The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

The History Of Trojan Records: Laurence Cane-Honeysett Interviewed & Mix
Angus Finlayson , August 9th, 2010 08:33

Angus Finlayson chats to Laurence Cane-Honeysett, author of new Trojan tome Young, Gifted and Black: The Story Of Trojan Records, about the label's history and influence.

I'm going to start with a question (I suppose that's to be expected in an interview, but you'll see what I mean): what do Neil Diamond's 'Red Red Wine', 'Young, Gifted & Black' by Nina Simone and Sammy Davis Jr.'s 'Black And White' all have in common? The answer is that they all feature - albeit in altered forms - on a new compilation, The Heavy Heavy Monster Sound - The Trojan Records Story.

It was through such a motley assortment of US-derived cover versions, along with a healthy injection of originals, that Trojan Records - and Jamaican music at large - burst into the UK charts in 1969. There were other labels peddling ska and reggae to the UK public at the time, but it's Trojan that remains iconic; for lending its name to the original generation of white, working-class, shaven-headed ska fanatics - the Trojan Skinheads - and for safeguarding the majority of reggae's defining moments in a vast catalogue which has endured countless reissues and 'various artist' compilations.

After a few years of startling success, Trojan folded in 1975, but was bought out by Saga Records. What followed was a long voyage for the label, from a newly diminished enterprise struggling under the utter indifference of the record-buying public to one of the UK's most revered reissues imprints.

Picking up on the label during the ska revival of the late 70s, Laurence Cane-Honeysett has since risen to become the chief custodian of the Trojan archives; riding the choppy waters of bankruptcy, buy-outs, and constantly changing business strategy in the process. Having been under the aegis of Universal since 2007, the label, under Laurence's guidance, let loose a handful of new compilations this year - including the aforementioned Trojan Records Story - featuring a raft of rarities along with favoured classics.

You can listen to a mix comprising highlights from the compilations, put together by Chris Howarth of Universal Records, below:

Trojan Quietus Mix Jul 10 by Trojan Records Official

The Quietus spoke to Laurence - also the author of Young, Gifted and Black: The Story Of Trojan Records - for an insight into the label's long and patchwork history.

How did Trojan get started? It was originally a subsidiary of Island, is that right?

Laurence Cane-Honeysett: Yes. Chris Blackwell started Island in 1959 in Jamaica, and he came over to the UK in '62 and kept it as a Jamaican music label, primarily; importing or licensing stuff from Jamaican producers as well as producing his own bits and pieces. Then he had a hit with 'My Boy Lollipop', which was the first big crossover for ska music. He carried on doing that, but then he got into rock and started producing The Spencer Davis Group and suchlike, so his eye went off the ball a little bit as far as Jamaican music was concerned. While he was doing that, other people were doing the same sort of thing; there was Emil Shallit with Melodisc and their label Blue Beat, and Rita and Benny King who had R&B.

Later on there was a distribution company called B&C who were dabbling in Jamaican music with their own labels, and the idea was that B&C - with the distribution and their Music City shops - would merge with Island - who had the catalogue - to create a dominant force in the reggae market. It was a 50% share deal, so Chris Blackwell got 50% and Lee Gopthal - the B&C shareholder - got a 50% share. The two of them launched Trojan in '68.

Island had previously had a Trojan label, which had been highlighting the productions of Duke Reid, who was known as the Trojan.

So that was where the name came from?

LCH: Exactly. Reid got the name in turn from the Trojan trucks that were used to transport his soundsytems around the island. So they wanted a label for him, as he was more or less the main producer at the time; along with Coxsone Dodd. [Island] launched the Trojan label, but it only ran for about a dozen releases before it folded. Then the following year when B&C and Island merged - as to why they chose the name Trojan, no one can remember! Unfortunately Lee Gopthal's not around any more so we can't ask him, but I've asked a lot of people who were high profile staff members at the company, and nobody can recall why they settled on the name. It's been put forward that they'd had a load of labels pressed up but had nothing better to do with them, and that was the reason - but that's just supposition to a large degree.

So Trojan started in July '68, and it carried on with the subsidiaries that Island already had and that B&C were starting up; so it was actually a fair number of labels, but Trojan was obviously the showcase label. Over the years - well, months - that followed, other producers would come to them and say 'I want my own label', so between the about '69 and '71 there were 30-odd labels going at one time, pumping out stuff.

Why this method of giving each producer their own imprint?

