Reggae Royalty: a Conversation with Tony Chin and Ronnie McQueen

Claude Fontaine interviews the legends about the legacy of reggae’s international explosion and the curiously kindred spirit it found in punk.

Tony Chin is a founding member of the iconic reggae session band Soul Syndicate; Ronnie McQueen was an original member of Steel Pulse, the roots reggae group formed in Birmingham, England; Claude Fontaine, a Los Angeles-based musician, is a fan and collaborator of both of theirs. She recently interviewed them via email; here you can read their thoughts on playing a part in reggae’s international explosion, the story behind Steel Pulse’s name, and the curiously kindred spirits of punk and reggae. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor

Claude Fontaine: Ronnie, Tony, thank you both so much for your time today. What an absolute treat it is for me to be able to ask the two of you about your life and deeply inspiring careers. Let’s jump right in and start from the very beginning. Where are you both from originally and at what age did your interest in music begin?

Tony Chin: I am from Kingston, Jamaica and my interest in music started as a little boy, as music was always playing wherever you’d go in Jamaica. I was in the drum corp when I was a Boy Scout and then I started singing and learning to play guitar with my friends when I was a teenager. We were all self-taught musicians and many of us played homemade instruments to start out.

Ronnie McQueen: Morant Bay, Jamaica; I guess my first interest in music was around the age of three or four. My father used to host parties (also known as Blues Dance) at our home. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to attend, but I would stay awake as long as I could and listen. I would be in bed in the attic. I could hear everything. The parties would go on through the night ‘til daylight.

Claude: What ignited that initial spark in music?

Ronnie: At 12 or 13 I was at school in the UK. During break times we weren’t allowed in the school — had to stay in the playground. Winter was too cold. I noticed that band and choir members were allowed to be inside to practice, so I joined the band and the choir. No more cold breaks. I played trumpet in the band.

Tony: My love of music and girls, knowing that girls always like musicians!!!!  

Claude: What were the most influential records for you when you began playing music?

Tony: Well, rocksteady which is what I grew up on, such as the Melodians, Paragons, Alton Ellis, Jimmy Cliff and the Wailers, as well as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Motown music.

Ronnie: I have many influences. The first to hit hard was The Wailers’ Catch A Fire. I instantly could relate to the little more sophistication of roots reggae. Then there was Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey. That was simply raw roots. My lovers side fell in love with Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

Claude: What was your family’s reaction to your pursuit of music?

Ronnie: My family was supportive of my doing music, but they didn’t think I would make any money. In fact, my father bought my first guitar because I was still in school. Was an acoustic from a fire salvage sale. It was singed, but played fine.

Tony: My parents didn’t say a lot one way or another as they were always busy working and trying to make a living. However, my father bought me my first guitar off a drunken man he met on the street, which only had two strings on it. So I guess he supported it, and he also saw that I was serious about it and how we practiced every night well into the night.

Claude: What has been the most creatively and spiritually fulfilling experience of your career thus far?

Tony: Having such a long and diverse music career has been the most fulfilling thing. To still feel passionate about music, and in particular Jamaican reggae; playing to audiences in many countries where they don’t speak English, yet they are still singing and dancing along with the music and connecting with the intent and message of the music.

Ronnie: Spiritually fulfilling experiences, I’m sure there’s a bunch. The ones I remember are when people show genuine joy after a performance — I think maybe because they felt what I felt. That is a oneness. But the king experiences… When a band locks totally in sync in live performance, but it’s very rare. Imagine the whole band on a surfboard: Every slight movement, all people on that board react and adjust the exact same way and amount. I’ve always called it magic; didn’t know what else to name it. But once you experience it, you will always be trying to find it again. Elusive. By the way, I’ve never been on a surfboard, but I get it.

Claude: What is the greatest gift music has given you?

Tony Chin: To be able to do what I love for a living and to be able to create through music.  Also, being able to travel the world and share our music, message, and talents is a great gift.

Ronnie: Music’s gift has been free spirit. Roam in and out of melodies, sometimes dive deeper, sometimes try something just to see what the effect [would be]. Sometimes one thing leads to another random act. Exploration. [It’s] not for the scared. Also, what you get from inside music, you tend to apply to your outside life.

