"Dub was my sound because of postcolonial movements. I grew up in it. I bathed in it. I breathed it. So why shouldn't it be mine?"
I first heard the foreboding bass line of Vivien Goldman's "Private Armies" in Boston, 1981. Stereophonic sounds crashed into each other, dissipated, and appeared again, and the bass kept it all together while a British woman's voice alternated between sweet sing-song and militant shouts of resistance. That summer, police were violently clamping down on behalf of the new corporate state in the working-class Caribbean community of Brixton, as well as in striking white mining towns across England. As a kid, listening eagerly with big ears across the pond, "Private Armies" evoked all these images in visceral ways that newspapers could not. And that a woman's voice spoke up to the masculinity of oppression put the images in a focus we were not getting in mainstream reportage.
The lead voice and visionary of the project was a music journalist. Vivien Goldman often wrote in NME and Melody Maker about London's "sound systems" and the links happening between white punks and rastas at all-night Blue Parties. Coming from Boston's poor and working class white ghetto where any interaction with nearby poor and working-class black neighborhoods seemed unimaginable, such "crossing over" lit me. A glimpse into this faraway world sparked my own fantasies of class-conscious and cross-cultural intersections.
Thirty-five years after those angry teenage days of alienation, I called my now good friend and ally for a conversation about the new collection of her music—Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982) (Staubgold Records), covering solo songs as well as her work with The Flying Lizards and Chantage—from that explosive and brilliantly creative period.
Vivien Goldman How was it to hear the music again after all these years? You knew some of it, right?
Michael Patrick MacDonald The only stuff I didn't know was your band Chantage, but it's the first time in years I've heard the version of "Private Armies" with the vocals. Years later, I heard the Adrian Sherwood dub version on the New Age Steppers album. But I often remember where I was when I first heard certain songs. And that's one of them.
MPM Yeah, it was 1981, and I was on the stoop at an underground record store in Boston where everyone hung out, called Newbury Comics. The windows would be wide open and people would sit on the stoop to listen to all the latest records, mostly imports. Your record was from New York, right?
VG Yeah, I put it out first on my own label, Window Records, and then Rough Trade distributed it. But then I was in New York and went into a little record store on 99 Bleecker Street. I must have had a test pressing or a cassette and Ed Bahlman, who was working there at the time, just liked it and said, "Okay, we'll put it out." It was as simple as that.
MPM Wow. Was John Lydon involved from the beginning?
VG I first had the idea to do some music with my friend George Oban, who was the bass player from Aswad. He had such rolling melodic lines, and I found them completely entrancing. I'd been in The Flying Lizards, so I said to him, "Why don't we do something together?" He had this bass line, which was so sinuous and serpentine, and I improvised the song, I think, all in one go.
I had it on a cassette—the glories of the days when you could overdub, bouncing between cassette players—and I took it to John and played it for him at his house in Fulham. It made him laugh and he just thought it was funny, and it somehow organically led to him helping me with it. He was very helpful, and so was Keith Levene [of Public Image Limited]. And I can never forget Jeanette Lee, who helped create that energy that made it fun to be around that gang at the time.
MPM Well, it was probably in the early fall of '81 when they first played it at Newbury Comics. I was escaping to the record store from a pretty violent place, and the lyrics spoke to me. Were the Brixton Riots that summer in '81?
VG Yes, that was '81. There were a lot of things happening in Bristol and Manchester, and Thatcher was in—that was a season of civil war. Although "Private Armies" was really inspired by my friends Vernon and Norman, who were together in their mini and saw these skinheads beating a person up. They're black; I'm not sure if the person getting beaten up was black or white. But they were frozen at that moment. They were outnumbered, they didn't know how to handle it, and then it was over—one of those flashes of violence—and they were left sort of anguished. We all felt like that at the time. It was so easy to feel like a powerless pawn, and everything seemed to be spiraling so horribly out of control. Their story seemed to be a micro-level of a macro-situation.
MPM The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is so much in that song which is so relevant now. I love how it doesn't differentiate between the gang mentality of skinheads and a very similar gang mentality among police—
VG —or the government and, of course, the corporations.
MPM The song was also way before the notion of private armies became common conversation in the George W. Bush years with Blackwater, and the privatization of armies and mercenary groups that were being formed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
VG Yeah, and the whole fear of ISIS. They say it's ideological but when you get up close, are loads of them mercenaries reading Soldier of Fortune?
I notice people are still quite struck by a line I shout in the background: "If you can't get a hard on, get a gun." It's amazing to hear a girl sing a line like that. It's so unfiltered, so unlikely—you can just tell it's a sort of fanzine on record, something self-produced and very individual. It's like a missive from the frontline.
MPM That style of talking or shouting over the song, that kind of interjection, is similar to the tradition of emceeing or toasting in dancehall.
VG You get a bit of talk-over in all my records. I like that tradition of immediacy and reporting on things. I was always awkward doing regular love songs. Even The Flying Lizards "love songs" were all about feminist politics.
