A Life In and Out of ‘Fashion:’ Chris Lane talks about his life in reggae with World-A-Reggae
Former co-founder of the UK-based Fashion Records label, Chris Lane is a multi-talented musician, producer, mixologist, dubologist, manager, consultant, archivist, writer, and unabashed classic reggae fan whose contributions to the genre are too many to list here. He is perhaps one of the most gracious and humble individuals I’ve come across in the business and he speaks of his many experiences with an honesty and an articulateness that is nothing if not refreshing.
He is of course best known as half of the dynamic duo of MacGillivray and Lane who launched the popular and successful Fashion Records label from their Dub Vendor record shop. Founded in 1980, Fashion Records was one of only a few British reggae labels to release records that were produced in their own recording studio. Over the course of 20 years, Fashion released music from artists such as Carlton Manning, Alton Ellis, Carlton Lewis, Johnnie Clarke, Pato Banton, Macka B, Maxi Priest, and several other heavyweights from the era.
Later this month, Fashion will release a dancehall remix of General Levy’s ‘Incredible‘ and another one of Cutty Ranks’ ‘As You See It You Dead.’ They will follow on the heels of those new releases with the release of the follow-up to the very successful ‘Fashion In Fine Style: Significant Hits Volume 1,‘ which will feature another 20 tracks of Fashion classics and will be available for digital download as well as available on CD a few weeks later.
Chris sat down for an interview with World-A-Reggae where he talks about camping out on the floor of the Black Ark for a month, contributing to a Bob Marley and Lee Perry track, watching Dennis Brown rehearse The Heptones on “Here I Come,” oh, and what it’s like to start a legendary record label out of your basement.
W-A-R: So you’ve had many titles in your career relating to reggae. You’ve been described as a reggae devotee, dubologist, mixologist, producer, manager, and even label head. Talk about how you discovered reggae? Do you remember a particular song that that you can point to as sort of an “anchor” in your life as a fan, and a professional in the business? Mine was, is, and will always be Burning Spear’s “Door Peep,” the version from Reggae Greats. Don’t know if it is the first song I heard, but it is the first I remember hearing.
CL: “In ’67 and ’68 there was a little bit of rocksteady (or Bluebeat as we called it then) in the UK pop charts – Johnny Nash’s ‘Hold Me Tight’, etc were pop hits and tunes like Donnie Elbert’s ‘Without You’ as well as Buster’s ‘Al Capone’ and the Skatalites ‘Guns Of Navarone’ were played in youth clubs and so on….. as we got into ’69 it was like an underground thing for us kids, probably a carry-over from the mod scene were they liked a bit of ska along side their soul & r&b.
In ’69 Trojan started getting a few of their releases into the national charts and they were played on national radio as well, so you would hear some reggae there, but only the big hits….. one of my mates (actually a friend’s big brother) was really into reggae, had a few albums and lots of singles, and one day he played us a few new tunes he’d just bought….. when I heard ‘Mama Look Deh’ by the Reggae Boys, that was the tune that really cemented my relationship with reggae, it unlocked something inside me, and when my family got our first record player (Christmas ’69) I went out and bought the ‘Tighten Up Vol 2’ and ‘Motown Chartbusters Vol 3’ albums (along with just about every one else I knew!!) …. and I carried on from there, like thousands of others.
I was 13 then, and like most working or lower middle class kids I was into the skinhead fashion – I loved the clothes and the music (Atlantic/Stax Soul & Motown as well as ska/reggae… ) – in those days (1968 – 1971) it really was just a fashion for kids, when it got revived ten years later somehow it all got politicized, and it annoys me that people now look at it as some sort of fascist youth movement which it never was back then…. It was just a fashion!
Trojan (and Pama) developed a policy of releasing cheap compilation albums, so at least the music was accessible for us teenagers – I spent all of my paper round and Saturday job money on records and clothes – but nearly everyone I knew went off reggae when the fashion changed around the end of ’71…… only a couple of my mates were still interested in reggae by ’72…. “
W-A-R: You obviously have a great ear and “feel” for this music. Do you recall when you went from being a fan to becoming an active participant? For example, when did you go from listening to songs to doing overdubs in your basement?