Claude: What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Tony Chin: To be part of the history of reggae music and to help create the riddims of some of the greatest songs ever from the golden years of reggae; that our music lives on and we have influenced many younger generation of musicians that looked up and learned from we and see us as their mentors; leaving music for future generations to listen to.

Ronnie: My personal achievement I would say most of all is my differentness. Not even sure what it is exactly, but it exists, as I do. And so it should be. Don’t think I even want to examine the workings, else I start manufacturing it. Then it will turn into processed food. Then, you will be next; remember the saying, “you are what you eat.”

Claude: Who are your heroes?

Ronnie: I’ve always stayed close to the ones that are consistent, the ones that always sound good no matter what they do. The ones that always feel, never lose their touch, never fall. They be the ones that make the Earth spin. Or is it, we revolve around them! 

I already said a few of my favorites; add Chaka Khan and Miles Davis. But I would put Bob Marley on top, because when you add a person’s character into the judgement you really start clearing out the contenders. A person who is a great musician, but terrible human being… Should they be really looked at as a hero? Yeah, sometimes I, too, just take the musical part and isolate that from the rest. Have to. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t like hardly anybody. Bob Marley on top cause he was and is real in all departments.

Tony: Too many to mention, but I most respect people who have stood up for truths, rights, and justice over the years, such as Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Malcom x, Martin Luther King, and Peter Tosh.

Claude: Tony, what was the music scene like in Jamaica like when you first started playing shows and recording? Was there a sense of excitement over reggae music gaining attention from all corners of the globe?

Tony: It was a very exciting and creative time. When we first started, we had no idea our music and culture would gain the attention of people outside of Jamaica and the Caribbean. It was much more challenging than now, as musicians were expected to play and most of the time create music for the producers in a very short period of time. It was a whole different vibe then compared to now, and I have great memories of those many sessions. We did not even have phones then, so producers or artists would come pick us up at our yard and take us to the studio or come to tell use to be at such and such time at a certain studio for a session the following day. We were not given music to study before and were expected to show up to the studio and just being creating music. It was also fulfilling to record with artists that I had grown up listening to on the radio such as Jimmy Cliff and John Holt.

Claude: How did you start working with the Riddim Raiders (which eventually became The Soul Syndicate)? How did that group of musicians come together?

Tony: There was a shoemaker named Algon that had some guitars and a homemade drum set that wanted to put a band together so I took him to Fully’s [George Fullwood] yard to meet Fully’s father, Mr B, and that is how it got started. We did that for about a year, and then Fully’s father bought more equipment and his brother came up with name Soul Syndicate and other musicians came in such as Cleon Douglas and Glen Adams. Horsemouth and Wya Lindo and we started playing around at different schools and other shows. Then Bunny Lee took us in the studio, and the songs were hits, so then many other producers such as Lee Scratch Perry wanted to use us to record. We started playing on many big stage shows in Jamaica and then eventually abroad. My first time to travel on a plane was to Cuba with Carl Dawkins; we flew in and out of Cuba the same day! Many well-known musicians passed through Soul Syndicate, and at one point Dennis Brown was our lead vocalist, and Freddie McGregor.

Claude: Ronnie, how did you meet your bandmates and what was the journey to forming Steel Pulse? Rumor has it, you named the band after a racehorse… 

Ronnie: We were in school together. Three of us decided to form a band; one already played guitar, the other had recently started taking guitar lessons from the art teacher. Those were the days when guitars ruled, but they had been already taken, so I said “OK, I’ll play bass then!” I never even seen a bass up close before, never mind actually touch one. Was still going to be a few years before I held one. I learned bass on an acoustic guitar. I was already playing trumpet in the school brass band, but this was a new ball game. We just practiced together on acoustic guitars while learning how to play at the same time. The person we chose to play drums at school never owned a kit, so we were also waiting on him to get his act together, but he already could play good. He never got it together, so we carried on, practiced and learned. 

After a few years, we started moving forward to electric instruments. I [was] finally learning on a real bass. We started having our own ideas. Guess that’s what happens when you don’t leave the cabin to play gigs. Anyway, we decided we weren’t going to do any shows ‘til we thought we sounded good. Whenever we did go play, we should drop it like a ton of bricks — that was our expression. We did do the odd very low key gigs, but for specific purpose of helping buy equipment like a microphone, etc. 

