Sad news for followers of vintage roots music: The Mighty Jah Observer Original Valve Sound System’s founder and selector, Austin ‘Spiderman’ Palmer is retiring from the sound business.

He leaves behind a legacy of memories including his annual spot at London’s Notting Hill Carnival on the corner of Talbot and Ledbury Road, and has introduced many a youngster to a forgotten classic or three. For his third and possibly final interview with Spider Angus Taylor asked him about his story and the music that has guided him along the way.

Last time we spoke in 2007 you talked about leaving the UK and retiring. Is that still happening?

Yes, God willing. Next year we’ll do [Notting Hill] Carnival, which will be our last Carnival. We’ll do some going away dances and then that’s it. Hopefully by the end of 2011 we’ll be in Morant Bay St Thomas. I’m from Clarendon originally, a country boy from up in the hills – a place called Smithville – but my parents are down in St Thomas so it’s near them and it’s a nice quiet area with not a lot of excitement.

When did you come over from Jamaica?

When I was a little boy, man. About five, six years old, my parents sent me over because they didn’t want me to carry buckets of water on my head – that’s what my mum told me anyway! (laughs) I think it was Sydenham, Norwood – I’ve always been South London.

When did you first get involved in the music?

Everyone says from when they are a baby but for me it literally was. My first memory was walking up to one of those old Bluebeat grams with the records that all piled up, walking through a sea of legs to put my hand on the turntable and touch the record before I remember someone catching my hand!

Do you remember the record?

No!! (laughs) But that’s always stuck in my head, I don’t know why! From there I always liked music. At school, when other people were using their dinner money to buy Wagon Wheels and stuff like that, I was running round the corner to a shop called Diamonds. U Roy was the top dog at the time and then this new guy Big Youth came, who was younger and I was running down there to buy the new Big Youth album – that’s where my dinner money went.

How much did an album cost back then?

5 and 6 [shillings/pence] (laughs) It was expensive man!

How did your sound get started?

I did a paper round, saved up some money and bought a DJ preamp in Edgeware Road. I bought two BSF turntables, built a cabinet and homemade amplifier and I was away. This was in late ’68 – ’69 -’70.
In the late Sixties I was playing at school dances – Friday clubs and then I built my own sound called Tippertone ’68 – ’69 -’70. The problem was there were so many sounds called Tippertone! There was Tippertone in North London, Tippertone in East London and you’re trying to be original but you’re seeing posters for dances and there are Tippertones all over the place!
We were just trying to find a name by looking at record labels. so there was Downtown, there was Green Door, the old Trojan label. But I used to go to all the sound system dances because I wanted to build a sound and I was inquisitive. I used to sneak out to see Coxsone, Shaka, Fatman, Danny King and have a look at their equipment. I was always by the turntables and then one day one of them said to me, “Yuh always a observe!” and because I was still trying to find a name to replace Tippertone I thought, “yeah, Observer, that’s all right!” And because there was already an Observer record label I called it the Mighty Observer.

Did you play many of Niney’s tunes then?

Yes! And still do! (laughs)

How did you start playing at Notting Hill Carnival?

That was through working at Rough Trade. They used to have a shop in Kensington Gardens and one day I said to Geoff [Travis] “Geoff, can I play my sound outside and get my power from you?” and he said, “Yeah”. That was the eighties sometime but don’t pin me down, I’m terrible with dates and times and things!

What did you do when the music changed and moved away from your preferred tastes in the eighties?

The thing is, every sound has its own personality because the sound is part of your personality. When I was into music I always used to listen to lyrics. That was how I became Rasta by listening to what the guys were singing and music taught me a lot of things. I heard things in music before I even realized they were in the bible!

And because music taught me, I thought that if I’m going to play music it should be something that inspires people, makes you think and helps you be better even if you’re out there enjoying yourself. That’s why certain generations are the way they are now because the music they play is so violent.

I’m not saying it wasn’t violent in our time but this is teaching something different. They say love but their actions are completely different. Little kids can be listening to the radio and they’re singing filth so toddlers could be singing the tune without knowing it. I can’t play stupidness, basically.

