The strange origin of the UK Reggae big bass sound: John Hassell Recordings, Barnes.

Britain had developed a strong Reggae culture of its own by the mid-1970’s. Reggae, and its predecessors like Ska, naturally seeped into the UK via the communities of immigrants who had come to the country from Jamaica since the late 1940’s. Britain’s pop tendencies have often been to take music from the west (usually America) and re-imagine it and sell it to the world. Reggae was similarly absorbed and reinvented and this process was often led by the children of the original Jamaican immigrants.

There is a brilliant series of BBC documentaries under the heading of “—— Britannia” where the history of a particular genre in the UK is traced from origins through to where it sits now. The Reggae Britannia film is particularly good. It’s not available on YouTube but until it is shown again on the BBC, you can currently see it here. It’s highly recommended.

One story that leapt out from the documentary (at about 46 minutes in) is of strange goings on in the leafy London suburb of Barnes. The John Hassell Recordings studio was based in a residential house in a quiet street – Nasser Roaud – in the area. It’s output was to feed British Reggae Sound Systems throughout the country.

Olympic Studios was just round the corner in Church Road. So while Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles were working in one street, John Hassell was working with a different clientele in the next. He was a jobbing recording and mastering engineer who had a small label of mainly middle of the road (and unsuccessful) artists. This is an example of a John Hassell Recordings label from his company which is explained in more detail here.

In 1977 Dennis Bovell who was a leading figure in UK Reggae came into his life.

Bovell explains in the documentary: “Whilst thumbing through the yellow pages one time looking for a place to cut an acetate I found Hassell Recordings. Phoned up. Gone over there, (found) an elderly gentleman who was famed for smoking a big fat cigar: John Hassell. And we’d go into his house, his living room and he’s got this wonderful German disc cutting lathe set up in his front room. And his wife Felicity offered us a cup of tea, a cup of coffee and then we’d put on these tapes, this like reggae.” This picture is a screen grab and shows John and Felicity meeting clients (please excuse the poor quality, photos of the Hassells are elusive):

Bovell continued: “Imagine stumbling on that through the yellow pages like. And then we were telling other people listen that we’d found the guy that knows how to cut reggae. You can have a fantastic sounding thing on the tape and then it all falls to pieces at the cutting end of things. And someone who was sympathetic to the frequencies would know how to capture that sound from the tape and onto the disc and John was the master of that”

John Hassell just liked the sound of the music particularly the heavy dub sound: “It’s an esoteric world, it’s a world of subtlety and refinements.”

Graeme “Mr Goody” Goodall who, despite being a white Australian, was one of the early legends of Jamaican recording engineering. He also remembered using John to master records (in this forum entry on www.stevehoffman.tv): “Doctor Bird used John Hassell recording in Barnes, a suburb of London. I think that many of my competitors used Derek Strickland at Pye. It was difficult to get the UK mastering engineers to understand why we wanted a certain eq in the process. If you get the chance to compare a JA pressing , a UK pressing and an US pressing of the same “tune” on 45’s, you will notice the difference. I figured that the only way that I could cope with this was to escort John Hassell (who was, to all intents & purposes, blind, due to an incredible incident that he survived during W.W. ll) to NYC & Jamaica. His incredible Golden Ears quickly picked up on the differences.”

We’d love to know more about the life and work of John Hassell. He looked like this…

But helped make this by Doctor Bird….

If you know more please let us know.

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12 thoughts on “The strange origin of the UK Reggae big bass sound: John Hassell Recordings, Barnes.

  1. hello,

    I came onto your site since I am looking for info on an artist called Maria Tunstall who recorded for John Hassell recordings. There is a 5 disc lacquer set in my collection with this info; John Hassell Recordings, 21 Nassau Road, London, S.W. 13.
    As I am curious to find out more about this artist and also about the origins of these recordings I would like to ask you if you know Maria Tunstall. Maybe these recordings are familiar?? I guess these recordings were never released?

    thanks for your answer,

    Eddy
    eedeecee@gmail.com

    • We’ve had a look into Maria Tunstall but cant find anythuing at all I’m afraid. John Hassell did apparently do vanity projects and demo projects for artists to tout around the record labels when the artist was looking for a deal. Perhaps that is what these recordings were for. What sort of music is it? And is there a year on the recording?

    • John and felicity were my old friends I lost touch with them when I gave up my recording company and joined BBC tv. Please would you enlighten me how I can get in touch with them . Their daughter surely would remember me, they only had one daughter at that time and I have forgotten her name. Please can you help me to trace them.

    • Hello! My name is Emily I’m a journalism student from Leeds University doing a radio documentary on vinyl records – I’d also love to know more about John Hassle – Mr Hartup I don’t suppose you would be able to get in touch? My email is cs10egr@leeds.ac.uk. Many thanks!

  2. Hello, Ive been cratedigging in Leeds this last weekend and came across a John Hassell Recordings single. HAS 438 is At Old Ribston in the Spa / Ribston Revels by Iris Dyer. The a side is a piano medley of party singalongs , it’s very nice, but the gem is on the b side. After a brief burst of Jerusalem, we find a vocal to the theme of the BBC 50’s radio hit Much-Binding -In -the Marsh . I havnt deciphered all the words yet, (its sung by a small group) but it seems to be a very personal account of times in Ribston, Gloucestershire, and at one point there’s a drop- out (very Dennis Bovell…) where a solo voice says ..’we’ll never forget her!” Its lovely. There’s a touch of school assembly about the piano style, and theres a large High School For Girls in Ribston.. I wonder if this is a retirement gift for a teacher. I wonder how it made its way to Leeds. Whatever the story Its a joy, and it was great to find this site. Hope Ive filled in a gap or two. If you want to get in touch, a more reliable contact address is johnkennethhall@aol.com

  3. How about this one then .. on John Hassell Recordings Label – THE AVENGERS – Come With Me/Short Shorts (HAS 499/500) – 2 x Excellent Beat Group Recordings .. Early 60’s sound .. anybody know of this ?

  4. Hi. I have what looks like a one sided acetate/cut of an early John Hassell recording. light green label with John Hallsell recordings 21 nassau rd barnes London sw13. The artists tracks are hand written. 1. Rittorna vincitor (aida – Verdi) 2. \pace Mio Dio (La Forza Del Destino- Verdi) Thought the info might be helpful. No matrix that i can see. Label rim reads Public performance forbidden without licence. In addition to the discs centre hole there is a second hole offset. Hope this is of some interest.

  5. Found this site by accident. I used John and Felicity a lot during the 1970’s and 1980’s. I had a record company way back then called “Sweet Folk All Recordings” and John was responsible for all of the LP’s I issued recorded live in concert: Pat Nelson, Vera Johnson, Jon Isherwood, 1812, Johnny Collins, Jim Mageean, Jeremy Taylor, Stran Arnold, The Amazing Mr Smith, Shep Woolley, Bob Williamson, Roger Westbrook, Stan Hugill were all involved. Westbook and Woolley both made 3 live LP’s. Always enjoyed the editing too, because they all involved a couple of pints at lunch time in The Sun Inn; when John would tell me the most outrageous Jewish jokes that only John could tell. Wonderful memories.
    Joe Stead

  6. I have come across a white label pressing called Leaves record by N Murray and P Lewis at John Hassell recordings , it was suggested to me that it is 1948 a doo wop inkspots type sound, I would love ton know more ?

  7. Hello. I can’t believe I stumbled upon this site. John Hassell was my grandfather. It’s wonderful to find out a little more about him here. I spent quite a lot of time in that house as a child. I’d love to know more about his work and hope I can help you too. Please feel free to contact me.

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