English Black Boys - X-O-Dus Album Review
1975. Manchester. Moss Side. Rain. Reggae. The Russell Club. Reasons. Right there are the usual components for how some music is created and how (if) it evolves. Without the right environment, the right city, even the right weather, you end up with a car-crash formula that sounds dated before it's begun. And, frankly, you couldn't get more inspiration in the '70s than from a hard-bitten Northern city living on the edge of its own post-industrial existence.
X-O-Dus were an unusual prospect during these tough times - formed in the mid '70s, the militant and political repartee employed by core members Wesley Ricketts and brother Patrick, quietly passed most London reggae-audiences by, yet caused enough hub-bub in Manchester and, in particular, Factory Records, to prompt then-Joy Division's broader-minded manager, Rob Gretton, to harry co-directors Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus into courting the bands' obvious talents and arrange a session. Not just any session though, this was a recording stint with acclaimed leading dub-craftsman, Dennis Bovell, aka Blackbeard.
The fruits of their labours appeared (eventually) in 1980, a 12" that paired strong social dub-heavy anthems "English Black Boys" and the slightly-superior "See Them a Come". Delayed by Bovell's initial reluctance to travel north of London, the single came housed in the same minimal and austere grey sleeve that also adorns this reissue collection. It surged ahead of major players on the then-Independent Charts (ironically that list included Birmingham's more successful UB40).
As well as these two tracks, this compilation album gathers up a pile of unreleased session-tracks plus post-X-O-Dus outtakes. Although the quality wobbles in place, a swift scan through the sleevenotes and an understanding of Factory's irregular business methods explains that you are lucky to be hearing anything from this band's past, at all. And thank Heavens we are.
At a time when most reggae-bands were exclaiming their love of Jah, X-O-Dus kept to the roads signposted with "Political Injustice" and "Social Commentary". Billed as 'rainy-city reggae', hearing the exquisite workmanship of this long-forgotten outfit does make me wonder how it all fell apart so quickly. "If You Want My Lovin'" and "Take It From Me" are the equal of anything similar acts like Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse issued at the time. Pumped full of melody and, above all, wall-vibrating basslines, X-O-Dus could seriously rocksteady. They even attempt some soul-funk skanking on "We Can Feel It", evoking comparisons with Bob Marley's "I Know" from his posthumous "Confrontation" album.
There isn't a bum track throughout the never-before issued demos, all of which were originally earmarked for an album on Factory - it never materialized. If John Peel had been handed the same demo and applied the same enthusiasm that he'd shown for the "English Black Boys" 12", events may have taken a turn for the better. Instead the band dissolved, but not before upstaging a few headlining bands on tour and finishing the demos. The remaining two tracks on this CD are not as essential - "Underwater Dance" is a basic attempt at a rave white-label 12" by Patrick Ricketts (as Subsonique - "we know the score") and "Narrow Dance" is a more-recent conscious-dancehall workout by original X-O-Dus guitarist Dave Reid.
Whatever your musical bent, be it classic British roots-reggae or the legacy of Factory Records, "English Black Boys" is an essential commemorative document that remains as relevant as the title suggests.
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