Come hither, children. Put on your plimsolls, sit on the mat and cross your legs. It’s time for a story.
Once upon a time, there was a faraway place called Seventiesland. It was a strange and sometimes confusing land. The national dress was orange, yellow and brown, and the people who lived there wore huge trousers. They sometimes only worked a three day week, queued for white bread, and their electricity wasn’t reliable. That, of course, was to the delight of candlestick makers everywhere.
The people of Seventiesland liked their entertainment, but it wasn’t always like the entertainment of today. Popular fare from the small box in the corner, when it was allowed to work, involved ordinary folk making a mess with potters’ wheels, cheap programmes that mocked people from other places, and a blue screen that shared a mysterious message. That one proved so popular that it was shown for months on end.
Somewhere in the wilds of this strange land was a small principality called Snodland, and there, there lived a man called Alex Minto Hughes. On the surface, Alex was a jolly fellow. His bushy beard and rotund figure made him seem rather friendly, and he always had a glint in his eye. People from Seventiesland loved this musical jester. From far and wide, they came to hear his vast array of ditties.
Telling everyone his name was Judge Dread, the little fat man really revelled in saucy postcard humour and his silliness struck a chord with the times. He spun tales of mistaken identity and abuse of positions (‘Dr. Kitch’), sexual pressures (‘Take Off Your Clothes’), public exposure of unnaturally sized things (‘The Biggest Bean You’ve Ever Seen’), and often presented his stories in a very affected way. He was unafraid and only ever wanted to amuse, but when some people did not like this and accused him of spreading rude ideas that were not suitable for civilised ears, he would tell them it was all in the mind.
Crowds gathered time after time, and the Judge continued to sing. He sang them songs about obesity (‘Oh! She’s A Big Girl Now’) and twisted marital strife (‘The Six Wives of Dread’). When the people demanded more, the Judge was happy. So happy, in fact, he told even cheekier tales where he made fun of other people’s appearances (‘What A Beautiful Pair’), and even celebrated his own prowess (‘Bedtime Stories’).
When less inspired, he entertained the people with naughty re-workings of already popular rhymes (‘Big Six’, ‘Big Seven’, ‘A Rhyme In Time’), or tales that exploited the peoples’ other interests (‘What Kung Fu Dat’). He even stole musical manuscripts from other travelling minstrels, changed their words and sang them to the townspeople with an impish glee (‘Je T’aime’, ‘The Banana Throat Song’, ‘Come Outside’). The people liked this too.
It didn’t really matter what the Judge sang. For a time, the people still came. Sometimes, he even rivalled the more sophisticated Robert Marley in popularity. Unfortunately, for all of his fun, the Judge also shared homophobic thoughts (‘The Winkle Man’, ‘Je T’aime’) and sometimes just played to those who encouraged him to be vulgar. He could sometimes be very funny too – the people liked him for a reason – and ‘Donkey Dick’, a cautionary seaside tale, would come to be one of his finest songs not lost to history.
So much was made of the Judge’s bawdy behaviour, that not much is known about the people who brought his stories to life. Fading folklore tells that these were fine musicians, capable of recreating some of the biggest ska sounds of their time. Their bass grooves and organ stabs ranged from tight rocksteady rhythms (‘The Blue Cross Code’, ‘Dread’s Almanac’), to strange calypso (‘Big Five’), and even lovers rock – a more sophisticated style of music that was very fashionable among the younger people of Seventiesland (‘Dread’s Law’). Dread’s musical friends were sometimes even allowed to perform without him (‘Grasshopper’, ‘Nine & A Half Skank’) and this really showed how deeply affected by reggae these players were.
The years passed and, sometimes, it felt as if the good times would never end. Nothing is forever, of course, and eventually, a lot of people didn’t want to hear the Judge’s songs any more. Smarter people began to listen to the politics of the Steel Pulse band. Others heeded important societal messages from young boys and girls who shared very energetic ska. The seeds of a new musical future had been sown. Some people even forgot about Alex altogether, but wouldn’t stop him becoming one Seventiesland’s many musical heroes.
Now, remember, children: should you chance upon one of Judge Dread’s fabled Victrola discs today, the tales within won’t be for widespread telling. Instead, you must listen curiously, learn from them, and even be amused if the mood feels right. But you must understand that Seventiesland was a very different land to our own. It was not necessarily a better place, just different. …And as for the people of Snodland, they still go about their business. They loved Alex so much, they even named a road after him. Some of the elders even claim to hear the Judge’s music drifting on the wind.
Listen very carefully, and maybe, just maybe, you will too.
[‘The Skinhead Reggae Albums 1972-1976’ – a box set containing the first four Judge Dread albums, along with several bonus tracks – is available from Cherry Red/Pressure Drop Records from 28/4/23.]