Guppy Conquerors: The Joy Of Cod Reggae

We set crate digger extraordinaire Bill Brewster an unenviable task - prepare us a set culled just from cod reggae. Check out the YouTube playlist below to see how he got on.

Cod reggae has existed for as long as reggae itself. Even further back than that, there have been some hilariously ill-conceived cod calypso records. Tough guy Robert Mitchum made an entire album dedicated to the genre, with faux islands accent and all, Calypso Is Like So. Bernard Cribbins delivered the cringeworthy ‘Gossip Calypso’, based on Lord Kitchener’s ‘London Is The Place For Me’, while the recently deceased Lance Percival regularly delivered satirical calypsos on That Was The Week That Was, such as ‘Shame & Scandal In The Family’.


The Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ was the first major fillet of cod served up to the British public in 1968. Although it was never released as a single in the UK, Marmalade reached number one with their version in October 1968. Since then, there have been many examples of this much maligned genre, including the oft-cited ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ by 10cc (despite this, it has been sampled and covered by countless bands, including the incorrigible Boney M), ‘Did Ya Mama Ever Tell Ya’ by Slade, Paul Nicholas’ astonishingly bad ‘Reggae Like It Used To Be’, which is essentially a souped-up version of the Detroit Emeralds’ ‘Feel The Need’ fed through a combine harvester.


The arrival of punk brought in its slipstream a new generation of British kids that had grown up on inner city sound systems. Don Letts, who DJ’d reggae at the Roxy, told the Punk77 website: "Don Letts wasn’t the bringer of reggae. Paul (Simenon) was into reggae, Joe (Strummer) was into reggae and John (Rotten) was into reggae. They were turning me onto tunes. It wasn’t always the other way around." The Police commandeered the charts with a rubbery hybrid, while various council oiks had a crack. Leaving aside certain outposts (and the Eurovision Song Contest), cod never sounded quite the same afterwards.


So what is cod? There’s codding, a phrase much used in the north for fibbing or lying. When Brian Clough received the injury that finished his career, Bury defender Bob Stoke exclaimed, "Come on, ref, he’s fucking codding is Clough." This meaning of the word cod is thought to go back to the 19th century (possibly derived from codger) and is almost exclusively a British term. So cod-reggae means faux, ersatz, false, counterfeit or synthetic. Authenticity is so overrated in pop music.


So when does cod stop being fishy and turn into actual reggae? Let’s lay down some ground rules. Having Sly & Robbie holding down the rhythm is a certain disqualifier (that’s you, Serge Gainsbourg and Joe Cocker). The ideal cod reggae band would have a German drummer called Ringo Funk, a bass player with white dreadlocks called Sven and a singer whose knowledge of the West Indies was based on a package holiday to Tenerife. Competence and a cod-Jamaican accent – optional.


So free your mind, loose off your beaver hat, roll up a fatty and let’s embrace all that cod has to offer, safe in the knowledge that whatever follows can never be as bad as Jamie Oliver’s effort.


Nina Hagen – ‘African Reggae’

I first discovered Nina Hagen on a holiday in The Netherlands in the late 70s, when she was romantically involved with Herman Brood (the mainland European equivalent of Patti Smith dating Joe Strummer) and have been fascinated with her ever since. Even the pottiness of the lyrics [sample: "Cannabis I’m the Black Forest, Bob Marley on Venus"] does not prevent this from being one of the greatest cod reggae tunes ever recorded.


Clout – ‘Sunshine Baby’

South African pop band Clout are mainly known in the UK for their monster reworking of the Righteous Brothers’ ‘Substitute’. This, the B-side of Euro-hit ‘Save Me’, is comfortably the best thing they ever did, driven as it is by a thunderous B-line and those syrupy yet effective Moroder-strings.


The Electric Dread – ‘Haile Unlikely’

Given that this experimental ensemble includes Don Letts, I feel slightly guilty at the suggestion of cod, so let’s call this ackee and saltfish reggae. Stratetime Keith is, judging by the sleeve, Keith Levene, while the mysterious Steel Leg sounds somewhat like Mr Letts intoning the pure cod invocation, "Haile unlikely".


Wings – ‘Arrow Through Me’

Paul McCartney has committed more codtrocities than most and is therefore probably the genre’s patron saint. These are somewhat compensated for by this zingy B-side to 1979 minor hit ‘Old Siam, Sir’.


Nina Simone – ‘Baltimore’

If anyone should doubt the potential power of the genre, they need only tune into Nina Simone’s fantastic reading of the Randy Newman tune ‘Baltimore’, which completely reinvents the song into languid jazzy reggae, courtesy of David Matthews’ expansive production.