Would you say as a sound system selector there are certain tunes that work on a sound but not at home and vice versa?

Yes. I have tunes at home that I call “house tunes”. I play them at home and then people say, “why don’t you carry that out and play that?” and I’m like, “Hmmmm, it’s alright for the house but I don’t think it would be alright for outside”. And then so many times I’ve gone out to another dance and played with another sound, and then someone else has taken the tune I said wasn’t going to work and played it – and it worked! (laughs)

Have you ever taken a tune you knew wouldn’t work out and played it anyway?

Yes, when I’m trying to get rid of people! (laughs) And it still doesn’t work! You try to play some really old tunes to get rid of the people and tell them, “Last one, last one” and they’re still there. So then you think, “Right I’ll dig out this old tune, this’ll get rid of them” and when you play it a big cheer goes up!

But there’ve been many tunes I’ve put on and thought, “Uh oh, I shouldn’t have played that” because you can tell with the vibes and you have to pick the vibes back up again. There are certain tunes you can only play when the place is packed that won’t work when there are only a few people around because it’s a different vibe. So you have to play certain tunes at certain times.

But then sometimes you go to another dance and think, “Yes” This tune tear down the place!” and you don’t get the same reaction so it’s all on the night with the vibes.

Do you see your role as to educate as well as entertain?

I’d like to think so! People will come to me at Carnival, because Carnival’s the only time where I think can say, “If you’re coming to listen to the sound, don’t ask me “have you got this?” OK?” I’m even playing “house tunes”! So a lot of people come to the Carnival because they want to hear those one away tunes, those old tunes, some obscure singer. I’ve got this saying, “We nuh ‘fraid ah tune!” so while I’ve got the popular tunes like the Burning Spear Marcus Garvey I’ve also got some obscure tune by…. Robinson… what’s his name…

Dave Robinson?

Yes! Dave Robinson. And a lot of people will say, “Dave Robinson? Who’s he?” but when they hear the tune they’ll think, “Oh! Is that Dave Robinson?” Because there are a lot of singers who’ve got tunes and a lot of history and yet people don’t even know about them. The guys who got up there and were the forerunners and made the way for Burning Spear or Dennis Brown. So I’m like, “They’re dead and gone and everything but listen to this. This by such and such or you might know the version by so and so” and when I start playing people say, “Yeah man! I got the version!” “Me ‘ave ‘dis version!” Yeah but do you have THAT version? (laughs)

What do you think of modern relicks of old rhythms like, say Shane Brown’s Stagalag?

It still comes over. There’s nothing wrong with it because that’s how it’s been done for years. I’ll go to a shop nowadays and hear a new cut of something and they’ll have about six, seven, eight versions of it but because I’m not a radio DJ I’ll only buy two that I think are the best. But when I go to play I still end up playing the old one!

Is there a tune still out there that causes you distress because it’s not in your box?

My answer for that is, “any good tune”! (laughs) Loads of tunes! I’m a sound system man! Ask any sound system man – there’s always a tune! You could have The British Library full of tunes but you’d be saying, “I heard a tune the other day! Who’s that tune by?” That never stops.

I remember the first time I heard that Studio 1 rhythm People’s Choice. I think I was driving somewhere and I heard it on the radio and I thought, “What’s that? How come I haven’t got that? Naaaaahhhhh man I’ve got to get that tune!”

So I went down to Dub Vendor when it was in Ladbroke Grove and I said, “I can’t remember the name. I can’t remember the riddim” and I felt so bad because I know what it’s like working on that side of the counter when someone’s saying “I don’t know the name but it’s a Studio 1 riddim saying something about People’s Choice!” And they didn’t know what I was talking about! It was about three or four weeks of hunting before I heard it on the radio again and found it. Tunes like that – even now – don’t come in quantity. You might get a hundred – fifty in London and fifty in Birmingham. If you miss it – it’s gone.

Until it turns up on Ebay for a hundred pounds.

But I won’t be buying it! (laughs)

Angus Taylor