Babylon is one of those movies that helped shaped my life. One of those films that appear in your life at a certain age and hit that perfect note, right when you are discovering yourself.
Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” is one type film. I don’t mean I was strutting around the streets in my shirtless waistcoat giving The Orphans a hard time or even whizzing around on my roller skates brandishing a baseball bat. I’m sure you know what I mean? Those certain films that you became completely obsessed with. Constantly rewatching. Another example was Philip Kaufman’s “The Wanderers”. I’m not old enough to get all nostalgic for a 60’s New York Italian gang but it was the camaraderie between friends, brothers and enemies. You grow to have a ventured interest in all the characters. You’re with them when the story unfolds, you watch the films over and over, becoming transfixed with their plight. That could be getting to second base whilst playing spin the bottle, escaping from a gang of knife wielding girls, getting on a train to safety or innocently trying to dodge a police car just to get home. We learn to not fuck with the Wongs, to run like shit from a bus full of Turnbull ACs and we read a message painted on a wall, Lion Rule Shaka Fool!
Of course Babylon is million miles away from The Warriors and The Wanderers but it’s core still resonated with me. I loved films with a gang of friends, the club culture, brothers in arms, a group of guys trying to get by.
I was just starting to get heavily invested in the reggae scene after randomly picking up a few dub reggae records. Umoja Dub and African Almighty Dub Chapter 3. Two incredible LPs to start off with. First intrigued, then instantly hooked. I would spend the next years skint! I was 16 and come pay day I’d jump on the train to London and spend all my money at the various record shops dotted around the city. Daddy Kool, Honest Jon’s, Youth Sounds, The Dub Shack, Out on the Floor and Reckless Records to name a few. Babylon hadn’t come into my life just yet.
Flicking through the Radio Times, guess it was sometime circa 1989, I stumbled across an interesting sounding film called Babylon on Channel 4. I knew the star Brinsley Forde from the band Aswad and Karl Howman was in the hugely popular comedy series Brush Strokes. Then I noticed in the cast line up comedian Mel Smith and I was just about to see him in a whole new light! On reading the brief synopsis “The story of a young man’s tribulations with the backdrop of a reggae sound system based in west London” I was instantly sold. A blank VHS cassette tape was in the machine ready to go before I even realised it. Let me tell you that cassette was watched over and over, hundreds of times. I was completely hooked.
Babylon is set in London on the streets of Brixton, Deptford and New Cross. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government had just come into power at the tail end of the 70’s as the new decade began. It was a time with little prospects, the famous quote three million on the dole was fast approaching. Poverty and racism was rife, opportunities for the black and poor communities were low. Add to that a time when police racism and violence against the black population was being pushed by the governments SUS laws etc. London and other cities around the country were bubbling pressure cookers, race riots were soon to come.
The film centers on the young car mechanic, Blue (Brinsley Forde). He’s happy as long as his little brother keeps his dirty mitts off his precious hat. Blue lives for the weekend where he can grab a microphone and chat along with his sound system, Ital Lion. Blue and his best buddy, Ronnie (Karl Howman) are tight. The rest of Ital Lion consist of the tough swagger of Beefy (Trevor Laird), Spark (Brian Bovell) the electrician speaker man. Then there’s Lover (Victor Romero Evans), Errol (David N Haynes) and Wesley (T-Bone Wilson). The head guy and older statesman of sound system is Dreadhead (Archie Pool) the man with the ear for the sounds and the means to get them.
Ital Lion have worked their way through the ranks battling sound systems all over London. Now they have made the finals. A clash with the mighty Jah Shaka lays waiting them. One of the toughest sound systems in the UK. Sparks is gonna have to boost their speaker system and Dreadhead is gonna need those perfect tunes. Something hot of the press. A sound so new and tough that it will give Ital Lion the edge over Shaka’s sound. Dreadhead and his right hand man Errol go to visit Fat Larry (Stefan Kalipha). The man who has the ability to get his hands on the latest freshest cuts. “Straight from JA to me” When Dreadhead hears it, he’ll know.
Dreadhead – “You see this cut here? If this cut get one scratch Rasta! Not one life worth living, you hear me?”
The film is a sequence of events as we follow the group of friends around. From playing pool, attending a wedding, scoring weed, smashing an annoying brother with a pillow, going to a dance, stealing speakers from a school, meeting a mutant Rhodesian Ridgeback and driving the sound system truck around the city streets. All whilst remembering to say hello to the local rastafarian.
Unfortunately it isn’t all fun. There’s an uncurrent building tension that grows throughout the film. Racial hatred and prejudice comes at poor Blue from every angle. Resulting in one of the most traumatic and incredible scenes all choreographed to the sound of Johnny Clarke’s tune Babylon with Jah Shaka smashing the speakers with bleeps and echos. Gives me goosebumps even thinking about it. This was a powerful film then and still resonates today.
Here’s A Few Things About The Film
- Directed and co-written by Franco Rosso, an Italian who had moved to London in his youth. Franco had earlier made a short film documentary about The Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists. Also the documentary about reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in the 1979 film Dread Beat an’ Blood.
- Babylon was co-written by Martin Stellman who had worked on the screenplays for the legendary mod vs rocker biker film Quadrophenia and the 2018 Idris Elba debut directed film Yardie.
- The superb soundtrack is by the coolest man in British reggae, Sir Dennis Bovell, otherwise known as Blackbeard. His brother, Brian Bovell is Sparks in the film. The soundtrack also features music I-Roy, Yabby u and Michael Prophet.
- Trevor Laird (Beefy) had played Ferdy in Quadrophenia the year before Babylon. Trevor has been all over the telly over the years. Even turning up in Doctor Who as the 10th Doctor’s companion Martha’s Dad. Incidentally he had already played a part called Frax with the 6th Doctor.
- Jah Shaka is still doing dances around the world. And I own at least 50 of his records on vinyl.
- One of the best resources for the film can be found here at Uncarved. A lovingly put together site dedicated to everything Babylon.
- Reggae music is still one of my favourite music genres and from 1989 I used to set up DJ nights around my hometown. If you were interested here are some of my old flyers for nights here.
- Released on DVD for the first time in the UK in 2008! My trusty VHS held up pretty well and was copied and past around many times.
- Yesterday, the 8th of March 2019 saw its first ever release in America. I’m very interested to see how it will be received. Here’s another of the new posters for the release.
I totally understand that this film isn’t for everyone and some might struggle with the patois but it’s well worth giving a go. It’s a historic time capsule of the late 70’s and early 80’s London. If you like reggae music you will be seventh heaven. Babylon is a perfect mix of music and social commentary of the time. It manages to ease funny and emotional scenes in-between bouts of realism. When this drama hits hard the drama has a real gut-punching impact. I could keep waffling on but you get the gist, I still adore this film. Hope you’ve enjoyed this piece of memory lane. Feel free to comment if you want too.
Big love…. Mikey Wolf