LCH: Well as far as Jamaican music goes, the producer had always been - until Bob Marley came along - the dominant force. It's a bit like Phil Spector; you buy a record because Phil Spector produced it, regardless of the artist. And it's the same thinking in Jamaican music, the artist almost was secondary to the producer; the producer had all the influence. And also, a lot of them had big egos! They saw that, say, Lee Perry had his own label, and they thought 'well sod that, I want mine'! But all the stuff that was considered to have the best chance of mainstream success over here was put on the Trojan label, regardless of who produced it.

Trojan had their first minor hit with Tony Tribe's 'Red Red Wine' in '69, but it wasn't until around October of that year - with hits like 'Longshot' by The Pioneers and 'The Liquidator' by Harry J All Stars - that they suddenly had a massive chart breakthrough. And that's what really launched Trojan as a mainstream label. There had been other Jamaican music records in the charts before - 'Israelites' [by Desmond Dekker] obviously, and before that things like 'Train To Skaville' [by the Ethiopians], but they'd all been very here and there. This was the first time a Jamaican music label had succeeded in getting a number of records in the chart at the same time, and it really did establish them as the major force in Jamaican music in Europe - or anywhere outside Jamaica, really.

What do you think was the reason for this success?

LCH: Well it was a couple of things I suppose. One was the advent of reggae which was a new, exciting sound. But really, predominantly, it was the evolving fashion movement which became known as the Skinheads. Where before it had been the Mods and their buying power, allied with the West Indian population within the UK, by '69 the music had changed and become that much more appealing to white working class listeners. It was good timing, as reggae was perfect for the Skinhead attitude really; it was music that was free from all the pretentions of mainstream pop and rock. Even soul was becoming slightly psychedelic with The Temptations, and the Skinheads felt alienated by that as well. So, suddenly, here was no-nonsense dance music which totally fitted the Skinhead sensibility.

I've read about how a lot of Jamaican tracks had strings recorded over them, or the mixes were softened, for British ears; why was that, if the Skinheads liked the no-nonsense side of it?

LCH: That's a very good point. With the Skinheads, it was the rawness of the music that appealed to them. But Clive Crawley - who was a plugger for Trojan - would take the records round to the radio stations, and a lot of them just wouldn't play it. Even though the stuff was selling, the idea was you get radio play and it helps get you into the charts. The pirates were giving them airplay - people like Radio Luxembourg - but the BBC just weren't interested. So really it was an effort to try and make the music appealing to the bods at the BBC, as much as anything. I don't know who first had the idea - but I know when Harry J first came over, he had this hit called 'Young Gifted & Black' by Bob and Marcia - their version of a Nina Simone song - and the decision was taken [to add strings to the recording]. And [the technique] did have an initial success - 'Young Gifted & Black', 'Black Pearl' by Horace Faith - a few of tracks did have that poppy sensibility, and they were appealing less to the Skinheads and more to the Skinheads' mums and aunts!

It worked to a certain degree, but of course it did alienate the Skinheads, who just weren't interested in that. They didn't abandon reggae as a result, but certainly a number of them became disillusioned by the development.

What about the West Indian population; how did they view this marketing of the music?

LCH: Well it's interesting, because you would have thought they'd hold their hands up in disgust, but actually it didn't go down too badly. I think because it was holding the music in a similar sort of respect to British pop music. It wasn't really thought of as being a terrible thing - there were obviously some people who did think of it that way, as with the Skinheads - but it wasn't like the whole West Indian population thought 'this is dreadful'. I've spoken to quite a few people who were around at the time, and they thought it was great! Especially the older generation; I think for the younger people it was seen as less of a...but then again a few years on, John Holt made an album called 1000 Volts Of Holt, which was the most 'pop' reggae album ever created, and it sold by the bucketload amongst the West Indian population - and it's still a big seller. So that reinforces the fact that it wasn't looked down upon.

It seems like the focus for Trojan was to break through to the mainstream market. Was it seen by the West Indian population as a more mainstream concern compared to other UK reggae labels?

LCH: It was to a certain degree, but when you think of the amount of stuff that came out that did have strings and stuff on it, it was only a small percentage of what Trojan was issuing. So I think it was regarded by and large as the best place to get reggae, regardless of the type. Trojan's main rival at the time was Pama records, but they tried putting strings on things as well. In retrospect people say 'well Pama was the skinhead label', but I've spoken to people who were around at the time and that wasn't the case at all; both Trojan and Pama were held up in the same regard. You might try to get something on import, but the chances were it was coming out on Trojan or Pama or, in many cases, both - because producers would license the same tracks to both labels.