CL: “I used to listen to records and sometimes think “I would have done something different with that….” or “I like the rhythm but I don’t like the way it’s being sung..” …… I suppose I started picking the records apart in my head and wondering how they could be ‘improved’ (how arrogant is that???), or just trying to work out why they sounded so good….
I just developed this interest in how the records were made and this was fuelled when I started talking to producers and artists and seeing them in studios….. I’d also been fascinated by the ‘proto-dub’ tunes I’d heard in 1970 (a couple of years before the dub thing really took off) …. somehow I understood how the tracks were layered, how over-dubbing worked, etc so I could deconstruct these tunes in my head, hear the different parts rather than just hear the record as a whole….. it fascinated me.
… and when I saw some dub cutting studios (Tubby’s in JA, as well as a couple in the UK – especially John Hassell’s) the idea of having a dub cutting lathe and a mixing desk in my home really appealed to me (if not to my wife)!! ….
Some time in 1979 – around the time I started producing records – I bought an old cutting lathe, got it fixed up, and started cutting dubs in my flat. I’d already been messing about with tape machines, learning to put repeat echo on existing dub mixes on records, and I bought a homemade spring reverb and then a little second hand mixer so I had it all going on in my spare room!”
W-A-R: When was it that artists started to take notice of your talents? Do you remember the first proper track you produced for a reggae artist?
CL: “It didn’t really happen in that way…… in pop music, to become a producer you probably start off in a studio as a tea boy, (perhaps because you love music and play a bit of guitar or something…) then work your way up to tape op, then assistant engineer, then engineer, then someone likes what you’re doing and asks you to help produce a record, and so on……
In reggae, it’s different….. a lot of producers aren’t really producers – they finance the session, get the artists and band in one place and let things happen. The actual production work is done by the musicians, the engineer (and possibly the singers)….. obviously there are reggae producers who have a signature sound, and they are what I’d call ‘real producers’ (Lee Perry, Lloyd Charmers, etc…) but a lot of the big reggae producers were not even in the studio when they are ‘producing’… and very, very few of them had any engineering experience.
My own production career path has been completely backwards! I started off producing, then got into dub cutting and engineering, and then playing….. !
From working with Dub Vendor, I knew a band in Battersea called the Investigators (they’d already had a couple of big lovers rock tunes), and I fancied making a few tunes with them, so I talked to them and then got my mate Dave Hendley (famous reggae photographer!) to finance the recordings and release them on his label (‘Cruise’)…..
The first one did ok, so then John MacGillivray (who still ran the Dub Vendor stall after I left) asked me to start a label with him…. In fact, I was so broke at the time he had to lend me the money for my share of the start up fund!
When you make reggae records, most of the time you go to artists and ask to voice them, it’s only when you get really established that artists come to you… so it’s not really that artists “take notice of your talents”, most of them only see what you’re doing when they’re in the studio with you, and then they’re probably concentrating on what they’re doing, not you… “
W-A-R: During this period, I think we are talking the mid-1970s, you also started writing – I think you may have been one of the first to document the emerging UK dub and reggae scene. I’ve read some of your stuff and you are a very gifted writer. Was this a freelance thing or did you work or write for a newspaper or magazine?
CL: “I started writing for Blues & Soul in 1973…… it was a soul magazine, and I thought it needed some reggae coverage so I wrote in and asked them to let me do it …. I interviewed a lot of my heroes when they visited the UK (Lee Perry, Lloyd Charmers, Keith Hudson, Bunny Lee, etc… ) and even got some expenses (although I never really got paid!)
I left Blues & Soul for Black Music magazine a couple of years later – they paid me! – and carried on there for a while…. I also wrote for Melody Maker and did a couple of freelance things for NME and Music week as well as sleeve notes….
Of course this was all very much part-time, I’d never wanted to be (or even seen myself) as a real journalist or a writer, I just liked sharing the information, especially when no-one else was doing it …… to be honest I never enjoyed the actual sitting down and writing part – I didn’t find it easy! …… and I stopped doing it when I got busier with Fashion Records and the studio.”