Some time had passed since we left school. We were ready, but we didn’t have a name. We all decided to think of a name, and after a few days choose the best. I tried to conjure up the best band name in the history of mankind, like “Sons Of Blood,” for example. But everything I thought didn’t seem to fit. Then I remembered my dad would bet on horses, so I got the newspapers and looked at the races. I picked a few. Some I altered, some I kept the same. Day of reckoning, still wasn’t committed to any, but I offered a couple. One was Steel Pulse. That’s what we decided on. Funny thing is, Bob Marley’s record label was called Tuff Gong. Steel Pulse meant basically the same thing. 

What I’ve learned since then is that it’s the band that gives meaning and seriousness to a name. Same as people in everyday life.

Claude: What was the experience like playing reggae music in punk rock clubs in London in the ‘70s? Explain how that came to be. How was the music received in that kind of punk rock environment?

Ronnie: The punk scene liked reggae. I don’t know how come. Probably same like the skinheads before them love reggae. Don’t know how come there, either. But we were on shows that included punk bands more and more. They liked us. We became friends with some of them. Sex Pistols, Billy Idol and Generation X, The Stranglers, The Slits, Boomtown Rats, The Police. We just did our thing. The punk scene had a disregard for the establishment. We had some common ground there. Don’t know if the reasons were the same, though. But everything seemed to work out. I had to wear dark glasses on stage. Their dancing would mess up my rhythm if I saw too much. Didn’t like the spitting, which was how they showed apprecation. Sometimes artists like Billy Idol would come on stage during our show and tell them, these guys don’t like that kind of stuff.

Claude: What is your motto?

Tony: Simply to do good and good will follow, and basically to treat others as I would like to be treated.

Ronnie: You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it… If you really want to do it.

Claude Fontaine is an American girl with a French name who never felt like she fit in anywhere she happened to call home, and one particular year she was awash in a grey London fog that matched the fog and grey in her own too-recently broken heart. While living right off Portobello Road, she stumbled into the record store down the street. And in a flash of luck — or fate — that particular record store turned out to be Honest Jon’s, a long-lived spot for records collected from the furthest edges of the world. She’d never heard those old Studio One and Trojan and Treasure Isle reggae and rocksteady and dub records before — the same records that got the Clash covering “Police And Thieves,” and the Slits sharing a bill with Steel Pulse. And she’d never heard bossa nova and tropicalia and Brazil’s incandescent música popular brasileira, either. But instantly, she understood — it was exactly and perfectly everything she didn’t know she needed.

And because she loved those records so much, she decided to make a record of her own — an album singing her own love songs (with Jane Birkin-style ye-ye elan) that was itself a love song to classic reggae and Brazilian music, and an album honoring that feeling of finding a home away from home. Ferociously inspired, she demo-ed a set of songs about heartbreak and loneliness, and drafted a wish list of musicians she’d hope would help out. At the top were guitarist Tony Chin, whose playing with Althea and Donna, King Tubby, Dennis Brown and so many more very arguably defined a gigantic part of the classic reggae sound, and Airto Moreira, the Brazilian drummer whose work both solo and in collaboration — with Miles Davis, Astrud Gilberto, Chick Corea, Annette Peacock — make him an actual living legend.

But after diligent detective work — long chains of emails and voicemails, tracing between LA industry veterans and globetrotting photographers and the label that would put out her finished record, though she didn’t know that yet — she found them. Then she sent them her demos. Then they said yes.

She finished her album in two potent sessions with Chin, Moreira and a murderer’s row of their connections — bassist Ronnie McQueen of Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley drummer Rock Deadrick, Now Again Records guitarist Fabiano Do Nascimento, Sergio Mendes percussionist Gibi Dos Santos and Flora Purim bassist Andre De Santanna. Side A is the reggae, five songs about love gone wrong that sound like they came out of Jamaica in the early 70s; side B wasn’t specifically designed to be the bossa or Brazilian side, but that’s how it worked out. All together, it’s a valentine to this special music that called out to her from the other side of the planet.