MPM You're always bringing in influences from all parts of your life—your social life, music life, and work life.
VG I would always have a violin if at all possible, which is my father's instrument. I just feel this umbilical link to it. On "Launderette," I had the violinist from The Raincoats, Vicky Aspinall, and then with Chantage, we had this really vintage, rich Hungarian gypsy sound from a guy we heard in a Hungarian restaurant. He'd never been in a studio before. We went and found the steelpan player in the street—the frontline, All Saints Road. Now it's super posh with really expensive boutiques and restaurants, but then it was where a lot of deals went down. I went out there and said, "Who's the best steelpan player in the area?" All roads led to this amazing dread called Bubbles. It's so eloquent the way he plays, don't you think so?
VG His playing was so fantastic that it wound up being like a lead instrument instead of just the percussion thing I'd originally thought it would be. So you can say it's really from the street.
VG But also partly from my post-punk pals from the scene, like Bruce Smith, who played with The Pop Group, The Slits, and later Public Image Limited, too. Robert Wyatt's percussion was quite unexpected and gives "Launderette" a lot of its ambience. Steve Beresford, my fellow Lizard, had a big impact on all my tunes. Chantage has a very different feel from the "Launderette" sessions. The rippling, liquid soukous guitar is from Manu Dibango's guitarist, Jerry Malekani, who we were able to fly in from Paris to London for the session.
MPM When I was listening to the lyrics to "Private Armies" again this week, the whole thing spoke to me about George Zimmerman. I don't know if you saw George Zimmerman—
VG —selling his gun.
MPM Your song just gave me the chills, because Zimmerman is this private army kind of guy. He's this self-appointed vigilante, with the backing of systemic racism. It's all so relevant.
VG I was very, very angry at the time and normally in pop you just don't get those emotions. But things are all very opaque, even more now than they were then. I think even on a dare-one-say spiritual and psychic level, the work was very important because everyone was trying to destabilize us or to make us live in fear.
MPM But a lot of those songs are danceable. Even if they're angry, there's still life in the rhythm. A favorite quote of mine is by feminist anarchist Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."
VG Dancing is a way to give you strength. That makes it resistance. Listening to these songs again and hearing all of it put together for the first time, it made me see a definite progression to my work. Flying Lizards are improvised, very spontaneous. I'm not sure if I gave the others any written lyrics beforehand. On "Launderette," I'd actually mapped out the song on a bunch of cassettes and given it to people. And then Chantage is very full—it's more assured in the singing and in everything else.
Throughout, I was a woman trying to find my own sound, and it was very natural for me to turn to dub. We had ideals then of a high-functioning multicultural society that are challenged today by accusations of appropriation. All my music is, in a way, impacted not just by me, but also by waves of immigration. Dub was my sound because of postcolonial movements. I grew up in it. I bathed in it. I breathed it. So why shouldn't it be mine?
VG We're seeing immigration now on a mass level around the world. What will it do to culture, and how will music shape the new community? Some people may find it naive to think that music has a role to play in improving communication between races, but for me to think otherwise would make it all too depressing.
MPM To me, the conversation around appropriation a lot of times carries a kind of fundamentalism about who is what and who's allowed to do what. What a lot of younger people aren't going to remember is that in this period it was really radical to even have any kind of multicultural mix happening at all. And what was happening with the punk and reggae scene coming together is that something new would always be created. The Slits didn't sound exactly like reggae. They created a whole new—
MPM A punk explosion that's very reggae-infused. I don't think the people in Steel Pulse would have would have thought that The Slits were culturally appropriating.
VG No, they loved The Slits.
MPM Your parents were refugees, correct?
VG Yes, I am a first-generation Brit, and Jewish. My father was a musician who escaped from police headquarters in Berlin after he'd been arrested in the early 1930s and gradually made his way to England where he met my mother, another refugee from Germany. Earlier, his family had fled from Poland.
MPM There's a whole history of being a refugee.
VG My father used to warn us not to get too comfortable in England. He used to say, "Never forget that you're English, not British."
MPM What does that mean?
VG When I was growing up, it seemed we were the only outsiders in Northwest London. When my older sisters went to school, there was a Jewish quota—they would only allow x amount of Jews into the high school. When I got into the same high school, they lifted the quota but there was still a bit of a distance.
MPM Do you still feel that that sense of not being able to get too comfortable anywhere?
VG Yeah, I think I take that a little bit for granted. Knowing that things can shift under your feet. Do you?
MPM Yeah, I have it from my own family experience growing up in poverty and a lot of death and having to flee at different points in my life. Recently I realized that a lot of Irish people have that feeling, because of the whole history of exile and fleeing colonial oppression and starvation. It's interesting how some of that stuff is trans-generational, too.
MPM And your music is migratory, if that makes sense.
VG More and more people are going to be like that. There's less and less of the old sureties some people used to have where they would grow up in the same place. People are shifting around.
MPM You can always hear it in the music. Before the term appropriation was used, I often used the word colonization for when people would try to own another group's music without any kind of nod or actual credit. I like The Police now, as a retro memory, but their music does feel more colonial than migratory.
