The In-Crowd were a reggae band whose roots go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s and whose sound has been described as a mixture of soul, jazz, R’n’B and reggae. They had several big hits in England and Jamaica in the mid to late 1970s and by the early 1980s the band’s lead singer, Fil Callender, was perfoming on his own. The band’s core members were the legendary Studio One bass player Earl “Bagga” Walker, the drummer Cleveland Browne, the trombonist Barry Bailey, and Fil Callender on guitar and lead vocals.
Fil Callender’s band had been performing as a show band for the tourists on Jamaica’s north coast since the late 1960s. Working as a dance band or as a show band meant that the group had to be able to play all kinds of musical styles like soul, jazz, cocktail music, R’n’B and of course the latest international pop hits. That experience would serve the band in good stead and would help them later on to develop their own eclectic sound.
In late 1976 the In-Crowd’s “Born in Ethiopia” was released on Fil Calender’s own Evolution label. It was a Burning Spear-style, horn-filled roots number which echoed the main preoccupations of the reggae community at the time: African roots and the search for identity. The song featured some strong keyboards and synthesizers too, which made for a rootsy but modern sound, an approach the In-Crowd would never stray too far from. That song was so popular that it was covered by the Black British reggae band The Cimarons and their live recording Live at Roundhouse (Polydor, 1978) features a blistering version of that roots number, complete with some wild rock guitar.
Their next 45 was released in January 1977 and was entitled “His Majesty is Coming”. It did very well and immediately entered the reggae charts in England. The song has an irrestibly upbeat and bright sound, with once again great horns and a driving rhythm. It has remained perenially popular with the West Indian and Black British community in England and is regularly played by their radio stations.
Next came “We Play Reggae”, an underrated number which is maybe their most gripping song. The lyrics are mere fluff, but the greatness of the song lies in its dubby arrangements, Fil Calender’s falsetto vocals and the instrumentation. It all amounts to a mixture of soul and reggae with a very heavy dub sound. It is certainly one of the most atmospheric reggae track produced and is still popular today on the revive circuit. But their most popular track has remained “Back a Yard” which went straight to the top of the reggae charts in England in May 1978. As the title indicates it is a song about Jamaica (“yard” in Jamaican English) and it immediately struck a chord with the Jamaican and Black British community in England (“We wanna go, we wanna go and dally/Back a yard. We wanna lick some cally back a yard. I wanna see, I wanna see my mummy back a yard; I wanna meet my daddy back a yard. We wanna know our country back a yard”). The driving bass line and sweet harmonies (again the soul influence) made this nostalgic tune irresistible.
In June 1978 the In Crowd’s first album, His Majesty is Coming, was released and got fairly good reviews in the British music press.
The next hit was “Baby My Love” which was released with a version by the deejay Jah Stitch and an instrumental by the trombonist Barry Bailey. That song was credited to Fil Callender and the backing band was the In Crowd. It is a good example of “lovers’ rock”, a type of British reggae which was a cross between American soul and Jamaican music. Lovers’ rock usually features strong Jamaican-style basslines, keyboards, fluid guitar work and sweet soul harmonies. The style was pioneered in England by producers like Dennis Bovell and Clem Bushay, and its early stars were Louisa Mark and Carrol Thompson. “Baby My Love”, with its sweet piano intro, is quintessential lovers’ rock.
In November 1979 the band’s second album, Man From New Guinea, was released by Island. That LP contained the roots tune “Marcus Garvey’s Back in Town” (“Marcus Garvey’s back in town/ What a revelation, yeah”) which, despite a strong bass line and a dubby sound, was marred by weird-sounding keyboards. The song entitled “Dedicated to Jah” had a very American sound and thus combined a roots theme with a soul musical backing, and this was quite unusual at the time. Unfortunately the title track, in spite of the admirable lyrics, failed to take off and was burdened with a plodding rhythm and unconvincing arrangements. But the album had its moments, with the lovers’-rock-influenced “Getting Cosy”, “Everybody Wants to Be Loved” and “In My Arms”, which were all characterised by good musicianship and strong “riddims”.
By the early 1980s Fil Callender was releasing records under his own name but the In-Crowd was probably still his backing band. 1981 saw the release of the 12-inch “Life” which is a wondefully bright and optimistic tune guaranteed to cheer you up any time. It has a sweet yet heavy pop sound and an optimistic message about overcoming the obstacles in our lives.
The early 1980s were the time when the In-Crowd folded for good and their members went their separate ways. Fil Callender continued to release records on his own. Cleveland Browne went on to become one half of the dancehall duo Steelie and Clevie who revolutionised production techniques and dancehall music in the 1990s. His drumming skills certainly came in handy in the programming of digital riddims. Listening to the In-Crowd’s work today makes you realise what an astounding dummer he was.
The In-Crowd’s contribution to reggae music is on a par with that of the early Inner Circle or Third World as they cleverly fused together Jamaican music and American soul to come up with a pop yet heavy sound. Unfortunately they had to face some strong competition from the two bands mentioned above and have remained relatively obscure outside the reggae community.
Luckily in 2005 Trojan Records/Sanctuary released a two-CD compilation which gathers the band’s two LPs together with some singles like “Life” (His Majesty is Coming, 2005). The CDs are accompanied by a lavishly illustrated booklet which features some detailed and extensive liner notes by Michael de Koningh. Hopefully this compilation will give the band some long-deserved wider exposure.
De Koningh, Michael. Liner notes to His Majesty is Coming (Trojan/Sanctuary, 2005).