With the passing of another legend, Getintothis’ Bernie Connor explores the cultural significance of the great Prince Buster.
A colossus of modern music in more ways than anyone would imagine, Prince Buster has died at the age of 78.
Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in 1938 – he was named after Alexander Bustamente, the first Jamaican prime minister – The Prince was a leading light in taking Jamaican music to an overseas audience. Like many JA artists he found a place in the sound system culture of pre-independence, he began his career as a hustler in the 1950’s Kingston, working for Coxsone Dodd on his celebrated sound system. From him, Buster learned the ropes of the fledgling music industry, picking up tips and methods that would serve him well in later years.
In 1961, armed with the leading lights of the embryonic he began to record his own material based on contemporary American rhythm and blues, but given a local and unique flavour. That year he recorded one of the first truly smash hits of the Jamaican canon. In a session to record Oh Carolina by the Folkes Brothers, he was convinced by Count Ossie to allow his Nyabinghi drummers to accompany the stark piano and voices on the recording. The results were astonishing. Later sampled/covered by Shaggy in the 90’s, the recording was also historic; it was the first time Rastafarians had been allowed into a studio to record. Previously, the Rastas were seen as an outsider caste, not unlike India’s untouchables.
The record found great success locally, so much so that in it was licensed for release in the UK by Melodisc, who released it on their Blue Beat imprint. The style of music therein made such an impact that in the UK for almost the next decade all Jamaican pop music was referred to as Blue Beat.
The expanding ex-pat West Indian community gobbled up this music by the truck load. In west London white youths would attend ‘blues parties’ that played Ska all night long and Buster’s music was more than well represented. He acquired the first Jamaican dancefloor smash in 1964 with his double a-side Al Capone and One Step Beyond. These tunes would eventually go top 40 over here when Ska went briefly ‘overground’ and introduced Buster to his UK white audience, who adopted a policy of hero worship and adoration.
When he came over here in 1964, he was met at Heathrow by an outrider of scooter boys who escorted his car into London. In 1964 those west London mods worshipped him like a god. His records became the staple of any Friday/Saturday amphetamine fuelled dance session, some of the greatest dance music ever made played through speakers made from old wardrobes, thunderously loud with butt shakin’ bass.
As the 60s went on and Jamaican music became more sophisticated, Buster’s old time dance version remained as strong as ever. His records sold in respectable amounts for what was seemed outdated and quaint. As Jah and Rastafari became the norm in JA music, the Prince’s good time sound found a resonant support among the skinhead fraternity, where again he was elevated to godlike status. His 1968 greatest hits package, FABulous Greatest Hits is one of the most enduring albums of its age, in any style, packed with goodies from end to end. A truly wondrous party classic.
Jerry Dammers would have been 14 years old and in Coventry during the skinhead/reggae explosion in the summer of 1969. His musical youth became the platform for what became the late seventies surprise phenomenon, Two Tone. Once again, Buster was at the forefront. Utilising the energy of punk and the rhythm of Ska, Dammers created a sub-genre of music that the UK will never allow to rest. In a country torn by geographical and racial strife, his band The Specials and Two Tone briefly brought together youth from across the barbed wire fences of seventies Britain and it was hugely successful. Their debut 45 Gangsters, released in 1979 was a homage to a seemingly forgotten hero of the recent past.
Times had changed so quickly that his name was cast aside in favour of a more esoteric and thoughtful style of Jamaican music. In north London a group calling themselves The North London Invaders changed their name and their style in honour of our great man. In the batting of an eyelid, they became Madness, the title of a 1963 Prince Buster tune about independence. A mere few months after their first gigs, they released their debut record on Dammers’ Two Tone label, a tribute – nay homage – to Buster called The Prince. Their follow up single was a cover of his One Step Beyond, which was also the title of their debut LP
If only for his profound influence on Two Tone and the UK’s post-punk landscape, Buster is more than worth a round of applause. But for this writer, his legacy will be introducing the exotic glory of Jamaican music to 1960’s white Britain. The country we live in today was a completely different world in 1964 and Prince Buster played a crucial part in releasing the nation’s youth from the straitjacket of World War II and its difficult aftermath.
Buster was a real hero of the people, a pioneer in many different areas, the likes of whom just don’t exist anymore. The business in which Buster plied his trade is virtually unrecognisable, but some folks deserve to live on in the human psyche long after the flavour has worn off and they’ve been wrapped in paper and discarded. Hopefully this week an earthquake really is erupting on Orange Street in honour of one of pop music’s true folk heroes.
So long, Buster, and thank you.