W-A-R: As an American reggae fan, I had very little exposure to the music. It was still very taboo here. Unless you were lucky enough to grow up in LA or NYC, you probably did not hear the music until a relative, a friend, or someone else played it for you. Growing up in the UK, you could hear the music through radio, there’s always been a healthy sound system scene, not to mention there are tons of Jamaican immigrants living there. What was it like for a white kid who’s into reggae to grow up in the UK during this period?
CL: “We could hear some reggae on the radio, but not very much…. Unless a record charted it wouldn’t be on mainstream radio, and there was only one reggae show on a local BBC London station in the early ‘70’s (Reggae Time with Steve Barnard) so reggae was still really an underground music, especially after all the skinheads lost interest in ’71…..
I grew up in London’s West End, there was no real immigrant population in my area, so I didn’t have any black mates – in fact in those days it was quite unusual for black kids and white kids to hang around together – they did in some places, but in general there was a lot of mistrust and dislike going on – and that’s from both sides!
When I first started going to reggae clubs and dances it was a scary business for a white kid…. in fact, even buying records in a black record shop could end up in trouble if you weren’t careful! I know a few white guys that had the same problems as me…..
“Can I have a copy of the record that’s playing please?”
Shopkeeper…. “Dem finish!”
“But you’ve half a box full there!”
Shopkeeper…. “Dem is reserve!”
So you can imagine that getting into a club could be problematic, even more so when you’re not with anyone and you don’t know anyone if you do get in there…. “
W-A-R: A mutual friend of ours was telling me that you met Lee Perry early on and he even invited you to the Black Ark. Did you ever take him up on that?
CL: “When I interviewed Scratch I told him I wanted to go to JA, and he invited me to stay at his place if I did….. so I took him up on it and stayed at the Black Ark for a month!”
W-A-R: What! No way! That is wild…
CL: “I went in January (1973) so there wasn’t a lot of recording going on, but I did put in a couple of lines on a Bob Marley/Lee Perry song and met loads of people, although to be honest I got a bit lazy and regretted not meeting more…. And although I had a certain amount of novelty value as an English kid who had come to Jamaica to write about reggae, there was still a bit of resistance from a couple of people (Duke Reid was a proper misery, and I really wanted to talk to him!)
Have to say most people in JA were really friendly, some of the musicians and singers and producers I’d already met in the UK were pleased to see me, and I had a good time, and picked up some good records! … and of course, music always makes more sense when you see where it’s coming from. I remember being quite shocked at some of the conditions I saw over there, it certainly broadened my mind….”
W-A-R: What was the vibe at the Ark when you were there? I assume there was no way to comprehend at the time that you were hanging out at one of the most creative places on the planet. In Perry and Marley you have 2 of the most prolific musical minds the world has ever seen. Have you been able to put that in perspective?
CL: “The stuff with Marley was the first time I went …… and he was really nice and friendly, didn’t appear to have any bad side to him at all, a real contrast to Bunny Wailer, who when I asked him to smile for a photo, snarled “me no blood clot smile fe no blood clot white man!”….. a real charmer!
… and of course, Scratch was great…. And he and Bob certainly had a chemistry between them, they really bounced off each other. Marley was obviously a fantastic songwriter on his own, but with Perry’s input there was a bit more wordplay, a bit more humour…..
Scratch was a great host, and an interesting man to be around – full of ideas, great vibe, you could see why his music sounded the way it did. ….. but I always thought that – musically as well as in other ways – having his own studio wasn’t a good idea for him…. I’ve always much preferred his pre-Ark tunes. But just the way he was in the studio was a great inspiration to me, although obviously in a different way…
When I went again later in the 70’s (1977) Scratch was working on the Max Romeo album, in fact he did a terrible mix of it when I was there one evening…. It was unlistenable! Scratch was starting to go a bit strange then…. He’s always been a bit eccentric, that’s what made his records so great, but he was definitely not the same by then….. I think having the studio in his back yard was starting to take its toll then, along with a few other things…
One of the best memories (especially for my wife) was when Dennis Brown came round Scratch’s one evening when we were there…. He rehearsed Earl & Barry Heptones on the harmonies for ‘Here I Come’ – all acapella – it sounded magical!”
