Review: Ian Penman, NME Mar 1979

One of Britains top policemen yesterday claimed that a simple, insidiously dangerous and damaging campaign against the police was gaining momentum. Mr. James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, told members of the South Lancashire Magistrates Association that it was being engineered by criminal factions and subversive elements…

– The Observer, Sunday 18 March 1979

It was said by an NME colleague recently – in connection with Belfast group Stiff Little Fingers – that there existed a set of social/political conditions which none of us could ever fully comprehend, a kind of frustration none of us can understand.

Without wishing to take particular issue here, with the reasons and ideas which lie behind those statements, let me just say that…

Here it is again. Here, the problem might possibly be one of a white critic dealing with a black music. Its not a question of certain art transcending such considerations. Forces of Victory deals with specifics. Specifics you can neither ignore nor fail to understand. It deals with social articulations on a level of understanding. Linton Johnson deals with social frustration, understands the nature of that frustration, and the nature of the historical conditions which produced it and carry on doing so.

‘This is the age of reality – so leggo mythology.’

Origin and application. Resolution and abolition. ‘Forces of victory’ analyses and articulates pride and problems of the black community in ‘Great’ Britain today. It is both more effective and more accessible than Johnson’s previous ‘Dread, Beat and Blood’ album. Here it is again: anger in the ‘United’ Kingdom.

Here, the problem might be one of the white critic dealing with sublimated personal responses to the predicament…were it not that ‘Forces of Victory’ is such a tight, cogent piece of work, is so rigorously structured as to make such doubts the subject of severe assessment and reconcilement.

The eight statements of ‘Force and Victory’ define the perspective. Critical of accepted (white) political ideology, it asks what lies behind the consensus that supports the domination, the oppression – the ‘dread, beat and blood’.

Contempt is equal, whether it be for the fascist instruments of this country’s Right, or the instrumental fascism of its Left: ‘What a cheek, them think we meek, that we can’t speak up for ourself…the SWP can’t set we free / The IMG can’t do it for we / The Communist party, true dem too arty farty…’

(‘Independent Intavenshan’.) The almost flippant ferocity is unquestionably justified. A persecuted, colonised community obviously does not need any more isolationist strategems or strategy, whether it originates from the inconclusive policies of the liberal-mobilisation – against-ism sector, or from Conservative school of psychological crisis management – the isolation and branding of groups or ‘minorities’ who are held responsible for everything people feel to be wrong with society.

‘Sonny’s Letteh (AntiSus Poem)’ is the perfect illustration, an indignant answer without trace of pity, the most painful realisation of the set: ‘Sus’ is short for Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, through which police are granted the right to arrest, charge, and even convict someone for ‘suspicious behaviour’. The poem takes the form of a letter written from Brixton prison back to the defendant’s mother: one son detained on ‘sus’, the other on murder. The steadily narrated storyline is curled and clipped around the stealthily natural dub instrumentation, which cuts out noiselessly to leave Linton’s surely spoken account of police brutality.

‘Mama, I couldn’t just stand up dere an do nuthin’ The letter closes with a plea for the mother not to be ‘depressed or downhearted… Me ‘ave good courage.’

Detention without charge is the next stop, tell you that. At every level the fight is to ‘defeat the State’, to defeat all things a State allows. Chief Constable Anderton, for instance, was the man who allowed NF marches to carry on in secret. Things must be seen clearly.

At every level of ‘Forces of Victory’ the resistance and rebellion is calm and rational, whether it be the depersonalisation and degredation of our wonderful 19th century liberal Welfare State in ‘Want Fi Goh Rave’ (‘Me no goh work for no pittance / Me noh go draw dem assisstance’) or the hemmed-in historical legacy of ‘Time Come’: ‘But it too late now, I did warn you… when you chuck me against the wall I did not bawl / but I did warn you.’

Around every line of ‘Forces of Victory’ the subtle 1979 dub dynamo shadows, paces and emphasises. Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovelle’s production of Rico, Dick Cuthell, Julio Finn and John Kaipye is restrained and refractory, a languid stoicism threatening splinters, a shadow walking behind the occupied foreground. Kaipye’s guitar, especially; both the storm smashing the sky and the moisture seeping through the field after the rain, scales indexed to the relentless revision upfront.

The rhythms swimming through Johnson’s lyrics and musicians’ playing are a familiar, traditional, real ‘street’ motion – upright and beyond reproach.

Unblinkered, sure and tense and almost arrogant, that singular identification caught in music, dress, speech, expressions – it’s called rass. It’s where, when and how. It’s music, message, and militancy. It’s tight and inseparable, distinct, unselfishly structured. It’s ‘dressed in red and feelin’ dread…’ It is designed to ‘make we hold wi’ clarity’.

‘Forces of Victory’ is an album which makes you feel ashamed of (and angered, embarrassed, confused by) rock music’s still surviving maintenance of insubstational myths and hollow idols. It effectively, irresistibly gives lie to the old contention that ‘chaos’ is the only path toward change. That’s a cop-out.

Linton Kwesi Johnson is a numbingly provocative commentator (not to mention political activist, teacher, journalist, broadcaster, and poet) who shows that what is needed is the right amount and right kinds of control. A rigorous approach does not rule out rhythm, or regulate its risk.

When Linton Kwesi Johnson sings ‘Forces of victory and we’re comin’ right troo / We’re the forces of victory now whatcha’ gonna do?’, there is nothing in his delivery which suggests revenge, power, ego, or superiority. Understanding and knowing how to assess accurately one’s enemy means that one already possesses a necessary condition for victory. Understanding and knowing how to assess one’s own forces…

You can take ‘Forces of Victory’ as a threat, a warning, a symptom, a rallying call, a reassurance, or maybe even an insult. But take it you must.

It’s so much more alive than anything else. It’s music proper for the ‘age of decision’.
It dread inna Inglann.