In terms of the producers themselves - I've read that they got wise to this 're-mixing' of the tracks, and sent over 'bare bones' mixes so that it was easier for labels to make them more friendly to UK audiences.

LCH: Actually they mostly just sent over what they considered the finished article. It was then up to the discretion of the the people in the UK. I've spoken to Clive Crawley and a fair few others who arranged the overdubs, and basically they'd just hear what came in that week, and they'd say 'that would work, that wouldn't'. Of course, Pama released 'Young Gifted & Black' without the strings, and it sounds great. I have to say, though, I prefer the strings version; one of those rare occasions where I think it actually did enhance the record!

But there were instances where producers would send over backing tracks for people like Desmond Dekker or The Pioneers - Jamaican acts who had relocated to the UK - and they'd add the vocals there. And if Trojan felt 'this could do with strings', then they'd add them; but a lot of time they'd just add the vocals.

How much of the Trojan output during that time was from Jamaica?

LCH: Right through from '68 to '73, the vast majority was Jamaican. It think then what happened - unfortunately the adding of strings was a major factor in Trojan's initial demise, because of all the money that was being spent on production. There's loads of unreleased stuff which is beautifully produced as far as orchestration, and you think 'my god, how much would this have cost?', and it was never released. There's so many of those recordings, and for a company that was very much working like a little independent, it overstretched itself both financially and in terms of how it grew; it was haemorrhaging money right left and centre. So it wasn't until just before the label's demise that it became more UK-centric, and there was less Jamaican music coming out. But even then, the majority was still Jamaican.

Do you think the those boom years for Trojan had an effect on race relations in the UK? Or do you think it was the inverse - that society was ready for black music because of a change in attitudes?

LCH: I think it did have an effect. It was really the first time something united the British working classes with the Jamaican population. Because up until that point, there wasn't much that held them together. But here, suddenly, was something that united them; and black pop music was being regarded as something cool, rather than something that should be looked down upon. I certainly do think it had that effect; it was the first time that that happened, and ever since then, it's continued.

During that time (and since), Trojan have released a number of budget compilations. This seems to be a way that people like to consume the music. Were there attempts to release single artist long players, and did they fail?

LCH: Yes! Nobody had any success with single artist LPs; Island tried, Doctor Bird, Melodisc - Melodisc had a slight success with Prince Buster - but by and large it was really a single-based market. A fair few companies had tried single artist collections, and really they'd died a death.

And then early in '69 Trojan launched Tighten Up [their first compilation series], which was highlighting the dance favourites of the time, and it took off like wildfire. So that format was copied across the board, by other companies like Pama. They'd still try, every now and then, to put out single artist compilations, but they never did well. The first one to do well for Trojan was 1000 Bolts Of Holt.

Do you think that was to do with the way people consumed the music in a single-track format?

LCH: Yeah. I mean up until Bob Marley became a rock star, so to speak, reggae was a dance music; and people didn't buy it in the same way that they'd buy a rock album; there wasn't going to be a uh...what's the word...a concept album. That did change, but as I say until the whole attitude changed towards reggae and it stopped becoming just a dance music, it was very much a singles-based market.

You mentioned that Trojan was haemorrhaging money towards 1975. Do you think it was purely mismanagement that led to its demise or were there wider cultural reasons?

LCH: Well the demise of the Skinhead movement certainly played its part. But really, what Trojan failed to do was develop its artists. Even though it had UK artists signed to it - Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers, there were quite a few - it didn't develop them. And I think that's why Chris Blackwell [with Island Records] split from Trojan in '72. I think by then he'd realised that, and he thought 'if we're going to make money out of Jamaican music this is something we need to do, and we can't just reissue the singles; we need invest in the artists'. Which he then did with Bob Marley, to great effect.

Trojan could have remained a powerful force, but I think it really was mismanagement; it was lack of understanding of the market, lack of foresight. And it was still being run like an independent: everyone who worked there at the time has said that it was great fun, but there was no forward planning. There was nothing that there should be in a proper record company. It was inevitable that it was going to go under.

Once Trojan folded, so many independents suddenly formed - many from ex-Trojan employees - and filled the void that they had left. So the market was still there; it wasn't the white market, and it perhaps wasn't in the numbers that it had been before, but it was still a significant market that could've been tapped into. And they didn't understand the way that the music was developing - roots, dub - Jamaican music was really changing, and Trojan didn't keep its finger on the pulse as far as that was concerned.

