“I-man serve Selassie I continually, no matter what the weak heart say” proclaims Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, the Jamaican drummer at the centre of the 1978 cult classic Rockers, in a monologue on his Rastafari faith. Part loose interpretation of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, and part reggae reinterpretation of Robin Hood, it features an all-star cast of Jamaican roots reggae artists and, over time, has morphed a lesser-known cult classic. Originally intended to be a documentary, the film follows Horsemouth, a drummer living in a Kingston ghetto, who tries to make some extra money selling and distributing records around the island. This flips when his motorcycle, emblazoned with the Lion of Judah, gets nicked, leading him to a trail of theft and corruption which he and his pals overcome. It’s a win for the ordinary man, all whilst remaining stylistically sharp, and featuring some of the best Jamaican music of the era.
But how did a low-budget film centred around a group of Jamaican musicians come to influence a generation, popularise a genre, and become a reference point of its own? When the film screened at Cannes on the same night as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, thousands rushed to the theatre and riot police had to be called in. It’s remained in the zeitgeist ever since, which is why we delve deep into the sound and style of Rockers to see how it captures the halcyon days of roots reggae.
Whilst Jamaica’s best-known star Bob Marley sang ‘One Love’, the country he was associated with was drowning in drugs, gang violence, ghettos and corruption. In 1976 he survived an assassination attempt. Kingston was a crowded city and, at the time, filled with people trying to get ahead. These so-called ‘strivers’, a category our main man Horsemouth easily fell into, utilised what limited resources they had. Their style just so happened to be one of them. With tailoring and sewing a prevalent skill throughout Jamaica, since it provided a means of making a living, Kingston was filled with people trying to stand out through what they wore.
Americana was a huge influence on the rockers, but not just in terms of the music. Drawing on vintage militaria, the country/western look, hippie counterculture and the vibrant Caribbean colour palette, the film’s cast developed their own distinct style, full of reference but with its own personality. Despite costumes allegedly being thrown together on set spur of the moment, throughout the film, there’s a whole spread of sunglasses, chambray shirts, high-waisted trousers and more working seamlessly together. Bruce Lee was also said to be a huge influence, again with Western culture dripping south into the Caribbean, and with that came an array of bright tracksuits.
Horsemouth easily takes the crown with a whole range of bright ensembles, from a yellow-striped black tracksuit to worn denim dungarees to fine-stripe tees paired with contrasting workers trousers and vintage red Kickers. All that finished off, of course, with his signature woven uptown hat.
One particular element that illustrates the ‘cultural transplantation’ of style elements into the Kingstons strivers’ look are the Clarks suede Desert Boot and Wallabee. The desert boot was originally a requisition of rugged, breathable safari boots commonly found in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar in the 1940s, and somewhat a take on a Dutch-South African ‘vellie’, or field shoe. Whilst they found little success initially in the UK, the Desert Boot wound up in Chicago by the late 1940s. The rest is obvious – Clarks boots wound their way into the Kingston ghettos, and when the brand introduced the Wallabee in 1967 they, rather predictably, flew off the shelves, remaining a staple decades after. They developed such a gunslinger reputation that they infamously became a means for the police to separate the so-called ‘rudeboys’ wearing the shoes from the law-abiding public at the numerous outdoor, soundsystem-led parties dotted around Kingston’s Spanish Town Road.
British cultural icon Don Letts meets at the crossroads of punk and reggae. Having ran the infamous London clothing store Acme Attractions on The King’s Road in the 1970s, selling "electric-blue zoot suits and jukeboxes, and pumping dub reggae all day long", he came to prominence as The Clash’s videographer and has been at the forefront of British culture ever since.
The so-called ‘Kings of Carnival’, Channel One Soundsystem are named after the recording studio of the same name in Kingston, Jamaica that is credited with giving rise to the ‘rockers’ sound. Channel One have been a figurehead in British reggae and soundsystem culture for decades, having played at Notting Hill Carnival every year for over 30 years and having hosted innumerable nights around the country for just as long.
We ‘A’ Rockers
Prior to independence, many Jamaicans listened to American radio stations broadcasting from the Southern states, picked up on old, crackling transistor radios. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time before reggae had evolved into its own sound, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states broadcast a whole variety of blues, jazz, R&B, rock and soul. This included the likes of Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and more, and was just one of the many ‘Americana’ influences on the country. Many reggae classics were, in fact, covers of US or British songs that had been reimagined in a form totally different from their predecessors.
