You may not have heard Prince Buster’s original “Judge Dread” records–but if you’re a ska fan, don’t be surprised if they have a familiar ring. “Stupid Marriage,” a classic track from the first Specials album, is a direct tribute to these mysterious and slyly humorous relics of the rock steady era.
The saga began in 1967, with the release of the original “Judge Dread” (ominously subtitled “Judge 400 Years”). The eponymous character was a fierce, authoritarian Ethiopian magistrate who routinely sentenced “rude boys” (Kingston street toughs) to outlandish prison sentences in order to “save the Black nation.” Next to this guy, the Specials’ Judge Roughneck–who passed a sentence of only five months in “Stupid Marriage”–was a pussycat, and the record actually provoked something of an uproar among the rudies. The Prince teased his critics with the follow-up single, “The Appeal,” which holds out the possibility of mercy–only to have the judge sentence a barrister to life imprisonment and increase the rude boys’ sentence to six thousand years. More protests followed, with other artists rushing to the defense of the judge’s victims. Prince Buster, apparently tiring of the whole thing, rush-released “Judge Dread Dance,” in which our man has a change of heart and pardons everyone. Celebratory dancing ensues.
The judge would not be pleased, but his name was later adopted as the nom de plume of white British reggae singer Alexander Hughes, who holds a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the most frequently banned recording artist in history. The comic book hero Judge Dredd, who debuted in 1977, represents another dubious appropriation of the original magistrate’s moniker.
Although there were only three Judge Dread records, you could be forgiven for assuming there are others, since Prince Buster’s discography is among the most baffling in existence, and different sources list different titles for the second and third records. Here they are as they appear on my LP, Judge Dread Featuring Prince Buster–Jamaica’s Pride:
“Judge Dread Dance”