Obituary: Judge Dread

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH love novelty records. Put saucy lyrics to a groovy beat, add a dash of seaside postcard humour and you're on to a winner. Judge Dread, the risque cod-reggae artist who died on Friday night at the end of a concert in Canterbury, had a string of Top 20 hits in the Seventies with singles like "Big Six", "Big Seven", "Big Eight" and "Big Ten" which left little to the imagination and were all banned by the BBC. Somewhere between coarse rugby songs, Benny Hill and ska, these proved firm favourites with skinheads, "rude boys" and spotty teenagers chuckling at their first taste of swearing on albums like Dreadmania, Working Class 'Ero and Bedtime Stories.

Born in Kent at the end of the Second World War, Alex Hughes grew into a 17-stone hulk of a man. Taking full advantage of his size, he wrestled under the name of the Masked Executioner and occasionally served as a minder for the Rolling Stones during their Sixties heyday. He also worked as a bouncer and a DJ in London clubs like the Ram Jam where he heard and played ska and bluebeat, the new rhythms coming out of Jamaica (which later mutated into reggae and dub).

Along with Chris Blackwell's Island Records, the Trojan label was then the biggest purveyor of those musical genres and Hughes soon secured a job with them. Many ska records by the likes of Laurel Aitken, Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster sold through specialist shops which didn't keep up their payments and Hughes proved a natural as a debt collector.

However, he had other plans. Having noticed the huge underground popularity of "Big Five", an obscene version of Brooke Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia", Hughes hoped for a quick follow-up single to spin. When this failed to materialise, he used the title of another Prince Buster song and became Judge Dread. In Jamaican patois, "dread" is an abbreviation of "natty dread" - i.e. the Rastafarian with dreadlocks - and can also mean anything serious. (A variant of the same name - Judge Dredd - was used independently for the 2000 AD cartoon character on which the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie was based.)

A big, burly, blond, balding Englishman taking up this alias was ironic to say the least, but Judge Dread proceeded then to cut a demo entitled "Little Boy Blue" in a small studio (it cost him pounds 8). In 1972, he presented this track to Trojan's in-house production team of Webster Shrowder, Desmond Bryant and Joe Sinclair. As the last recalled in a subsequent interview: "When Dread brought in his demo, we didn't exactly think it was a national hit but we reckoned we could pick up something around the region of 70,000 sales with the help of a change of title.

"You see, the Judge called it `Little Boy Blue', whereas I thought `Big Six' would create interest by making the association with Prince Buster's `Big Five' more obvious. It sold 300,000 copies and spent 27 weeks in the British charts. In 1973, it even made No 1 in Africa."

Many thought Judge Dread was the genuine article and the scratchy, rootsy sound of follow-up singles like "Big Seven" and "Big Eight" stands up well with comparison of Jamaican recordings of the period. Indeed, these tracks were often adaptations of popular sides of the times (using Jamaican musicians - like the guitarist Ernest Ranglin - who had settled in Britain), peppered by Dread and Fred Lemon with lyrics bawdy enough to give Mary Whitehouse or the BBC governors a heart attack.

In 1974, the singer left Trojan's offshoot Big Shot label and signed to Cactus Records. The following year, he cut a hilarious version of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's "Je t'aime (moi non plus)" which was even more daring than the heavy-breathing original (the Judge mistakenly fondling a transvestite) and became another Top 10 entry. "Big Ten" and "Christmas in Dreadland" followed, the latter backed by a revival of "Come Outside" much spicier than Mike Sarne and Wendy Richard's (of EastEnders fame) 1962 original.

Dread carried on with covers, adapting Chuck Berry's banned "My Ding- a-ling" and Sylvia's "Y Viva Espana" tastefully retitled "Y Viva Suspenders". "The Winkle Man" and "The Fifth Anniversary EP" - containing, along with "Big Everything", the truly filthy "Jamaica Jerk (Off)" supposedly written by Elton John but in fact a reworking of one of his tracks - proved minor hits for Judge Dread, whose shocking antics and saucy lyrics had by then been eclipsed or in some cases emulated by Punk. His "Up With the Cock/Big Punk" wasn't really needed when the Sex Pistols - sans Johnny Rotten - could record "No One Is Innocent" with the train-robber Ronnie Biggs, have Sid Vicious butcher "My Way" or praise the joys of "Friggin' in the Riggin' ".

Judge Dread milked his cockney following with "Hokey Cokey/Jingle Bells" on EMI for Christmas 1978 but soon settled into semi-retirement. He wrote a column for his local paper, did an opportunist cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax", oversaw a budget compilation of his catalogue (Big Fourteen and Ska'd For Life were the latest), played the odd ska revival gig with British bands like the Selecter or Bad Manners.

His stage act, mixing vaudeville, music hall, single entendres and damn- right cheek was undoubtedly a major influence on Ian Dury (check out "Razzle In My Pocket", the B side of "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll") and Buster Bloodvessel, who used to end Bad Manners' shows by baring his huge buttocks, a very Judge Dread move indeed.

In America, skacore bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Smashmouth and No Doubt have taken up the shuffling bluebeat rhythms already revived in the late Seventies by the Specials and Madness and merged them with grunge. Little do they realise that until Friday they had a very naughty British uncle called Judge Dread who was way ahead of Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown. Judge Dread's ribald, robust humour was the very antithesis of political correctness.

Pierre Perrone

Alex Hughes (Judge Dread), singer/songwriter: born c1945; died Canterbury, Kent 13 March 1998.