Key to roots reggae, defined by its characteristic slow repetitive rhythm and heavy basslines, was its spirituality. Linked to the Rastafari faith, theology relating to black liberation, roots reggae belonged to a culture of resistance featuring social messages, spiritual teachings, and a conscious rejection of ‘Babylon’. It was highly political and fought against injustice, themes reflected in the plot of Rockers. The film starred an array of the genre’s innovators, including saxophonist Richard ‘Dirty Harry’ Hall, Jacob Miller, Dillinger, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, and drummer Horsemouth himself. Many were associated with Jamaica’s most renowned record label and recording studio, Studio One, dubbed the Motown of Jamaica. All starred in Rockers as themselves, and all came to define a genre that spurred a whole set of offshoots. Ska and rocksteady may have preceded, but roots reggae came to help define dub, lovers rock, hip-hop, dancehall and more.
Beyond the all-star cast, the film’s soundtrack reads like a who’s who of reggae, with names including Inner Circle, The Heptones, Third World, Bunny Wailer, Rockers All Stars and more. What’s more interesting is that this barely scratches the surface – Rockers tells the story of one particular group of people and is by no means exhaustive. It’s astonishing just how much reggae was being produced in Jamaica given its size.
Listen to music from the original soundtrack
LEVIS VINTAGE CLOTHING
Levi’s Vintage Clothing’s AW18 collection centres around the film’s inimitable style and, in a way, comes full circle. With Levi’s one of the quintessential American brands, Levi’s Vintage offers up classic silhouettes riffing off various points in 20th Century culture, here reimagining a whole style that was, in itself, an offshoot of the original. Key to the collection is the Rockers Chambray Shirt, an almost exact reproduction of that worn by Horsemouth in the film, featuring flower embroidery and contrast stitching that wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco during the ’67 Summer of Love.
Japan’s Wacko Maria is no stranger to counterculture. Perhaps rather fittingly, the two founders, both former J-League football players, ran the Rock Steady bar in Tokyo out of which the brand was born. With collections always taking particular influence from American culture, this season they have collaborated with cult counterculture publications High Times for a collection across a range of signature Wacko Maria silhouettes adorned with the magazine’s distinct, unique visual style. You only need to look as far as the Rasta Striped Crew Neck Sweater to see the Rockers link…
Young British designer Nicholas Daley, of Jamaican and Scottish descent, also looks towards reggae culture and this can be seen in cuts and fabrics used throughout his pieces. His current collection, Red Clay, looks towards the link between jazz, tweed and more. Expect to see more Rockers references in upcoming seasons from Nicholas...
A cross-cultural staple, in any case, the Clarks Originals Wallabee, Weaver, and Desert Trek formed an integral part of the Rockers look. Moving away from the traditional earthy suede tones, the brand has adapted the classic silhouettes in a variety of bright summer tones that look like they’re straight out of the film.
The idea of a ‘cult film’ is bandied around readily, but the truth is the real cult classics are probably not the ones that immediately spring to mind. That’s where Rockers comes in. The film served as an entry-point to reggae for curious and captive audiences across the USA and UK, and its legacy lies with helping popularise the genre. It’s no surprise then that many Jamaican artists ended up moving to either nation – Augustus Pablo wound up in the States by the mid-1970s. Britain may well have had exposure to ska from years prior with Trojan Records having brought Jamaican records to the UK since the 1960s. Skinhead culture may well have drawn heavy influence from a wealth of Jamaican music later in the decade. And Britain may also have had exposure to Jamaican culture, generally, through the Windrush generation even earlier. But British reggae matured into its prime from the late 1970s into the early 1980s, the Rockers generation. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Caribbean culture in Britain is Notting Hill Carnival, one of the world’s largest street festivals, that has been held yearly in the West London suburb since the mid-1960s. And then let’s not forget just quite how much punk owes to reggae…
So, it’s easily a cult classic, in that it’s a true reflection of a time and a place in history from which numerous streams of culture evolved. A cultural pinpoint, if you like. But what’s important in all of this is the execution. Let’s not forget, Rockers set out to be a documentary. Theodoros Bafaloukos, Rockers’ writer and director, lived with the cast for a number of years and spent a long time trying to persuade them to take part in a film project. Eventually deciding against the documentary format, he opted for a scripted fiction showcasing the best of Jamaica’s music, with the stars playing themselves. This is the key: authenticity. It is independent in its spirit, independent in its message, and independent in its execution. Rockers stays true to its roots.