Trojan was bought out by Saga in 1975. How did that change things? Presumably they had a different approach to running the label?

LCH: It was totally different. Marcel Rodd [CEO of Saga] bought it mainly, I think, for the distribution. He didn't really want to be stuck with - believe it or not - a reggae catalogue, of which he knew nothing; he'd got into [the music industry] with classical music and suddenly he was stuck with having to try and market a totally different form of music. And obviously he struggled. He got people in to help him eventually, but so much damage was done in those early years.

Also a lot of damage had been done because of Trojan's demise. A lot of artists and producers had found themselves out of pocket; where there'd been a hit record and suddenly Trojan had gone bust, so the artists didn't get their royalties. And Trojan was actually relaunched - it was Trojan in name, but Saga didn't take on any of its debts. What that meant was the slate was wiped clean, and there were a lot of disgruntled people. I think the reputation of Trojan hit an all time low at that point, and they had awful trouble getting past it. And still stories abound which, really, are very unfair, because since then a lot of effort has been made to try and put things right. But mud sticks!

Did the label lie dormant for the rest of that decade?

LCH: No it didn't lie dormant; they got some very good people in like Dave Hendley [a compiler for Trojan during this period], who tried to make it work. But unfortunately Marcel Rodd wasn't really that interested in investing the money. And at that time no one was interested in the back-catalogue; reggae being such as it is - I suppose with all music really - last week's hit is gone and forgotten. At that time no one took old Jamaican music in the slightest bit seriously - records that are now passing hands for hundreds of pounds, you couldn't give away. And by then Island were investing more in Jamaican music, Virgin came into the market, you had all the independents doing it. So suddenly Trojan had all these competitors and found itself lagging behind. Amazingly, thanks to Dave Hendley, it did issue some great records during that time; but not in the numbers of its heyday. And then of course in '79 was the ska revival and they were very fortunate, because people suddenly did become interested.

Was that the point when reissues became a big part of what the label was doing?

LCH: That's right, yeah; with the ska revival. Dave Hendley - again - put together a great compilation called Monkey Business, and a number of other collections from the back-catalogue. Attempts had been made before to present [ska and reggae] as a serious form of music, but this was the first concerted effort to do it. This was the point, I must say, that I suddenly started buying reggae again. I was still young, but I - or my brothers and sisters - had bought reggae records [in the early 70s] and I'd been into it for a little while, but then it had changed and I'd stopped. When these compilations started coming out I thought 'this is good stuff'; and obviously there were many many more like me. This was the time when the collectors' market really started up. Also naturally, if you hear things like 'Rudy, A Message To You' - if you like the Specials' version of it and someone says it's a cover - you'd be interested in finding out more about it. I remember a lot of new Mods and Skinheads seeking out these records, as I did.

Was Trojan the only label embarking on a strategy of reissues at that time?

LCH: At that time, by and large, yes. It wasn't to the degree that followed - it was still very much a release here or there highlighting older music - but no one else was doing it to that extent. Trojan was still trying to keep one foot in the contemporary market as well at that time. I think what happened then was that Marcel Rodd lost interest in the label; they were making enough money from licensing tracks out here and there. And by the early 80s when the 2tone thing had died, most people weren't interested in the old stuff as much; it was really just a small core of collectors. So Marcel decided to sell up to Colin Newman in 1985.

I don't know the sums involved, but I shouldn't imagine Marcel would have wanted very much for the label; Colin Newman had the foresight to see the potential of what was there. He got in Steve Barrow, who'd been writing about reggae and knew his onions. And that was the point that they started reissuing the old stuff in earnest; the releases started coming out quite regularly from that point, and suddenly more and more people got interested in it. It was really Steve Barrow with Colin Newman that got Trojan up and running as a proper reissue back-catalogue label.

How did you get involved with the label?

LCH: I was researching reggae for my own interest and I started writing for Record Collector - I can't remember how that came about. Steve Barrow then left Trojan to do his own thing, so I came in, and said 'you've got all these tapes, do you know what's there?' and they said 'well no, not really'. And I said 'let me go through and log them for you!' You can imagine I was in seventh heaven. I'd go into the studio in Walthamstow Monday to Friday and just play the tapes and log them; I didn't see much daylight for the first few years!

