The reggae anthem Helen Mirren couldn’t live without


Undoubtedly one of the most highly acclaimed and celebrated actors, there is a certain aura of respectability around Helen Mirren. So, when thinking about the Hammersmith-born actor’s musical leanings, you would be forgiven for thinking it might consist entirely of classical compositions, perhaps some Tchaikovsky to celebrate her Russian heritage or ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’, in an ode to the late Queen Elizabeth II, who Mirren famously played in 2006. The reality, thankfully, is much cooler.

Back in 1982, when Mirren had already made a name for herself as a prominent actor on stage and screen, she appeared on BBC Radio Four’s long-running series Desert Island Discs. Her eight choices of songs she could not live without did indeed feature high-class classical compositions, such as Max Bruch’s ‘Violin Concerto No.1’, but the actor – then in her 30s – also showed an appreciation for more contemporary works.

Her final choice came in the form of ‘Falling In Love Again’, an unforgettable recording by Billie Holiday, but much earlier in the programme, Mirren selects one of the 1980s’ biggest reggae anthems, ‘Pass the Dutchie’. Released in 1982, shortly prior to Mirren’s appearance on Desert Island Discs, the track was a number-one hit in the UK singles charts.

Taking its inspiration from the Jamaican marijuana anthem ‘Pass the Kouchie’, by The Mighty Diamonds, Musical Youth altered the track to revolve around a Dutch Oven – a pot which is regularly used within Jamaican cooking. As their name implies, Musical Youth was made up of brothers, some of whom were children, and so the record caused quite a stir once the powers that be eventually figured out that the track had a subtext of cannabis.

Unsurprisingly, Mirren’s love of the track does not come from its ties to getting high. “This is the present,” she explained on the radio programme. Back in those days, the interviews on Desert Island Discs seemed to place less importance on the actual music, often using the tracks simply to break up what would otherwise be a long-form interview. As such, Mirren does not expand too much on ‘Pass the Dutchie’, though she does note, “This is just to dance around to. It’s good to have a dance around – get your energy and your spirits up. This is such a lovely record.”

While it is objectively funny to hear two old-school, middle-class, well-spoken accents discussing ‘Pass the Dutchie’ on a flagship BBC programme, Musical Youth are so much more than a novelty act. The members of the group were among the first British-born reggae artists to make such a huge impact on the singles charts.

Of course, earlier boss reggae and subsequent Two Tone ska scenes had featured charting singles, but they were still very much considered subcultures away from the mainstream. Musical Youth helped to integrate Jamaican reggae into that mainstream. ‘Pass the Dutchie’ is undoubtedly their defining track, and its recent resurgence, thanks to being included on the soundtrack of Stranger Things, speaks to its enduring quality – something that Mirren clearly saw coming.