W-A-R: American fans may not be as familiar as British fans with the Fashion Label. You and a friend from high school named John MacGillivray founded the Fashion label out of his Dub Vendor record shop in 1980. This was an interesting time in the evolution of reggae – sort of a transitional period. As Barrington Levy sang “the dances are changing.” Describe what the scene was like in the UK around this time?
CL: “John and I founded Dub Vendor in 76 actually…. I’d had the Dub Vendor name since I’d sold dubs when I used to work in a record shop in North London when I left school in 1974 ….. It was a market stall (in Clapham Junction, South West London and for a time in Petticoat Lane) then we had a shop in Peckham which got broken into and cleared out. I got fed up with the retail side of it and left the business for a year or so …… John got the shop in 1980 (I think) and I moved the dub cutting studio to the basement…..
Reggae has always changed, there was always new sounds, new artists, new styles, so when the rhythms change, or speed up or slow down it’s not a surprise, it just happens…. To be honest Marley’s death didn’t change anything for me, I didn’t like the last couple of albums he’d made (I’d always preferred the pre-Island material anyway…) so I was more focused on the rest of the reggae business, as everyone else in the business was….
The Lovers Rock thing was really happening in the UK – especially in London – at that time. It was good, because UK produced reggae had always been looked down on by reggae fans before, but now it was accepted in a way that it hadn’t been previously….. and it had a non-Jamaican sound as well, which meant that you could make it sound how you wanted it, not necessarily trying to copy the latest hit JA record… and the market was thriving then, plenty of customers, it seemed like every young black kid was involved in a sound system, loads of kids in bands, things were happening!”
W-A-R: Fashion’s first proper production was Dee Sharp’s “Let’s Dub It Up.” It is my understanding that you were the point man for the musical/production side of the business whereas John was more the business man. How were you able to gain credibility among artists and fans as a production guy? Did it come instantly when “Let’s Dub It Up” hit or was it something that you constantly had to work hard to gain and maintain?
CL:”The thing about me and John is a bit of an over-simplification…. It’s true in very general terms, in that John was never a ‘hands-on’ engineer or musician in the way I was, but he had a lot of good production ideas, especially as he was in the shop all the time and listened to loads of yard tapes (which I rarely enjoyed)….. and although I left selling the records to John I did do quite a bit of the business side (contracts and licensing deals) so it wasn’t the simple split that everyone thinks it was….
What credibility??? No-one apart from the people who see you in the studio knows what you do, and even the singers and artists don’t often appreciate what you’re doing for them, especially the ones who think that they make the records all on their own!
‘Dub It Up’ was a hit and helped to establish the label, and as time went on Fashion got a reputation for producing quality tunes, so that was good…. Customers would see the label and know they would probably like the tune, in the same way that I would see an Upsetter or Observer label when I was younger and know it stood for something…..
…. and we always worked hard to keep up standards, have good arrangements, interesting rhythms, use the right musicians, make sure the singers were singing in tune, etc, etc,…. We worked very hard at it!
But one of the mistakes we made…. just because of the way we are…. Is that we never pushed ourselves as producers. If you notice, neither John nor myself have ever had our names on the labels, it’s always ‘A Fashion Production’….
We preferred to stay in the background and promote the artists…… but in the 90’s this led to us losing a lot of work (for other labels, remix projects, etc…) because even in the business there were a lot of people who perceived John and myself as ‘the money men’ and not the real producers…. … and obviously being the wrong colour didn’t help matters…. I still have people say to me that they didn’t realise that we produced all of the tunes, or that I engineered, mixed and played on them!”
W-A-R: During Fashion’s hey day, you guys had artists like Carlton Manning, Alton Ellis, Carlton Lewis, Johnnie Clarke, Pato, Macka B, Maxi Priest, – the list of heavyweights is endless. When it comes to working with reggae artists, many of whom have been robbed or shaken down by shady producers their entire life, what is the most important thing you can do to establish and maintain credibility with them?
