Music legends

Dennis Bovell on style, substance and scoring Babylon

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Music legends Dennis Bovell and Ed Bahlman unite before the preview of Franco Rosso's powerful Babylon with Brinsley Forde at BAMcinématek
Music legends Dennis Bovell and Ed Bahlman unite before the preview of Franco Rosso's powerful Babylon with Brinsley Forde at BAMcinématek Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

When I arrived with Ed Bahlman (99 Records) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for my conversations with Brinsley Forde and Dennis Bovell, two key figures for Franco Rosso's Babylon, co-written with Martin Stellman (Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia, Idris Elba's Yardie), produced by Gavrik Losey, and shot by two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges (for Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields and The Mission), Brinsley, Dennis, and Seventy-Seven founder Gabriele Caroti were standing in the lobby. Ed greeted Dennis and they immediately reconnected by sharing memories of The Slits, Viv Albertine's memoir, Chris Blackwell, Adrian Sherwood, Pop Group, Mark Stewart, Public Image Ltd, Bruce Smith, Neneh Cherry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Reggae Lounge, and of course, Ari Up and the making of Cut.

Brinsley Forde shines in Franco Rosso's Babylon
Brinsley Forde shines in Franco Rosso's Babylon Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Babylon stars Brinsley Forde with Trevor Laird, Brian Bovell, Archie Pool, Victor Romero Evans, Stefan Kalipha, Cosmo Laidlaw, David N Haynes, Mark Monero, Karl Howman, and Jah Shaka, among others, and has a score composed by, and music arranged by Dennis Bovell.

Franco Rosso's crucial 1980 film Babylon revolves around Blue (Brinsley Forde), a young man in South London, who in the course of a few hectic and life-changing days, experiences more than most protagonists do. All starts out ordinarily enough. He is a mechanic in a garage, lives with his little, school-averse brother Carlton (Mark Monero), his mother (Cynthia Powell), and her boyfriend (T Bone Wilson). Blue and his best friends Errol (David N. Haynes), Beefy (Trevor Laird), Scientist (Brian Bovell), Lover (Victor Romero Evans), Ronnie (Karl Howman), and Dreadhead (Archie Pool) are readying to compete with their Ital Lion sound system against Jah Shaka's crew.

Blue, more and more isolated from the reality that he has known, has a cross to bear that is, unfortunately, as relevant as it was nearly forty years ago. As we descend further and further into the moral morass of Babylon, alas with Dennis Bovell's intricate score as our guide, it is a deep need of righting injustice that rises up.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When was the last time you saw Babylon?

Dennis Bovell: I think it was probably after it was digitised.

AKT: In the Nineties?

DB: I guess in the Nineties, because when it was digitised by Icon they had a showing at the BFI and I went along to watch it.

Brinsley Forde as Blue aka David in Babylon
Brinsley Forde as Blue aka David in Babylon

AKT: Now you are going to watch it tonight?

DB: Yeah, because I haven't seen it in a while, so I figure there may be points in it that I don't really remember, although I might think that I do. Just to refresh my memory. I'm looking for that tonight.

AKT: I saw it for the first time two weeks ago at a press screening at Soho House.

DB: So it's fresh in your mind.

AKT: It looks beautiful. I also noticed the style, besides everything else.

DB: Classic. It was very fashionable at the time. You know, fashion goes around. So what was something fashionable twenty years ago is easily going to be fashionable today and probably in 20 years time, too.

AKT: While watching, I wrote down "Wes Anderson - The Royal Tenenbaums". Have you ever seen it?

DB: No, no.

AKT: It looks as though [Wes] could have taken inspiration from the [Babylon] clothes, but I don't think so. How did you get involved with the film in the first place? You did the music and it says that you inspired parts of the story. So how did it all begin?

DB: What happened was that I was part of a documentary by Franco Rosso.

AKT: The director of Babylon.

DB: The director of the movie. He did a film on Linton Kwesi Johnson. It was called Dread Beat an' Blood, about Linton's first album [Forces of Victory]. While we were on it he said to me "You know, I'm in the middle of writing a film." And he gave me the script and he said "I'd like you to be part of this." And he had asked Linton to write the music.

Dennis Bovell on Trevor Laird as Beefy in Babylon: "He was the most seasoned actor on the set. And it showed."
Dennis Bovell on Trevor Laird as Beefy in Babylon: "He was the most seasoned actor on the set. And it showed."

