Various artists: This Is Trojan 50! review – the label that changed Britain

Trojan’s releases introduced the UK to reggae, deejaying, toasting, lovers rock, dancehall – and Five Star’s dad. This is an immaculately curated collection of a golden era

It is fitting that Trojan Records should mark its 50th birthday with such a serious look at its history – included in this lavish box set are almost 200 tracks across three different formats, plus a 12in slipmat; a poster; a sew-on patch, a wooden 7in single adapter and an illustrated hardcover book detailing the label’s history. As anybody who has scratched below the surface of the historic label will have discovered, there was always much more to Trojan than early-model skinheads bopping to a high-stepping beat, or reggae brightened up on Top of the Pops as pure polyester, flares and shirt collars measured in acreage.

Trojan began life in the mid-1960s when north London-based Jamaican accountant Lee Gopthal, who ran specialist black music shops, launched the record label Beat & Commercial to license imported music. Gopthal was also the landlord of Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. With both companies in the same building, buying in music from Jamaica, rival staffers would hang about on the stairs or lean out of windows to try and hear what the other had going on. Ever the pragmatist, Gopthal proposed a merger, so in 1968 the joint venture was launched, named after the sound system owned by one of the new label’s main suppliers: Duke Reid the Trojan.

Selling licensed music, mostly through his own shops, was never going to be enough for Gopthal, though. A few months in, he launched the Tighten Up LP series, cramming a dozen or so Jamaican hits on to albums sold at a pocket-money price, giving youngsters, notably in cities, the chance to make reggae their own. Youth clubs, school dances and church-hall discos rocked to Red Red Wine, The Liquidator and Long Shot Kick de Bucket – represented here on the Tighten Up tribute vinyl albums – sparking something of a Jamaican invasion of the UK charts in the early 1970s. At this point, strings were overdubbed on the Jamaican master tapes, a move that continues to infuriate reggae purists but was designed to evade the BBC’s refusal to play Trojan records – the corporation’s main reason was the music’s apparent lack of sophistication, leaving many to wonder if there wasn’t a wry middle-finger element involved in the lush orchestrations.

It was during this golden period that Trojan made a massive push to establish British reggae, a fair cross-section of which is on this box set’s Trojan Mix CDs, notably the Hits, Hidden Gems and Rarities disc. This feels entirely appropriate, since UK reggae was always more experimental than its Jamaican counterpart and Trojan was never afraid to try “a t’ing” – if it didn’t work, that song/style would simply never see the light of day again. The results as presented here are brilliantly varied, with a selection of reggae by the likes of the Rudies, Greyhound, Count Prince Miller, the Cimarons, Rico, Dandy Livingstone, King Horror, Nyah Tom and – a genuine curiosity – a tune by the Buster Pearson Band: years later, Pearson would be better known as Five Star’s dad.

The ever-adventurous Trojan was never afraid to take new ideas on board, and while its initial mainstream audience fell away as pop edged over to soul and disco, the label shifted nimbly to recapture its original crowd. The first deejay recordings released outside Jamaica were on Trojan – U-Roy, who introduced Britain to toasting, is included here, as are King Stitt and Big Youth. Heavyweights such as Johnny Clarke, Augustus Pablo, Bob Andy and Niney represent the label’s commitment to roots reggae; Susan Cadogan, Dennis Brown and Louisa Mark fly the flag for lovers rock, while the original Stalag riddim (Stalag 17 by Ansell Collins) and Gregory Isaacs’ Love Is Overdue signpost how Trojan embraced the coming of dancehall.

By the mid-1980s, Trojan was tailing off. Its time had been and gone and it faced too much competition: reggae was, by then, bona fide international pop music. This set, however, perfectly captures its heyday: the story of a company not afraid to try anything but very aware of how to get across what it wanted to sell. This Is Trojan 50! has been been so carefully curated it would be unfair to judge it by two glaring omissions: the Wailers, whose best work, produced by Lee Perry, is on Trojan; and Jimmy Cliff who, pre-The Harder They Come, launched himself with a hit-laden, self-titled Trojan album. Both acts are awol due to the sort of legal squabbling that ought to have no place in music.

It’s a shame, but those records are easily available elsewhere and this box set still tells the wide-ranging, sometimes bonkers, always exciting story of a record label that played a huge part in announcing a black presence in Britain, and in doing so changed the nation forever.


Lloyd Bradley

The GuardianTramp

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