CL: “Some reggae artists are easy to deal with, some aren’t, you have to take them as they come and act accordingly! … and a lot of that ‘the artist is always being ripped off by producers’ isn’t true all of the time! Coxsone Dodd told me once “a lot of artists rip off the producers!”…. and how right he was!
Usually if you’re straight with them, pay them a reasonable advance and actually pay them the royalties they’re due, then everything’s cool….. but you’ll always have some people that when you give them an inch, they see it as a weakness and want to take a yard!
A few of them are their own worst enemies, unfortunately…….”
W-A-R: Now, you not only cut tracks for Fashion, but you also played as a musician on many of the albums, including Maxi Priest’s debut album. Talk about some of the projects you were involved with while at Fashion. Looking back do you have a favorite?
CL: “Maxi’s album was for Barry Boom’s label (Level Vibes), not Fashion….. I fell into that because I had asked to rehearse with the band (One Blood/Caution) just so I could practise playing…. When it was time for Maxi to make some records I was engineering at a studio called Marc Angelo’s so I recorded nearly all of that ‘You’re Safe’ album as well as played almost all of the guitars and percussion on it….
W-A-R: When did you decide to leave the label? Why?
CL: “I got fed up with the business – it seemed to be in a terminal decline at the end of the 90’s – and I had fallen out of love with the music as well….. I had another job to go to, so once I actually made the decision it wasn’t too hard.”
W-A-R: I am a lifelong Augustus Pablo devotee. I was most excited about this interview when I found out that you were heavily involved in the production side of “The Red Sea,” a compilation album focused primarily on Pablo’s early work with Herman Lin Choy at Aquarius, and a favorite of mine. Talk about how that project came about and discuss your contribution to the album.
CL: “To be honest, it was just another compilation album…. A mate of mine is good friends with Ossie Thomas, they got permission to put the album together from Herman at Aquarius and they asked me to contribute – I think I copied off some tunes for them….. I didn’t do that much to be honest….”
W-A-R: You have been heavily involved in some of the greatest reggae reissues and compilations of our time. Lee Perry’s ‘Upsetter Collection,’ Big Youth’s ‘Everyday Skank,’ (for Trojan) and Augustus Pablo’s legendary ‘Original Rockers’ set (Greensleeves) come to mind. First off, how do you become involved in these projects (they come to you with an idea, you propose an idea, etc.)? So when I listen to, say, “The Red Sea” or “Original Rockers” what can I point to and say “there’s the Chris Lane thumbprint”? What I’m asking is what did you bring to these projects that made them better?
CL: “Sometimes I come up with an idea for the comp, other times the label may have the catalogue already and want to do something with it…. I only ever do these things if I like them and they mean something to me though….
I would say that the ‘thumbprint’ belongs to the artist or the producer…. I’ve just put the tracks together – hopefully they’re all interesting and good musically – and tried to give a good representation of what their music is about. Same when I’ve written the sleeve notes, hopefully it will make casual listeners get interested in the music.”
W-A-R: Talk a bit about what you are doing now and what you will be doing for the next 12-18 months…
CL: “I’m carrying on with getting the Fashion catalogue up and available online, we should be doing some classic vinyl reissues this year…We’ve also got some remix projects in the pipeline, we’ve had a couple of interesting things so far, with more to come…..
W-A-R: You’ve seen it all in your career. What is your opinion on the current state of reggae and where do you see it in 5 years?
CL: “To be honest, I don’t listen much to contemporary reggae….
Most of the material coming out of Jamaica doesn’t touch me, I just can’t get emotionally involved in it….. I like some of the UK stuff, even though it harks back to the classic styles of the 70’s and 80’s…. and I’ve played on some sessions recently and that’s been nice, but I can’t see myself producing records again… not for the moment anyway…”
W-A-R: Many thanks for taking the time out to talk with us Chris and best of luck to my friend.
A big, big thanks to Fred P. and Inyaki for helping me link with Chris. Crucial works!
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