Owen Townsend Interview Part 1
Interviewer: Martin De Mello
With kind permission of Commonword in colaboration with MDMArchive.
Owen Townsend (born 1950, JA) was a Moss Side DJ. toaster and soundsystem engineer. Here he talks what made blues more intimate and exciting than clubs; the clothes that he wore for them; and his passion for record collecting.
O.T There was an intimacy there, there is a sharing that you don’t get in a club that is what I meant. A blues is usually people locally within the community who would come, we had people come from various places but most that is where our friends as young lad’s dem use to meet and whatever. So you meet at this blues, so that is our meeting places like you know how people meet in pubs in town same thing, but for us and it was the cheapest way, you didn’t pay to go in a blues, you have to pay to go into a club. And the drinks were reasonable and like I say it’s warm, you have a fire in the basement there and if you are a young lad, you live on your own and your wages were not that great, so keep your little flat and things sometime the best thing is to come out of your flat and go get warm in the blues. Many people sleep in the blues and had nowhere to go to keep warm, so there was that as well, plus the music was crucial to the whole thing.
In that we are talking about the communication between the people here and back in the West Indies, it was a long spell before you actually communicate with one another, but on the music side of things, the music was coming constantly and the lyrics of the music are important because it tells you what is happening you know politically, locally. So you feel a link then with back home because you still always have that feeling there is something always drawing you to come back home regardless from a personal perspective, regardless of how long you there I still have that urge to go back home eventually I will go back home and maintain that sort of focus. The music was a part of that yes, and I use to go to blues from 8o’clock at night believe it or not, and one of my reasons for doing that was all the new records the sound men, DJs or Selectors or whatever you call them not would play all the new tunes then before people come.
So as soon as they set the sound up he is going to try out his new tune because a lot of those tunes had no labels on them, or they were scratched out – they were pre-releases, so some of the play you don’t hear it for weeks or months and you don’t hear the name because there is no name on it. You have to know the people, you have to know the artist, you have to know the studio and things like that, so I used to go early and listen you know to what is happening and by the time all my friends turn up and the guys start playing the new tunes, I already know them. And they ask “how”, I wouldn’t tell them, I haven’t told them, I am just telling you now. That is why I go early and I leave late, mostly I am the last one leaving.
I What time did you leave?
O.T 8 o’clock in the morning or later. If it’s Christmas then you just don’t sleep. I didn’t, it was round the clock you know what I mean. If it was nice, really nice and the political awareness become more and more focus and you start more positive outlook on yourself as a person on this planet as opposed to what we have been told, so the politicising of my generation took place between the middle to late sixties and the seventies, there was so much else going on
I What did you wear at the time?
O.T Oh you have got a look, crisp – what, you can’t just look anyway you are joking. No girl would look at you, your shoes got to be so shiny that you can see your face in it, your trousers the seam you can cut it like a razor, your hair. No, for instance at a blues well you have to look good, people where there best, it cost me a fortune because I wear a different outfit every weekend. In fact over a weekend you might wear two or three different outfits, because if you wear out Friday night you can’t wear it out Saturday night that is like dirty, you can guarantee it will be sweaty and things. So by Friday, Saturday and Sunday at least three outfits for the weekend and each one have to be just so, and the jewellery and your hairstyle in the seventies, afro.
I How long did it take you to get ready then to go out?
O.T Oh ages man. Ages, because especially when the afro came in right and all us nutcases decided to have afro and they take, first to prepare afro usually your hair was in plaits, yeah because you can’t maintain it all day when you’re at work and things it is too much, so usually in plaits, so you have to get someone to unplait it, then you have to wash and comb it out and that can takes hours, you know what I mean. It was madness really, you know but the thing is once they go out and then the next morning you just collapse, so you have plait it up again you know. After a while I got fed up and just cut it off, and then I had the bell bottom trousers, all sorts of styles but you have to look good that was the main thing. There was a mixture of all sorts of fashion, you were what you wanted really you know as long as it looked good.
I And coming back to what you were saying earlier, you used to arrive early to listen to the music. So did people have their own record collections then, because you know like now..
O.T Huge record collection everybody had, I think more than now. People don’t know the artist so they actually go out and buy the records so you have massive record collection. I still have a record collection upstairs, huge. Those were our obsessions, people I use to work the two box record, one soul, one reggae 7” vinyl and I would go from house to house playing. I would come in your house and have a clash in your house and your system. That is how obsessive we were you know. We lived in record shops, well I did, and you are searching for that one that nobody had, you are looking for that rare one. I have looked for a record for about five or six years before I find it, and still find it I am determined to find it.
The artist might do one record, they might never do another one again and there are only so many copies, so you have one of those I talk about rare, eighties rare and you didn’t have a record re-issue because the music was fresh, vibrant it was changing every day. Everybody is trying different things, so there is a massive amount of music coming here, this is why England was so important to reggae music from a financial perspective, you have to remember that in Jamaica very few people had record players, so the records sale in Jamaica was tiny compared to here, especially when the native population start to get into reggae music and start buying it as well. So that was here, England was very important to the development of reggae music in Jamaica because it supported it financially, I personally I know I spent thousands of pounds supporting reggae music in all its forms you know, I am just one of many. It is just some people record collection you have made is unbelievable, I knew three brothers that was all they buy, they have a basement full. I know white people as well, massive reggae record collection.
I used to open my wage packet, I use to work at this bakery in Chorlton and I use to work on a Saturday and I use to open my wage packet in a record shop on Alexandra Road, there were two record shops Birkams and Paul Marsh. And I use to open my wage packet in there, I took the rent out because that is important and the rest anything could happen then you know, and it usually does. I am spending more on records, I buy records before I buy clothes and I still do until this day.