The film Babylon looks at London’s early ’80s sound-system scene

How Black London's Mean Streets turned into a legendary movie

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Aswad’s Brinsley Forde as Blue in Babylon. Photos courtesy Martin Stellman.

Wax Poetics is partnering with Sonos Studio in Los Angeles to present HOMETOWN HIFI, an art show running through April 24 about the roots of Jamaican sound system culture, featuring works by Beth Lesser, Limonious, and Pekka Vuorinen, as well as artifacts and films. In today’s interview, Martin Stellman—who had already penned Quadrophenia—reminisces about the script he wrote in 1981 for Franco Rosso’s socio-political film Babylon, the elusive, and only, feature film focusing on the sound system scene in West London to ever have been shot on 16 mm. At HOMETOWN HIFI, Babylon screens entirely in its own viewing pad.

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There has been—before and after Babylon—quite a few reggae-themed movies. Why did you and Rosso choose to focus on the sound-system scene in London?

Martin Stellman: I was working in an area of the city called Deptford as a youth and community worker. It was kind of a rough area. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was a huge reggae fan. I’m from London, and ever since I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Black music; I grew up with early Stax and Tamla Motown. So I kinda moved to the parallel musical world of reggae, and because of my youth work, I became involved with a proper sound system. Back then, sound system dances were called blues dances; they were at really funky venues. They would be at the back of a church hall, for example; they might be at a youth center, and they would be absolutely jam-packed. And the big speakers would be there, and it would be the whole thing, just as you see in Babylon. It was just fascinating.

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How did it go from that fascination to making a movie about it?

I had three jobs at the time. One of them was to be a freelance journalist, working for Time Out. I once wrote an article for them about Native American Indians, and Franco Rosso, who I didn’t know at the time, got in touch with me and said, “I loved your article. I’m really interested in doing something with you; I’m a filmmaker.” He was already working as a director of documentaries.

Then I wrote another article about young Blacks in my neighborhood for Time Out—unemployment, police harassment, the very individual and idiosyncratic relationship that the people I worked with had with the British state and with society, in a way.

So me and Franco started researching the whole sound-system scene, and I took Franco with me to sound systems—he wasn’t going before, but, funnily enough, he knew about them because this church where he lived, in Lewisham, had a blues every Friday, and it used to drive him mad because of the bass, yeah? [Legendary sound-system owner] Jah Shaka used to play there as well; it was literally at the back of his garden.

Don’t get me wrong: Franco also made a documentary about dub poet LKJ, so he was very simpatico to the subject. He only hated the noise because he had kids.

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Were you guys tempted to do a documentary, and not a feature film?

No, we always wanted to do drama, tell a story. And it was really important—you have to remember that we’re talking about the ’70s—we started around 1975, ’76, I would say. There was absolutely nothing that was about the life of young Londoners. Absolutely nothing. We were operating in a complete vacuum. Obviously, Franco talked to a lot of people, listened to a lot of stories, went to a lot of sounds, talked to people like Shaka and LKJ. LKJ knew Shaka, so the connection was there already.

How did you get to have the main role of Blue played by Aswad singer Brinsley Forde?

We casted very carefully from day one, really. Brinsley was actually a child actor before; he played in that series Double Deckers [ABC/BBC1] when he was a teenager! We did see other people for Blue, but Brinsley was so authentic and right for the script, it took us five minutes to decide. And then Brinsley brought some people from Aswad to play minor roles. Mikey Campbell was their manager at the time. King Sounds…

It never was too difficult to convince people. The proof in the pudding was in the story, in the script. Whatever suspicion they might have had towards us, hopefully they’d see that we’ve done our work with the screenplay. People might have one or two objections, but we were very open to changing things. For instance, we needed to get the patois right, so we’d show the draft to the sound-system guys. This guy Trevor Currie, who was the producer’s bodyguard and a boxing champion, was also part of an actual sound system; we would check with these guys for scenes that we felt could be pure invention and unauthentic.

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Aswad’s Brinsley Forde as Blue in Babylon during the sound clash against Jah Shaka. Photos courtesy Martin Stellman.

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Didn’t you have a bunch of alternative names for it?

I think we called it Dread one time, then Dread Inna Babylon, and then we just called it Babylon. Half of the original script was happening in prison, but we had to chop this whole section for budgetary reasons. At the end of the original script, Blue escapes from this prison that’s right by the sea. He walks down to the beach and finds a wooden boat, and starts to row with the idea of trying to get to Ethiopia. It’s a long way but it doesn’t matter, ’cause the film ends. You would have had some tune play, like “Fisherman” by the Congos.

How did you even find people to finance this film?

The predecessor of what is now the Film Council, a government-funded organization supposed to patronize and encourage filmmaking, was called the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). The guy running it at the time, Mamoun Hassan, read the script and absolutely loved it. He always wanted to absolutely see it made. It was more due to him than anybody else that the film happened. He’s not British, he’s an outsider too, so I think he had sympathy for the material.

If you look at the key people in the making of Babylon, you have Franco Rosso, son of an Italian immigrant, me, son of a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, Gavrik Losey, son of blacklisted Hollywood director Joseph Losey, and then you have Mamoun Hassan, the son of a Saudi immigrant. We all had that sense of being outsiders in a time in Britain that was very much still the Empire. We are not Jamaican immigrants per se, but the idea of Babylon definitely talked to each one of us.

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“HOMETOWN HIFI,” curated by Wax Poetics contributor Seb Carayol: Sonos Studio (145 N. La Brea, Los Angeles) until April 24. Hours: 12–6 PM, Wed.–Sun.

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