finished, Ranking Trevor stepped in with a dynamic deejay version. Meanwhile, on the other side of the disc, the Jayes' version of the Viceroys' 'Yaho' seamlessly segued into a blistering dub version.

In Jamaica, twelve inch singles failed to become de rigueur as they did elsewhere due to recurring vinyl shortages and often prohibitive prices (some sold for three or four times the price of a standard album), with the 7" single remaining the preferred medium. But in reggae's two leading overseas markets, London and New York, the 12" single rapidly rose to ubiquity. Many UK and USA 'disco mixes' showcased different mixes to the Jamaican release or, increasingly, records that had not been released in Jamaica.

Virgin and its Front Line label, naturally enough, followed the trend and over the next few years released a series of 12" records, commencing with I-Roy's 'Fire Stick', and ranging through understated Jamaican roots classics such as the Gladiators' 'Evil Doers', Culture's 'Innocent Blood' and the Twinkle Brothers' 'This Man King Pharaoh', to UK-produced recordings that included Delroy Washington's 'You Know I Want To Be' and the early stirrings of dub poetry from Linton Kwesi Johnson who as Poet & The Roots recorded the typically powerful 'Five Nights Of Bleedin''.

By the early eighties, Virgin had folded Front Line following the collapse of its African export market, leaving others to step in and fill the breach. Among those to make use of the opportunity were Charisma Records, which in 1980 issued a series of fine reggae titles on its short-live Pre subsidiary, including heavyweight releases from Prince Far I and Congo Ashanti Roy, as well as a number of titles by Gregory Isaacs, fresh from his recent spell with Front Line. Within three years, Charisma had joined the Virgin fold and Pre went the way of Front Line, but not without having first issued Gregory's finest work of the period.

While Virgin's involvement in the reggae market diminished in the eighties, it maintained a presence through British band, UB40 and later, Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers. In June 1992, Richard Branson  sold Virgin Records to Thorn EMI, which in turn was acquired by the Universal Music Group some 20 years later.

Since then, Virgin's excellent, yet greatly under-estimated reggae catalogue has provided the focus for a number of superior new compilations, highlighting long lost gems alongside the major hits. This 2CD set is no exception, with many of these extended mixes previously unobtainable in digital form, while none of the material featured here is available on any other new reggae collections, ensuring great music and maximum value for money. Who could ask for anything more?

Harry Wise
All material © Trojan Records