By Liam Monaghan
Today we are joined by a member of a group which was a part of the 70s midlands explosion of reggae music here in the UK, the band is the Capital Letters and the man on the line is Danny ‘Teacher’ Mcken, whats going on Danny?
DM: Life is just dragging at the moment, i’m on my last hour of work! getting ready to go home, music is a thing of the past at the minute.
LM: Its friday and the weekend so you’ve got plenty of time to enjoy the next few days…
DM:We are rehearsing tonight so its all good you know!
LM: This is what i wanted to talk about, i just want to go back a little bit to give people an insight, a few minutes ago i said midlands explosion of reggae, there was bands like yourself, steel pulse, UB40 all coming out of the Wolves/Birmingham area. What was the key instigator for all these UK reggae bands to start up around that time in the 70s?
DM: Well i have always wanted to play music as a younger, when leaving school, the percussionist, country, he an some other members just asked me to join and from there we just found professional musician to teach us, we were just thinking of the jamaican vibe or if something else was happening in london we would pick up off that vibe or something on the radio we would pick up off that vibe. and we didn’t know what was actually happening with bands, there were quite a few reggae bands in wolverhampton.
LM: Its nice that Reggae music exploded at that time and gave that roots feel, you guys were the first group i believe to be signed to Greensleeves followed by Black Roots, Aswad, Matumbi. When i interviewed Tony Gadd of Aswad i asked him what barriers there was for UK reggae bands in the 70s and he expressed a prejudice from jamaica which was hard to overcome, so what were the barriers for the Capital Letters and yourself as a band in the 70s
DM: Well, we as a Reggae band, speaking for myself, i’ve never come across any barriers, the only barriers i’ve come across is i have not made any money, if we were making money thats the only barrier that i’ve come across because we’ve played all the universities and polytechnics and gigs and we’ve never come across any setbacks so everything’s good.
LM: Thats nice! people express that when british bands go to jamaica, the jamaicans didn’t really class them as proper, like a imitation…
DM: We’ve never really been to Jamaica so we cant really say there was a prejudice going on, but as someone who was born there and i visited in 1994, people who come from England to Jamaica, Jamaican people see us as English and not Jamaican anymore so maybe thats where that comes from.
LM: The scene around you included the Cimarons, Aswad, Black Slate, all these guys coming through, was there any competition or rivalry or ‘beef’ you were aware with at that time?
DM: Well Steel pulse, they were from Birmingham and we are from Wolverhampton, the first time we met Steel Pulse was in a local competition which they won because it was their territory and they used some kinda of sound system to protect their sound and when we went we just had a back line. We aren’t going to say they didn’t deserve to win because as you can see they are doing well.
LM: I just thought at that time with all them bands coming through in the same area there could of been some Beef that never came out! speaking of Sound Systems… Ive got to talk about it, Smoking My Ganja is quite self explanatory what the record is about. I like it because its upbeat with ska and it has elements of two tone with snares and basslines of dub and it sounds incredible on a proper sound system. That led to you guys doing an LP called Headline News, how was the LP received at that time.
DM: Well it got us on tour around Europe and that for us was great it was on Radio1 with John Peel and it took off just like that, but still, i think personally and the members who are with me now, even the singer Earl Lynch who has gone on to different side of things hasn’t received one payment yet. i’ve seen cheques with his name on and i don’t know whats happening.
LM: Speaking of John Peel he is a key figure in music in general, how did your music get introduced to John Peel, at that point you had some music and some gigs under your belt, how did it come about?
DM: I think maybe Greensleeves introduced John peel to the Smoking My Ganja Riddim track. It became his record of the week and eventually became his album of the year, so thanks to John Peel.
LM:Do you remember much about playing the session you guys did for him?
DM: Yeah it was good because even the rastaman stringy since the John Peel show we have not been in touch with too as of late, its only really this year we got in touch and he’s with us now, it was a good session.
LM: A couple of the tracks from the session are on the reissue and sound phenomenal! You worked with Sid Bucknor who was a good producer, is there anybody you specifically love working with or would love to work with again?
DM: Im not sure if he has passed but last saturday we should of gone to Mr Brown, hes an engineer but hes produced many artists from Jamaica and hes looking forward to working with us next saturday so we are all excited!
LM: For new music?
DM: We’re going to record to some riddim tracks and some old tracks. We got rid of the bassist… the bass player has made his mark so we are going to overdub or reproduce his bass line via someone else.
LM: Are you going to incorporate any style and sound into the new music or keep it rootsy and original like the material first time around.
DM: Well drummer passed away to we had to replace the drummer, this is the reason its taken so long. The drummer was so good but we didnt know this at the time because the bass player was making out that it was the drummer and to me now, finding out it was always the bass player who was the stumbling block. We have a new bass player and a new drummer and new keyboard player. We are taking out time and the vibes are good.
LM: You’ve got a big fan base across Europe, a lot of people will question, as its not apparent online, you guys were successful and all of a sudden separated. I even read you moved to Ethiopia and Palestine then you reformed and then split etc what happened!
DM: We went on tour because the bass player took over the leadership, everything was fine before, we was on tour and stuck in Finland doing nothing so i walked away from the band. It was 2007 it was my 50th birthday and i called all the musicians i knew from Wolverhampton, not just the Capital Letters and we all started jamming together for 3 months and there was 3 bass players, about 2/3 keyboard players and about 4 guitar players and everything was coming along nicely but the bass player again! he was putting a pin in the neck and poking each player till they all one by one left and walked away, even the original members. I said no man stay with it and they all walked away and left me. In june last year in Paris after meeting some of the fans way back to bought photos and albums who wanted autograph, they wanted the original people and they originals wasn’t with me, so when i came back to england i contacted everyone and said come on lads and girls lets do this thing. A member of the community passed away and we was asked to do a memorial service to raise funds, in the audience was the bass player, he said he had prior arrangement to be somewhere else but he was at the gig, so when i heard he was at the gig i went up face to face and said come on lets play some Letters Tunes and he said nah man you carry on, i said no come on! and he didn’t want nothing to do with it, we went on stage and i said theres 2 people in the audience and theres a photo that keeps circulating, 1 girl was on stage 1 in the audience, i said 2 people missing would they like to come on stage, she came on and looked fine and looked at JB and said come on JB he just shook his head and we played without him but we was polite.
LM: We’ve got the reissue of Vineyard on Greensleeves and theres the Capital Letters Wolverhampton in Dub out on 16th October this year…
DM: Well thats not our stuff, thats the other guys stuff, i have not listened to it… its confusing at the moment, they are out there gigging calling themselves the Capital Letters and we dont know if they are doing well or getting good reviews.. He refused to have any words with us so unless he wants to talk to the whole band then ill give him more rope.
LM: Well you’re going into the studio! you guys will be making riddims! What can the fans expect over the next year?
DM: Well as soon as we can do this album, i dont know fi its going to be on Greensleeves. At the moment im going to work and singing these songs and by the time i go home its gone! so im singing my life away and its not being recorded im stuck in a rut! i cant tell you whats going to happen but if theres a agency somewhere that wants to sign us, we can be on tour and playing.