On one level the ‘plot’ of “Dreadlock Holiday” is hugely important to any judgement of it. On another, not at all, but let’s recap anyway. The narrator is a tourist in Jamaica – he gets mugged for his silver chain and returns to the comfort of his hotel where a woman tries to sell him weed.
Nobody comes out of the story well: the song’s parent album was called Bloody Tourists, and the narrator is a simp, trying and failing to fit in (“concentrating on truckin’ right”) and then fleeing to the hotel at the first sign of trouble. But the island isn’t exactly a welcoming place either, and the message seems to be that if you’re a white tourist, any approach is misguided and nowhere is entirely safe from the scary dark other looking to hustle you at every turn.
This, to my mind, makes for a rather mean-spirited song, a lose-lose game whose main purpose is to make 10cc seem clever and cynically realistic. I haven’t ever been a great fan of 10cc, precisely because I feel there’s this callous smirk behind a lot of their music, and “Dreadlock Holiday” crystallises the feeling for me. That makes me dislike it more than whatever racial or cultural politics might or might not lurk underneath the song: I am sure an extensive comments thread will tease them out!
On the other hand, “Dreadlock Holiday” is often superlative popcraft: that shimmering, unmistakable percussion intro that makes the song a sampler’s or mash-up act’s dream, and the massive chorus – seized on out of context by Sky Sports for an effect darkly comic enough that I’m sure the band enjoy it greatly. Even here, though, the cynicism runs deep. The song, light reggae which slides skilfully from awkward bounce to clammy paranoia, is an inversion of the lyrics’ theme: if you want to be a tourist, it says, stick to the studio and you can happily steal stuff from them. “Dreadlock Holiday” is in some ways the unpleasant opposite of 1978’s other reggae-related #1, “Uptown Top Ranking” – a wiser, crueller denial of its open celebration. Impressive work in its way, but it leaves a nasty taste.