VG But I have a good story to tell you about that. At the time when The Police were starting, I was really a reggae journalist in the British music press. I knew Sly and Robbie very well—who were one of the key rhythm sections of Jamaica—and when The Police's record came out, I said to them, "Oh guys, aren't you upset? Isn't it awful the way they've just really lifted your sound wholesale?" And they were like, "No, we think it's great." Because it meant that they were being heard, and they felt sure that even if they didn't get royalties off The Police records, it was going to do them good in the long run.
MPM And the rest is history because then they were hired left and right.
VG Yeah. And reggae is now well-known as part of the mix of beats and genres, isn't it?
MPM What do you think made that happen? Was it groups like The Police, or was it actually Bob Marley and Sly and Robbie?
VG It was always different in England, because of the English colonial links with Jamaica. As you know with the colonized and the colonizers, there's always some kind of warped exchange that goes on. Jamaican music was always around in England in a big way, so there was always a quite a big back and forth. I was influenced by the rastas at the time, because they had a very strong survivalist and militant philosophy. It was in the spirit of what Bob Marley said, "I and I don't expect to be justified by the laws of Man." We were functioning in a world where strong, hostile forces were weighed against forces of truth and justice. I think it gave me good training for life.
MPM Are there places where punk and rasta intersected definitely to inspire your music?
VG Definitely, the punks were picking up on Jamaican ideas of "heavy manners and discipline," trying to always be ready for anything, as England was reinventing itself as not only postcolonial but also postindustrial. Some people were resistant to the changes, but the sort of "I and I" togetherness of reggae really influenced me. I-nity—which is a rasta way of saying unity—was a way of saying that we can form a resistant tribe.
MPM There are probably a lot of theories on this, but are you able to explain how a scene like the skinhead ska one was taken over by the National Front?
VG Certain sections of punk like the Oi! movement seemed very connected to the National Front. The ideal is that you get tuned into the people through liking the music—and I still believe that is ultimately the case—but on the journey to that point you can find a lot of resistance where people are just digging the music and disconnecting from who made it.
MPM We saw that in the US in the disco days when a lot of white working-class Italian and Irish were dancing to black music, but often would still be segregationist. This was before the age of video, before you really were confronted with who was making the music.
VG Remember when Herbie Hancock did "Rockit?" It was in the early days of MTV and he wanted to get on it, but MTV didn't show black people. He made that whole video with robots and it was a huge hit. So he very cynically looked at the situation and found a way to play it that worked for him.
MPM Let's tell the story of your current project, which is a musical with August Darnell of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. What role did they play in this kind of cultural soup that was brewing in the late '70s and early '80s?
VG Some of the other bands in the New York scene were sort of intellectual and doomy and gloomy in various degrees. But Kid Creole and the Coconuts really injected fun into their music. I felt particularly at ease with them because they had a strong female population in the band, like the sort of thing I used to see with Fela Kuti as well. So often it's just the guys, with all due respect.
MPM They were not just backup singers. They were strong leads.
VG The women in the Coconuts were very strong. That influenced Prince a lot, and he put his band together in the same sort of way and also wrote "The Sex of It" for Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Kid Creole had a fantastic woman bass player, Carol Coleman. That was quite unusual in disco dance, where normally it would just be session guys, except for the other legendary Carol bass player, Carol Kaye of Motown. Prior to the women of punk, it was pretty much only them. And, of course, the girls in Heart, bless them. (laughter)
August is sort of an unusual pop star himself, having been an English teacher and being quite intellectual. We have a lot of interests in common like a love for old movies and musicals, and so we always used to joke that one day we would love to write a musical together. By chance, we found ourselves in London a few years ago and so we said, "Woah, this is the moment. Let's go for it." We actually wrote a first draft in about four days or something.
MPM What's the story line?
VG It's really August's own creation myth, so if you're familiar with any of his albums, you'll know the story. Sometimes you just have to find that compassion in yourself to accept people for who they are, because together even greater things can be accomplished. It's the other side of the coin from having to cut people off when they're truly toxic.
MPM Right, having to work with it. This is a far journey from that foreboding bass line in "Private Armies."
VG If you're a child of refugees and growing up through trauma, I think that sense of foreboding is almost your default mode.
MPM And the violin hovering above all that is maybe the hinge.
VG That kind of throbbing violin. I find that very emotional and that's precisely why I've got this obsession and need—you've got to find a way to enjoy life.
Michael Patrick MacDonald is the author of the New York Times bestselling coming-of-age memoir: All Souls, A Family Story From Southie, and Easter Rising, A Memoir of Roots and Rebellion. Both memoirs deal with the issues he experienced growing up in South Boston's Old Colony Housing Project. MacDonald is Author in Residence at Northeastern University's Honors Department and is currently teaching a community-based transformative storytelling curriculum at The Louis D Brown Peace Institute in Boston, a survivor-led organization working to support homicide survivors and reduce trauma and cycles of violence.