Independence dub: Pressure Sounds at 100

By in Features





Notching its 100th release earlier this year, UK reggae reissue label Pressure Sounds has quietly built up an invaluable archive of music. To mark the occasion, we sent musician and writer Wrongtom to share a few words in dub with owner Pete Holdsworth and hear the unconventional story of Pressure Sounds, from Yabby You and Lee “Scratch” Perry to Mark Rothko and the Irish Troubles.

The Kent coast is probably the last place you’d expect to find one of Britain’s most enduring reggae labels. However, one drizzly autumn morning, I wound up speeding down the M2 to meet Pete Holdsworth, label boss of Pressure Sounds, on the eve of their 100th release: the almost mythical Rockers From The Land Of Reggae by I-Mo-Jah, and its accompanying dubs.

Holdsworth has taken a satisfyingly idiosyncratic route through the music business on the way to helming his defiantly DIY reissue label. Starting life in the declining industrial town of ’60s Stockton-On-Tees, Pete moved to East London in his teens where he formed his post-punk-dub band London Underground, catching the attention of a young Adrian Sherwood in the process. The pair, along with a wild group of likeminded allies soon set up shop as On-U Sound, making their unique, Dada-like mark on the UK reggae scene.

On-U spawned Pressure Sounds before Pete eventually took the reigns himself, leaving Sherwood and co. to concentrate on his obsession, ploughing his love of art, film, writing, and of course reggae into each beautifully bespoke and lovingly crafted release.

What year did Pressure Sounds come together?

It was around ’94 or ’95 when we first started to talk about it. Adrian and I had a long history of releasing records. The origin of Pressure Sounds was really just: “let’s rerelease a few records that we like”. We weren’t thinking, “let’s start a label that’s going to last a long time and release a hundred records”.

What was the first release?

Santic & Friends – Leonard Chin.

Was it set up specifically to do reissues?

Primarily we wanted people to be excited about records we thought were great but were perhaps no longer available. It was originally just a subsidiary of On-U Sound. Pressure Sounds started with two matchsticks and a rubber band – we were aware that we were doing things with a very limited budget. However, we were used to that, and that’s part of the reason why Pressure Sounds is still going. There’s certainly been points when it’s not financially viable but, hey, what does that matter?

I’m guessing that DIY attitude comes from your punk days…

It comes from punk, but it also comes from reggae, because my heroes are people like Harry Mudie, who is fiercely independent. Being around these guys who somehow struggled to scrape together enough money to finance their own productions and own their own tape imbued that independence in me. Only an idiot would say that music made on major labels or films with big productions are all rubbish. Obviously they’re not, but there’s a degree of autonomy that’s really important to creativity, and occasionally there are periods of time when they leave the toilet window open and you can climb through, like [Martin] Scorsese in the early ’70s making independent movies but managing to get mainstream distribution. It was the same with music where it was viable to do your own thing. Now I think it’s harder for that independence to have the breeding ground to grow.

Why do you think that is?

Firstly, the financial conditions for doing these things are much harder than they were. We started Pressure Sounds at a time when sales were still viable. There’s no way I could start it now.

Were you ever interested in financial backing, like Blood & Fire?

Undoubtedly I had a fantasy at one time or another of being given a label and left to get on with it. I learned from the mistakes with On-U, and with Pressure Sounds I’ve just narrowed everything down so I deal with as few people as possible and all of my energy goes into the label. I find things work better when everything’s simplified and the objective is very clear.

Are you pretty much doing everything yourself now?

I more or less say to the artist or producer, “leave it to me, let me do it, and trust me”. Jamaican producers and artists are much more astute than they’re given credit for, because their instincts for people are fantastically good. People like Lee Perry, Coxsone Dodd, Bunny Lee, Junjo Lawes, King Jammy; they didn’t get where they are by chance. I tip my hat to all of those people because I may not like all of them, but I respect them and I feel that they have an instinctive understanding of how people work.

I’ll tell you a funny story… Jojo Hoo Kim at Channel One told me that he used to have some kids that hung around the studio, and he said “I love those kids because I used those kids for what we’d keep on tape” and the musicians hated them because if the kids didn’t like it, he wouldn’t keep it. The musicians wanted to get paid per tune, but if the kids didn’t like it he’d make them record something else. That’s an instinctive way to do things, fuck all of the experts and paraphernalia…

He had a direct line…

Yeah, a direct line to what kids are listening to. I’ve heard story after story like that within the reggae industry, and the idiosyncratic way people do things has had a massive influence on me. I don’t know how young people imbue music now. I’m too old. If you get it, you get it, and I think there are people that can hear a reggae record, and the first time they hear it they can understand more about music than some person who’s been collecting bits of plastic for fucking fifty years, because it’s not about that little piece of plastic. I do have a healthy respect for collectors, but so many people now have become a little bit bogged down by incidental things. I know a lot of people that have had lots of records, and I’ve been to their houses and thought “fucking wow”, but they’re dead, and now it’s just a pile of stuff in the corner.

Do you think some collectors forget what it’s really about?

I think there’s something of the hunter/gatherer about it all. But there were people like Steve Barrow and Studio One Pete, all these characters I met – Roger Eagle who was the first DJ at the Twisted Wheel – he helped us compile some of our first Lee Perry records and did the sleeve notes. His focus would always be the music on the record. All these people have shaped Pressure Sounds in the way that I’ve realised that in order to do this, I have to be really focused. I think there’ll be a point when I can’t stay focussed, and I can’t give it my best shot anymore, and once I’ve got there, I’ll be off on my allotment.