Saada Bonaire – ‘Funky Way’

What a strange old project this was. Take two non-singing statuesque ‘singers’, chuck them in the studio with some local Turkish and German session players as well as Dennis Bovell in order to see who salutes. EMI Electrola spent a fortune, released one very collectible EP (this track, the JJ Cale penned ‘Funky Way’ being one of the cuts) and were dropped. Imagine a Teutonic Tom Tom Club produced by Mad Professor and you’re somewhere near the truth.


Eric Clapton – ‘I Shot The Sheriff’

Arguably even better than the original version, Clapton, aided by LA’s finest sessions, turns this into a funky behemoth with only the slightest hint of poissonerie. Let’s not talk about his politics, though, eh?


Patti Smith – ‘Redondo Beach’

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this is probably the only reggae-based song about a lesbian suicide. As cod as they come, despite Patti sounding like she’s singing through a pair of tights rather than mimicking Dennis Brown.


Alternative TV – ‘Love Lies Limp’

Originally issued as a free flexi disc with the final edition of Sniffin’ Glue, Mark Perry’s

excellent punk fanzine, it’s an exemplary example of the collision between the two outsider genres of the ’70s, all cack-handed guitar figures and lumpy drumming.


Bauhaus – ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’

Much-maligned in the press at the time, Bauhaus’ 1979 debut single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ is one of the most inventive dub-influenced tunes in the post punk period, even if it did launch a thousand miserablists in oversized greatcoats onto the dance floors of the UK.


The Slits – ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’

It’s the sound of a group having a collective nervous breakdown, but wonderfully so. The fact that it’s held together with the assistance of Dennis Bovell (him again), some sticky-back plastic and a few prayers only adds to the generally joyous mayhem. On stage they were even more untogether. Brilliant.


Elvis Costello – ‘Watching The Detectives’

Great production by Nick Lowe, great song from Elvis and lyrics as incomprehensibly delivered as any toaster. Cod turned up to ten. Perfect.


The Clash – ‘Guns Of Brixton’

Along with Macca, The Clash were the Kings of Cod, but of the many reggae-influenced songs they recorded, this is my favourite, thanks to the depth-charged bassline from Paul Simonon (who also wrote it). It was also later sampled by Beats International for their smash ‘Dub Be Good To Me’.


Brian Eno & Snatch – ‘R.A.F.’

Predictably weird, this hidden away B-side to on 1978’s ‘King’s Lead Hat’ is three minutes-worth of Pop Group-style dub gymnastics aided by Patti Paladin and Judy Nylon chatting over the top. (And that’s chatting in the Woman’s Hour sense of the word.) Great.


Colourbox – ‘Looks Like We’re Shy One Horse’

A severely underrated band, Colourbox, got somewhat lost in the baton-change around the arrival of house music (they were one half of MARRS along with AR Kane who released ‘Pump Up The Volume’). Here, with the assistance of Red Rum and Nijinsky, they conjure up an ace slice of dubtronics with little in the way of North Sea produce.


Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – ‘Egyptian Reggae’

Despite essentially being recorded by resident Bostonian nut job Richman in a bucket with a guitar and two coconut shells, there’s still something winsomely beautiful about this 1977 hit.


Can – ‘Flow Motion’

There are a few examples of reggae-fiddling in the Kraut canon but one of them really stands up today and that is the title track from 1976’s Flow Motion by Can. Although if you want a more visceral take on JA music, check out ‘The Sad Skinhead’ from Faust IV. ‘Flow Motion’ revolves almost entirely around the Michael Karoli’s explorations of the guitar while avoiding ever getting dull. (Karoli also contributed ‘Deluge’, a collaboration with Polly Eltes to the genre.)


BT Express – ‘Herbs’

Maybe it’s because the Jamaican community is less well embedded in American life, but Johnny Nash aside, reggae has never really formed a key part of the well of influences of the black community there. BT Express, the Brooklyn-based funk band led by Jeff Lane, made probably the best crack at it, with the wonderful instrumental ‘Herbs’.


John Martyn – ‘Johnny Too Bad

Hard call to make on John Martyn, since there’s also the monumentally great 12-inch version of ‘Big Muff’ (written by Lee Perry), but this is a killer version of the Slickers’ rocksteady tune, driven by Phil Collin’s ace Devo-style rhythm.


Maynard Ferguson – ‘Swamp’

Although Ferguson is largely known as a jazz trumpeter and bandleader, he made a successful foray into the world of fusion during the 70s on Columbia Records. ‘Swamp’, taken from 1976’s Primal Scream, is one of the few examples of cod reggae-fusion, but is none the worse for it. Also features Steve Gadd on drums, the man behind the monumental reggae-ish rhythm on ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’.


[For lovers of leftfield cod, Wrong Tom has compiled the rather excellent Spiky Dread album and also runs the essential Skank Bloc Bologna blog]

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