And Linton said "Are you crazy? That's Dennis's job." So he gave me the script and I looked at it and he wanted to add something about my troubles that I'd had whilst being a sound system DJ. What had happened was that one evening the police came into a club where my sound system was playing and arrested someone. While they were taking him out, friends or the audience decided that they were going to free him from the police.

So a fight ensued and some police officers were injured. But they came back and beat up the whole club. And then they accused me of being the instigator. Because they said that the DJ had made an announcement on the sound system and then people started to fight the police. They tried to point that I did that.

AKT: Oh god.

DB: So upon hearing that, I went to the police station to say "Is that right what you're saying?" And then they wanted to know what I said. And I said "I said nothing." But another DJ in the auditorium had said something, I did not remember what it was. I wasn't about to tell them it wasn't me, it was him. Because then I would have to give evidence against him.

And this guy was a pretty heavy guy in the neighbourhood. You wouldn't really want to accuse him of something. So I said it wasn't me. And then they tried to pin it on me. In fact, that was when I found out that you're not innocent until you've been proved guilty. You're guilty until you can prove your innocence.

Also that was when I found out that police officers were quite willing to enter a court of law, place their hand on the Holy Bible and perjure themselves. Up until then I was skeptical about whether or not that actually happened. But when it happened to me! I mean, there I was faced with a policeman saying that he saw me with a microphone, standing on a stage, inciting the crowd. Nothing of that kind happened!

Beefy (Trevor Laird) putting up posters with Scientist (Brian Bovell)
Beefy (Trevor Laird) putting up posters with Scientist (Brian Bovell)

I said to the judge "Can we get a lie detector test up in here?" And he said "Do you expect me to believe that police officers would lie under oath?" And I said "That's one right there. Get a lie detector test. I can take it, he can take it, too, and you'll see." And they were like "No, no, we're not going to do that." Because they were afraid that I was right. Anyway, I was acquitted after a long …

AKT: When something like this happens, it must have turned your whole world upside down.

DB: This was in 1975. Yeah.

AKT: Kafka in reality, no longer fiction.

DB: It certainly gave me a different outlook of how I viewed the police force in London. To see a person stand in front of you and point you out as someone he has seen commit an offence, knowing that he was lying. This guy said "We came into the club, the management put all the lights on and we saw him on the stage." And 19 others said "We went into the club, it was dark, it was all black people in there, we didn't see nothing." But they took this guy's word for it. And he was obviously put up to that. I'd still like to give him a lie detector test, if he's still alive.

AKT: Find him?

DB: Oh, he's hidden. He's probably being pensioned out of the force. He was pretty old at the time. Because he was a senior policeman, they thought, no, he's quite capable of giving this evidence. But he lied.

AKT: The scene with Blue [Brinsley Forde] in Babylon when the police are after him he has a moment to make the decision of do I run or do I stay? He has done nothing wrong, he was just walking on the street at night. You know the scene I am talking about?

Errol (David N Haynes), Ronnie (Karl Howman), Dreadhead (Archie Pool), and Blue (Brinsley Forde) with their sound system
Errol (David N Haynes), Ronnie (Karl Howman), Dreadhead (Archie Pool), and Blue (Brinsley Forde) with their sound system

DB: Yes. The piece of music I wrote for that was a tune called Manhunter. Because the police had some cars that were Hillman Hunters. It was a car made by Hillman. That was the car they drove; the plainclothes units had that car. So I thought it was quite ironic that the police were chasing this man in a car called a Hillman Hunter. So I called the piece of music Manhunter.

AKT: When did the music come in?

DB: The music was coming as the film was being shot. They would go out and shoot the rushes, come back to the studio and give me VHS. And I'd watch the VHS and decide what I was going to write.

So I decided to write a piece of music for each character. So that when that character was on the screen, it would be pieces of his tune. Or if there was three or four of them, you would get pieces of each of their tunes. Just trying to keep it level with the characters.

AKT: There is such an interesting balance between the scenes on this long day's journey. I don't know how long a span of time is covered exactly, but in a very short period everything happens at once.

DB: Right, probably over a weekend.

AKT: Everything happens to Blue. Anything that can happen to a person ...

DB: … happens to him.

AKT: I liked very much how the scene with the police where he is being hunted is then afterwards juxtaposed with Blue finding himself in the car with the girlfriend's brother and his friend as they are setting up this guy. And suddenly Blue finds himself with the hunters.

Cosmo Laidlaw is Rastaman in Babylon
Cosmo Laidlaw is Rastaman in Babylon

DB: Thinking "I can't do that."

AKT: It's brilliant as far as structure is concerned.

