The strange, sad, ultimately hopeful tale of Musical Youth, one-hit wonders in ’82 with the ebullient “Pass the Dutchie.” I love that song.
- Musical Youth’s 1982 single Pass the Dutchie sold 5m copies. They broke America. They were the first black artists to be played on MTV – beating Michael Jackson by several months. But their stardom never transcended its era. Seaton’s tales are thick with dimly remembered names. They were regulars on Razzmatazz, Tyne Tees’s unlamented pop show. They worked on a film with The A Team’s Mr T. Irene Cara, singer of Fame and Flashdance, guested onstage. Throw in a commentary by Stuart Maconie and some footage of people wearing deely boppers and you’ve got yourself a BBC2 nostalgia show.
What started out as a jaunty celebration of multi-cultural British youth ended as a cautionary tale about the perils of naivety in the music industry. Like all tales from rock’s dark side, it involved drugs, mental instability, lawlessness, financial wranglings and premature death. In this tale, however, the people who got in trouble, went mad and died had barely hit puberty at the height of their success.
Eating lunch in a gaudy Birmingham leisure complex, keyboard player Michael Grant is aware that Musical Youth has become a byword for child stardom’s misery. “Black artists get ripped off, child stars get ripped off,” he says. “We were doomed from the start, really.”
….Grant was nine years old in 1979, when he and his guitarist brother Kelvin, then seven, joined Musical Youth. They had formed at the behest of a family friend, Freddie Waite, once a singer in Jamaican vocal trio the Techniques. Waite had left the band in 1966, emigrated to England and ended up in Nechells, in inner-city Birmingham. Waite encouraged his sons, Patrick and Junior, to take up bass and drums respectively. When the Grant brothers joined them, they became his backing band.
“We used to do a lot of pubs and clubs with this 35-year-old man when we were between the ages of seven and 12,” says Grant. “This old guy next to a bunch of kids! Kelvin’s hands were so small they could only just reach around the fretboard of his guitar. It was odd, but we got a favourable reaction. We could play our instruments.”
….Musical Youth’s first single for MCA was a version of the Mighty Diamonds’ Rastafarian anthem Pass the Kouchie, with the lyrics and title famously altered to avoid any reference to marijuana. Driven by Kelvin Grant’s exuberant toasting – a kind of Jamaican proto-rapping, then entirely alien to a British pop audience – Pass the Dutchie entered the charts at number 26 on September 25. The next week it leapt to number one. It was a hit across Europe. It reached the top 10 in America. They recorded with Donna Summer. Michael Jackson took a shine to them. “I was one of those kids that’s been in his bedroom,” says Grant indignantly, “and nothing untoward happened.”
….By the late 1990s, Musical Youth had passed into history. The sound of Pass the Dutchie became a sort of musical shorthand for a less manufactured era of pop. In 1998, Seaton’s former manager David Morgan heard it on the soundtrack of 1980s-themed romantic comedy hit The Wedding Singer. “I rang Dennis and said, ‘You must be earning a lot of money. He said no. The members of Musical Youth had not received any royalty accounting from their record label since 1986, which was diabolical. Just the use on The Wedding Singer earned about £20,000.”
It took him two and a half years to sort through Musical Youth’s business affairs.”Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ,” said Universal’s spokesman, when Morgan launched a £2m claim for unpaid royalties, damages and interest on the money owed Musical Youth. “I sent something like 10,000 letters,” he sighs. “They tried to wear me down by ignoring me.” In December 2002, MCA/Universal settled out of court. Morgan cannot divulge exact figures but claims “it amounts to close on a seven-figure sum. In the end, the record company were embarrassed about it.”
In addition, he has convinced the label to release a Musical Youth compilation. Seaton and Grant plan to promote it with some club dates and a 1980s package tour. “Everyone remembers Musical Youth,” says Seaton. [Guardian]
A sweet song of communal harmony among the downtrodden from the mouths of babes – powerful stuff, I hope they find peace.