On the eve of carnival weekend we are reminded of two, of the most unlikely punk girl heroes ever. This singing duo released an independent single in mid 1977, and by the end of that especially eventful musical year, managed to beat both The Clash and The Sex Pistols to finish at number two on Peel’s Festive Fifty*. And they weren’t even Punks!!
Tonight’s very honorary Punk Girls are 17 year old Althea Rose Forrest and 18 year old Donna Marie Reid, whose sassy, teenage anthem “Uptown Top Ranking” made them only the second reggae act to reach the top of the UK charts – nine years after Desmond Dekker’s Israelites in 1969. Their second feat was to finally topple Wings Christmas monster hit “Mull Of Kintyre” off the top, and for that the nation were also truly grateful.
Delivered in full Jamaican patois, the record was so good it didn’t even matter that most people didn’t understand the words.
Following the classic Punk trajectory, from Peel through to Top of the Pops, the record spent 11 weeks on the chart and did more for putting Jamaican music to the forefront in the UK than the combined forces of either Trojan Records or the state sponsored Race Relations Board.
After their hit had re-whetted the Brit appetite for an authentic Jamaican sound, musicians and producers attracted further invitations from the Brit crowd. The following year Dennis Bovell produced Cut, the debut album by the Slits, and culturally we were just around the corner from Two Tone, and the new wave of British reggae from the likes of Aswad and Steel Pulse.
The record wasn’t powerful enough in itself to stop further race based skirmishes including at the following summer’s Notting Hill Carnival, but they were, at least nothing like the riots that followed the event in 1976. By 1978 Carnival had started to host steel pan bands from all over the UK, and it felt some kind of corner was being turned, also bolstered by the newly formed Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League.
Althea and Donna never had another hit, but were further proof, as if we needed it, that the power of great music can influence a mindset with a nimble charm and efficacy that the politicians can only dream of.
*In 1977, John Peel’s Festive Fifty, was expanded to 61.