DB: That's when I wrote the piece of music called Jazterpiece, where I recorded the same song in reggae and then I did it in a punk version. And halfway through, I switch from one to the other. The only difference was that I used a different drummer to play the punk scene.

The drummer for the reggae scene was Drummie Zeb from Aswad and the drummer for the punk scene was Bruce Smith, who was the drummer of the Pop Group and is currently the drummer of PiL. But the horn section was the same, the guitars were the same, except that I switched drummers.

And then cut to when we're in the alleyway outside the amusement arcade, when they were doing that "Drrrrr chhh". Cut to something more dramatic, but the same tune.

AKT: The character of Beefy is a complicated one.

DB: Trevor Laird. Yes, in fact at one point I thought the film should have been called Beefy.

AKT: He is so important. When he is exploding near the end. He seems more unaware and clumsy at the start.

DB: That's right. He was the most seasoned actor on the set. And it showed. He took the acting level up a couple of notches, so the others had to follow that. Trevor Laird is a dynamic actor.

AKT: I just asked Brinsley about the Lonsdale sweatshirt that Beefy is wearing. I read somewhere that neo-Nazis are wearing these.

Archie Pool is Dreadhead in Babylon
Archie Pool is Dreadhead in Babylon

DB: Lonsdale?

AKT: Because when they wear a jacket over it, the letters read NSDA - only the P is missing to spell the Nazi party.

DB: Okay.

AKT: I don't think it's in the film on purpose. But seeing a character like Beefy wearing that adds an extra dimension.

DB: Lonsdale, the Lonsdale belt - black fighters were forbidden to fight for that belt back in the day. So Lonsdale is pretty racial from the beginning.

AKT: So you think it was on purpose to put him into this?

DB: Yeah, it was thought of as being a gym kind of power. You learn to box. But him wearing that Lonsdale, it kind of depicted how socially unaware he was. I don't think many black kids now would put on a Lonsdale shirt, because of that reason. That Lonsdale belt was only for white fighters.

AKT: I didn't know that.

DB: That was before the unification of the WBA, World Boxing Association. England had their own boxing fraternity.

AKT: It could have been called Beefy, but wasn't. What does the title Babylon mean to you?

DB: Babylon is more apt.

Brinsley Forde with Anne-Katrin Titze and Dennis Bovell about the Babylon soundtrack: "The music was coming as the film was being shot."
Brinsley Forde with Anne-Katrin Titze and Dennis Bovell about the Babylon soundtrack: "The music was coming as the film was being shot." Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: It has the Biblical connection.

DB: Well, Babylon is hell. And living in London in these times would have been hell. It still is now in some parts. So Babylon was an apt title. Plus, a lot of the reggae fraternity always referred to England as Babylon, you know, the seat of Babel.

AKT: Some of the scenes, the way the racist neighbours openly shout.

DB: That's quite ordinary.

AKT: It seems so casual for them. They don't even think twice before using hateful language.

DB: No. I particularly like the part when she says to Beefy "Why don't you go back to your own country?" And he says "This is my country."

AKT: That's Beefy's moment. He's had enough.

DB: He's English. He was born there. Where is he going to go? Back to where?

AKT: What do you think the reaction will be at BAM tonight?

DB: I don't know. It'll be interesting to watch.

AKT: I think it will be a great discovery for many people. It had an X-rating when it first came out in England.

DB: Oh, that was the other thing. When we went to the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, I was a little bit disappointed we had been given an X certificate.

Lover (Victor Romero Evans), Blue (Brinsley Forde) and Dreadhead (Archie Pool): "A lot of the reggae fraternity always referred to England as Babylon, you know, the seat of Babel."
Lover (Victor Romero Evans), Blue (Brinsley Forde) and Dreadhead (Archie Pool): "A lot of the reggae fraternity always referred to England as Babylon, you know, the seat of Babel."

AKT: Because it is for audiences under 18, isn't it? They should see it.

DB: But one point - there's a lot of ganja smoking in that film. And as a parent myself, I'd be hesitant to see that. Of course nowadays it's been legal in so many cities and so many states, it's a misdemeanor. But it brought me back to the time when alcohol was prohibited.

AKT: And now there is an influence on the rating if you show people smoking cigarettes in movies.

DB: But now, so much has been decriminalized and so much other stuff is happening in the world that's more horrendous. That movie seems like a kids movie now. But at the time, it was the hard part. And still is now in some places.

Coming up - Brinsley Forde on racism and his role in Babylon.

Babylon is currently screening at BAMcinématek, where the film is having its US theatrical release on March 8, 2019 as a Kino Lorber Repertory and Seventy-Seven collaboration.

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