But Trojan was still a very very small concern, it was literally a handful of people. I was the only full time employee as far as a compiler goes. And that carried on until Sanctuary bought Trojan in July 2001. That's when reissue work started in earnest; I was given a lot more creative freedom with Sanctuary. Suddenly I was the main driving force as far as what we did, for a while; though there were still people above me who made the big decisions.

And then it was decided to do a lot of releases each month - it wasn't my decision I must say, and nearly caused me to explode! In retrospect it was too many - actually at the time I thought it was too many - we were doing something like seven releases a month, flooding the market. Basically the idea was - again it wasn't mine - let's wipe the slate clean, delete everything that was in the catalogue and do everything afresh. But it's a very difficult thing to do, because if you're going to delete everything you have to quickly produce stuff to take its place.

Was that in line with a culture of reissues at the time - were there a lot of labels offloading their catalogues?

LCH: Yeah, well a lot of majors were coming in and buying things - though obviously Sanctuary wasn't a major, it was a large independent. Also Sanctuary had spent £10 million [on acquiring the label], and they wanted to make that back. And it was very successful; we had a couple of albums do really well.

But it was a lot of work, because at the same time we were also - as Colin Newman had been trying to do - going back to 1975 when Trojan went under and approaching artists, trying to set up new agreements that were fairer. The deal had always been that the producers said to the record companies 'you don't pay the aritsts, _we_ pay the artists - we're the copyright owner, we've licensed these recordings to you'. So it was left at the producers' discretion to pay the artists. Of course what happened was more and more artists were coming to Trojan saying 'I've had a number 1 record and no one's paying me any money, where are my royalties?' so the decision was made that - whether or not the producers liked it - they had to give 50% of the royalties to the artists.

And that is still the case. I've seen a fair few websites, pirate websites, where you approach them and say 'you do realise you're depriving the artists of money?' and the reaction is always 'well the artists never get paid royalties anyway', which is very frustrating because they are getting paid, and there's people in Jamaica dying penniless - not just because of [torrent sites], but it contributes. And you speak to educated, sometimes well-intentioned people, and they still come out with the same claptrap about how people aren't getting paid royalties, and it's like 'well they're not if you're doing this'.

And Trojan's never hidden; especially now with Universal, it's not like the company can hide under a rock. But there are still an awful lot of artists who should get in contact with Universal and say 'I want an artist agreement; I want to start getting royalties again', because even though the producer should be paying them, they're not, and Universal would be more than happy to pay them direct.

So - sorry to digress! - Sanctuary had financial troubles. The management made some terribly poor decisions. The records side was making money, but unfortunately we all went down together. So Universal came in; and then there's been a big transition period because, Trojan being what it was, it was still quite a big fish in the Sanctuary pond, but coming into Universal, suddenly it's a tiny fish. And in the meantime the music industry's changing - as I say there's all these places where you can download stuff for nothing; the quality might not be great but a lot of people are willing to do it...

But there's still definitely the market for serious collections; and 'best of' collections aimed at the mainstream market.

So, these four new compilations...

LCH: Suddenly now Universal have an incredible reggae catalogue because they've got Trojan, Island, things like Decca all these other little labels - A&M, Polydor; a bit of reggae's come out of them all. The opportunity's certainly there to do wonderful things.

The idea now is to start in earnest - again! - but the emphasis this time, with these four collections in particular, is not to duplicate stuff that's been out time and time again; I think especially when you're dealing with more specialist fans and more specialist music, you've got no excuse not to include rarer material. And hopefully they'd be introductory collections so someone with a vague interest can get a taste of it, but by featuring the rare good stuff, it'll also appeal to the collectors.

So, I'm almost going back to where I was when I started with Trojan; looking through the tapes of what Island had and what Universal have otherwise, and over the coming months and years - touch wood! - there'll be a lot more deep catalogue collections.

Do you think there's been a growing interest, in the last decade, in this kind of music? I'd certainly say that in contemporary dance music you're hearing a lot more overt references to dub and reggae.

LCH: Absolutely. And you know, people like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse; they've all paid tribute in their own way. As to - thinking with my record company hat on - how that can be capitalised on, or if it can be; hopefully, as happened with me and the ska revival, people will say 'that's interesting, where's that coming from' and will investigate. The only danger these days is with illegal downloads; that's the only thing that is disappointing. But if we can do quality sets - things where people will say 'I want this, rather than an mp3 from a dodgy source' - then it'll be great.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.