Let the Good Times roll! Dan Carrier revels in Norman Jay’s autobiography
31 October, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Norman Jay. Photo: Dean Chalkley
LONDON is a cultural pressure cooker: a pot full of sources, seasoned well with global influences, that blend it all together and creates something new.
Norman Jay grew up in London of the 1960s and 70s, absorbed this environment and then siphoned it through his talent to become one of the best-known and best-loved DJs in the world.
His autobiography, Mister Good Times, starts in the rundown streets of Ladbroke Grove and takes us through a career that has made him a household name.
He describes growing up in a predominantly white working-class environment, of a childhood spent using Red Rover tickets to explore the city, of buying LPs at Shepherd’s Bush market, and the work ethic his mother and father instilled.
Norman is the oldest of six children. His father moved to Britain in the 1950s and studied civil engineering at night school; he would became a senior planning engineer for London Transport.
“At a time when there seemed to be an intergenerational stand-off between Caribbean immigrants and their born-in-Britain children, I was fortunate to have parents who were understanding and supportive,” writes Norman.
“For example, when we were running the sound system Dad would always come and help, and I have to give him real props for that.”
He describes how he became an avid Spurs supporter, poignantly recalling how he was treated by older Spurs fans who were colour blind in an era when terrace racism was normal. He’d be passed down over heads so he could find a spot at the front, and was always treated with respect and kindness. Later, he’d run with football crews, supporting Spurs across the country and getting in and out of scrapes.
We are walked through the early days of the Good Times sound system, which made Norman’s name as a performer.
He and Good Times will always be associated with the Notting Hill Carnival. As a youngster he would go with his family but would slip off to play football as quickly as he could.
But Carnival took on a whole new aspect when he was a teenager. Norman’s brother Joey had built a reggae system called Great Tribulation – and it meant when Norman wanted to use the boxes for his soul and rare groove sets at Carnival, he could call it Good Times as the GT, sprayed on the side of the speakers with a hint of red, green and gold on the logo, looked fitting.
Norman describes how he cased out number 37 Cambridge Garden as a spot when Good Times first played.
“Looking at the front garden I had it all pictured in my head: set up my decks there; the amps could sit just there; speaker boxes on each side; run the power line into the house through the front window… it was perfect, so I knocked on the door,” he recalls. “Three white guys answered. I immediately thought they’d be up for it. This was 1980, before gentrification, so a lot of the houses were squats or low-rent properties, where residents had a more open attitude.”
He speaks of the early days, and how it has become the biggest festival in Europe today, offering a balanced view as to the issues that surround the event. Carnival meant a lot to his parents’ generation – and as he became involved, he began to better understand its role in the lives of black Londoners.
He speaks of how racism directly affected him – though not in terms of his friendships, and the cultural milieu he moved through that ignored the colour of his skin. But he saw first hand the rough and bigoted treatment the police could dish out.
“The Special Patrol group were particularly vicious and at that time seemed like an army of occupation at Ladbroke Grove,” he recalls.
“That was one of the most important things about going to Carnival: the environment the music was played in as much as the music itself.
Around the streets on those three days, everywhere you looked you saw black people enjoying themselves… relaxed. Of course, Old Bill was there, but they weren’t going pull a person for smoking a spliff, it was like ‘OK, it’s Carnival, you’ve got a pass’.”
From moving to playing house parties (his father remembered accompanying his sons to a party in Acklam Road and realised it was the house he spent his first night in London in: semi-derelict, he had climbed to the attic so he wouldn’t be found) the next step for Good Times was warehouses.
It was the mid-1980s and Norman describes a city full of empty spaces in great locations. They played in blocks on the Thames, which are now posh hotels but at the time were soaring and empty hulks. Camden Town’s industrial past left places for raves – he joined forces with Kentish Town-based DJ Judge Jules, teaming up to run parties in railway arches in Pancras Road – now demolished for the HS1 terminal.
“The music was absolutely crap, the sound system kept breaking down, but I loved it,” he says of the first warehouse rave he went to in Clerkenwell.
“I loved the crowd! It was full of post-punk party types, creatures of the night. Ne’er-do-wells, punks, the homeless… I loved the dark-side mix of people. There were even a few Rastas in there… a few gays in there… to me, this was my Utopia crowd.”
Our music culture is perhaps our most successful modern export and Norman’s influence on this cannot be overstated. He has become a beacon for what London should be about: inclusive, warm, kind, a city that in current times we can easily forget exists.
His autobiography reflects his character, revealing an inspirational person, and someone who has provided his fellow Londoners with one hell of a soundtrack to dance on the streets to.
• Mister Good Times. By Norman Jay. Little, Brown £20