Have you made any mistakes with the label?

I’ve got it wrong so many times, but at the time I did it with complete honesty and it was the best thing I was able to do. All art, there’s an honesty in it, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hank Williams, Picasso, Lee Perry or Yabby You, that person believes that thing, and they’ve imbued their experience into that thing. The first time I saw a Rothko painting it drove me mad. I thought, “what is it about those fucking squares of colour that I just love?” and I looked at it for ages and it really bugged me. It’s just a square, why do I like it? And that’s the great thing about say Lee Perry, you just listen and think “what is it about that little drum roll?”

Did you find, with Rothko or Perry, that you had to stop worrying about it and just accept it?

Well, it was about understanding myself, and trying to work out why I liked it. I couldn’t just let it go, I had to ask, “why do I want to look at all of these fucking pictures of colours?” and I worked out it’s because he’s honest, he believed it, his life went into those paintings. I bought a cheap print, put it on my wall and I used to look at it all the time, and I felt more connected to myself, which I suppose is what it’s really about. With music there’s obviously the celebratory aspect, you’re communing with other people, you’re feeling this warmth and you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

Did you go raving?

I wasn’t part of that scene particularly, I was a little bit too old to buy into it with genuine affection, but I realised that “fucking hell, there’s something going on here” – these people are really into this and really believe it. There’s something about believing in what you’re doing that transposes that thing and makes it bigger than itself. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Velvet Underground or Godard. There’s a bit in a Godard film when the camera pulls back and you can see all the wires and the people with the clapper boards and he’s just letting you know that it’s a construct.

Like he’s pulled back the curtain?

Yeah, but that just makes it more amazing.

Because it adds to the visceral experience?

Yeah, and it’s another question, he’s just gone “WAHEY!” and he’s thrown everything up in the air again, like Yabby You would. The first time I ever met him he didn’t say “hello, how are you?” or “do you wanna put some Yabby You records out?” He said “Bob Marley is the devil” and I thought “oh fucking wow, where are we going with this?”

Where did it go?

Well he was amazing because he had this whole spiel about black history, and he’d obviously learned his chops, so to speak, arguing, reasoning and discussing Jamaican music and culture with people who came from a religious standpoint – i.e. conventional Jamaican Rastafarians I guess. He had a different take on it and he would argue his point until he fell over, and I saw him do that. He would argue for fucking 25 hours if you let him. So somebody like me who’s just got off a plane from London, and he’s thrown that at me, he’s playing me like a conductor because he knows the effect that’s gonna have on me, and he’s immediately thrown me because it’s not what I’m expecting. It’s not what people like that are supposed to say.

You couldn’t make a character like Yabby You up. And what’s amazing, when you physically met him, is how physically uncomfortable he must have been a lot of the time because he walked with a profound limp.

I’ve heard he was very ill, was it something to do with his diet?

It’s poverty. You don’t see too many rich people that end up like that. It’s poverty and not having access to good medical help, and so you make do. Even when people have made a lot of money, they can’t let go of the poverty aspect of it, and perhaps don’t treat themselves in a way that someone who’s come from money would, which is that health is wealth and that “I deserve the best”.

Perhaps they don’t even realise.

Yeah, and I know this from being from my own working class Irish community, with the drinking and the poverty, and confusion with religion. There’s a lot of pain there.

Accepted pain?

Yeah, like “this is our lot”. And I identified with a lot of people in Jamaican music because I had certain life experiences of my own which I’d struggled with. When I was about ten I used to play football with two kids after school every day, and one day I went to knock at their house and they told me that they couldn’t come out to play with me because “all that stuff which was happening” was my fault, which was in reference to what was happening in Ireland and the Troubles. Their mum didn’t want me in the house. So I went home and said to my sister, “I’ve just been round to Nicky and Timmy’s and they said all of this stuff in Ireland is our fault” and that was the first time in my life that anybody had laid something on me that I didn’t fully understand, but I realised I was part of a community that was different.

As a kid did you just accept it…

I did but I was confused, and it was something which disrupted my daily regime.

I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of these people are of Irish background. [Jah] Wobble, [John] Lydon – we know what it’s like to read a sign that says “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. And I say this as an English person. I’m not Irish, I totally feel English, but that experience informed my life. So when these guys come along and they’re called The Revolutionaries or The Aggrovators or The Upsetters, I’m thinking “yeah, I could get with that”.

So it wasn’t hard to find your place in Jamaican music?

It just meant I’d peeped behind the curtain and I knew what it was like to be a little bit discriminated against, and to feel like I’m not part of the mainstream. Cromwell deported loads of Irish to Jamaica, he dumped thousand of them there as slaves. I don’t feel like there’s a stone in my shoe about it, but I’m aware of it. And I suppose all of this stuff we’ve discussed has gone into Pressure Sounds in a funny kind of way. It’s what has kept me independent and away from the mainstream, and given me the belief I can shape it my own way.

And now here we are, you’ve reached a hundred releases, and this has been your life for 20+ years. If you had to jack it all in now, what’s the one Pressure Sounds release you’re proudest of?

Well if I was going to a desert island, and I had to take one Pressure Sounds release with me, it’d have to be Joe Higgs’ Life Of Contradiction.

Illustration by Bethany Porteous