Basement 5 belong on any post-punk playlist, if only for their timeless 1980 single Silicon Chip. And their mostly-long-forgotten Last White Christmas would liven up any seasonal mixtape. So here it is.
History may record Basement 5 as a footnote in post-punk: a failed experiment in fusing punk, reggae and synth-pop. Perhaps they were just too far ahead of their time. Perhaps we were not ready for them.
Arriving in the late Seventies, they played a vital role in bridging the rebel music of Jamaica and the UK. And they were at the forefront of the agitpop era sparked by Rock Against Racism when politics was a vital component of music. Just like it is now.
Their output was erratic but when it worked – as with their ahead-of-its-time debut single Silicon Chip, a one-off ska-dub-electro hybrid that deserves a place in any post-punk hall of fame – they were without peer or parallel. They were also, along with X-Ray Spex, standard bearers for post-punk bands in the UK featuring people of colour.
If they had any close relations in the post-punk era (and they really didn’t), the nearest might be Mark Perry’s Alternative TV in their early days. Formed in 1978, one of their earliest shows was supporting Public Image Ltd at PiL’s debut on Christmas Day that year at the Rainbow Theatre.
They started out with Winston Fergus, lead singer of The Equators, on vocals and Richard Dudanski, previously of PiL, The Raincoats and 101ers, on drums. Fergus was replaced, for a brief spell, by Don Letts, the punk documentarian and DJ.
Then the lead vocals – and, effectively, the band – were taken over by another punk documentarian, Dennis Morris, best known for his photography (most notably of Bob Marley and The Sex Pistols), then working as art director at Island Records.
Morris transformed them, writing lyrics with a harder political edge, creating their image, designing their album covers (as he had done for Marley and Marianne Faithfull) and even designing their distinctive logo (as he had done for PiL, with their revolutionary Metal Box album).
The new line-up was signed to Island and made one of its early appearances at an all-nighter in Camden Town alongside The Only Ones, Killing Joke and John Cooper Clarke. John Peel jumped on board, bringing them in for studio sessions, and they followed their self-produced single, Silicon Chip – released on 10-inch vinyl with a dub version on the B-side – with a high-profile tour with Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
I remember seeing them on that tour at a North London sports centre (with The Selecter and Blurt also on the bill) just before Christmas 1980, the high ceilings and wide open spaces of the vast sports hall amplifying the echoey dub effects of the band as the sound bounced off the concrete walls and ceiling (an effect that played havoc with Dury’s sound, and would later make a New Order show at the same venue almost unlistenable).
Their debut album was produced by Mancunian legend Martin Hannett, fresh from working with Joy Division and John Cooper Clarke, The Durutti Column and Pauline Murray. But the studio sessions were marred by trouble, with Dudanski’s replacement drummer Anthony ‘Bigga’ Thompson walking out on the first day.
Dury’s drummer Charley Charles stepped in at the 11th hour to salvage the sessions, but Hannett later recalled the sessions as “heavy work… made me feel like I’d been carrying bricks around,” advising that the resulting album needed to be played “very loud to be enjoyed fully.” The album was followed by a reggae-style dub version, In Dub, recorded with Hannett at the same time (and re-released in 2017).
The Last White Christmas, released at the end of 1981, would be their final release in what turned out to be the briefest of recording careers. Like the band themselves, it drifted into obscurity (though bassist Leo ‘E-Zee Kill’ Williams would resurface in Big Audio Dynamite). It deserves to be remembered as the last hurrah – the last scream of fury of a band that deserves to be remembered.
So consider this a Christmas gift for punk fans everywhere – and raise a glass to Basement 5.